TITLE: Australia's Antarctic bonanza queried AUTHOR: Anna Salleh PUBLICATION: ABC news DATE: 25 April 2008 URL: http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2008/04/25/2226878.h tm?site=science&topic=latest ABC | Friday, 25 April 2008 AUSTRALIA'S ANTARCTIC BONANZA QUERIED Anna Salleh Australia has become the first country to be granted exclusive property rights in Antarctica, say experts, raising questions about how bioprospecting will be managed in this sensitive and disputed territory. The expansion of Australia's seabed borders this week by the United Nations includes the Kerguelen Plateau around Heard and McDonald Islands, which extends southwards into Antarctica. "This is the first property rights allocation for the area south of 60Â° south and it will be contentious but it has been sanctioned by the United Nations," says Antarctic law expert Dr Julia Jabour of Antarctic Climate and Ecosystems Cooperative Research Centre at the University of Tasmania. "It's unprecedented." She says the Antarctic Treaty, which covers the area, forbids mining but makes no explicit mention of the exploitation of biological resources. Jabour says public and private researchers are already involved in sampling organisms living in the extreme environments of Antarctica for useful genes and chemicals. She says one example includes the collection of 7400 species of micro-organisms by a CRC she was involved, which was working with pharmaceutical company Cerylid. Jabour says sampling for biological resources in usually relatively innocuous. This latest move, however, could open the door to trawling the seabed and other potentially damaging activities, she says. It also raises questions about how Australia will manage Antarctic bioprospecting, which she says is the subject of international debate. New laws needed? Jabour says it would not be necessary to develop any special laws at this early stage of Antarctic bioprospecting. Australia is a signatory to the Antarctic Treaty and as such is required to evaluate and control scientific and commercial activities that might have an environmental impact. But she suggests Australia will need to develop its capacity to monitor and evaluate environmental impacts in the remote and poorly understood area. Antarctic environmental expert, Dr Alan Hemmings of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, agrees it's premature for new laws. But he says any bioprospecting should be reported to Antarctic Treaty meetings and Australia should not act unilaterally. A spokesperson for the environment minister issued the following statement in response to detailed questions on bioprospecting in the region: "Australian law applies the provisions of the Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty (the Madrid Protocol) to all the area below 60S [60Â° south]. "This still applies to the area of the Kerguelan Plateau below 60S, so the regime that currently applies to research on biological resources below 60S will still apply." Fundamental conflict But Hemmings says the new Australian rights fundamentally conflict with the Antarctic Treaty. "Basically you have one scheme that grants Australia rights and another scheme that says everyone has got equal rights," he says. Hemmings says diplomatic conflicts might arise if Australia fails to grant licences to biological resources in the new area to states that might otherwise have access under the Antarctic Treaty. Jabour says conflicts may arise if Australia grants rights to non-Antarctic Treaty countries or multinationals based in non-treaty countries. "Antarctic Treaty parties like to keep hold of all matters Antarctic and would not encourage activities of non-treaty parties in Antarctic waters," she says. Under the Antarctic Treaty, Australia would also be unable to defend any unlawful access to its resources in the new area with military vessels, Jabour says. Knowledge sharing Jabour says another hot issue yet to be settled in international discussions is how knowledge gained in Antarctica is to be shared. Under the Antarctic Treaty scientific data collected from the area should in the main be kept freely available. Jabour says most scientists interpret this to mean they should publish a list of species they have found but any other information such as on useful chemicals and genes can be kept confidential. Experts agree that whichever way Australia deals with the environmental, commercial and knowledge-sharing aspects of bioprospecting in Antarctica, it will be diplomatically sensitive. GOING FURTHER (compiled by GRAIN) Upcoming "Linkages" coverage of second meeting of the ad hoc open-ended informal working group to study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction (New York, 28 April-2 May 2008), International Institute of Sustainable Development. http://www.iisd.ca/oceans/marinebiodiv2/ Anna Salleh, "Australia gets access to underwater bounty", ABC, 23 April 2008 http://www.abc.net.au/science/articles/2008/04/23/2225559.h tm "Australia's new seabed riches tough to reach, say experts", Agence France Presse, Sydney, 22 April 2008. http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5gVBmJQ7VTVMLS-lZgHeoQFH 77Nxg Aroha Mead,and Steven Ratuva (eds), "Pacific genes and life patents: Pacific experiences & analysis of the commodification & ownership of life", Call of the Earth and United Nations University Institute of Advanced Studies, 2007, 273 pp. http://www.earthcall.org/en/publications/index.html Sam Johnston, "Biological prospecting in Antarctica", UNU-IAS, 3 July 2006. http://www.ias.unu.edu/sub_page.aspx?catID=35&ddlID=20 Stephen Leahy, "Bio-pirates of the Antarctic", IPS, 3 February 2004. http://www.zcommunications.org/znet/viewArticle/9128 ABOUT BIO-IPR -- BIO-IPR is an irregular listserver produced by GRAIN. Its purpose is to circulate news and information about recent developments in the field of intellectual property rights related to biodiversity and associated knowledge. BIO-IPR is a strictly non-commercial and educational service for nonprofit organisations and individuals active in the struggle against IPRs on life. The views expressed in each post are those of the indicated author(s). ARCHIVES -- The full archives are online at http://www.grain.org/bio-ipr. SUBSCRIPTIONS -- To subscribe or modify your subscription details, please go to http://www.grain.org/subscribe/bioipr.cfm and either join or login. (Those without web access can send a blank message to subscribe-bio-ipr(at)grain.org.) SUBMISSIONS -- To submit material for posting on BIO-IPR, or any questions about the list, please contact us at bio-ipr(at)grain.org. ABOUT US -- GRAIN is a small international NGO working to strengthen farmers' control over agricultural biodiversity and local knowledge, particularly in developing countries. For more information about GRAIN, please visit http://www.grain.org.