How marine bioprospecting can boost development in small island states

Small Island Developing States (SIDS) have a unique geography that largely isolates them from the global economy and makes them vulnerable to climate change, natural disasters and various external shocks.

However, it also offers them a unique comparative advantage through their access to marine resources.

Even though SIDS have a limited landmass, they have jurisdiction over large areas of ocean through their respective Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), as stipulated in the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

For example, Kiribati’s EEZ, which is just under 350,000 square kilometres, is more than 4,300 times larger than its land area of ​​811 square kilometres.

It follows that the ability to use marine resources sustainably presents a great opportunity for inclusive development.

Potential and limits of marine bioprospecting

Marine bioprospecting is the systematic search for unique genes, molecules and organisms from the marine environment with characteristics that could be useful to society and/or have potential for commercial development.

While ocean biodiversity offers significant economic opportunities through the discovery of new genetic resources, it remains underexplored.

For example, the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, electronics and food industries are interested in discovering marine compounds to help develop new innovative products.

With more than 1,000 compounds discovered each year for the pharmaceutical industry alone, the future of marine bioprospecting is bright.

The ability of marine organisms to thrive in complex and hostile ecosystems makes them valuable for their antiviral, antibacterial and anti-inflammatory properties.

Very few marine compounds are used commercially, with only seven drugs approved by European and American drug agencies, most of them for the treatment of cancer.

Marine compounds are used in various other product categories. For example, pseudopterosins, extracted from soft coral, are used in cosmetics for their anti-inflammatory properties, and omega-3 fatty acids from microalgae are found in food supplements.

Through bioprospecting, SIDS can generate immense value and use their natural resources to solve pressing socio-economic problems for more than 65 million people.

With equitable access and benefit sharing, bioprospecting can help create scientific capacity and productive employment, as well as provide opportunities for economic diversification. All of this can promote socioeconomic development and reduce vulnerabilities to external shocks.

However, despite its potential, marine bioprospecting cannot be considered the only remedy to the development challenges of SIDS. Nor can its management be left unattended.

Bioprospecting is extremely expensive, its results are slow and unpredictable, and it risks damaging the local natural environment.

The exploitation of marine bioprospecting must therefore be done in a sustainable manner and be part of a long-term development strategy.

Critical legal and institutional frameworks

It is important to have a legal and institutional framework to clarify both bioprospectors on how to access marine resources and SIDS on how to ensure equitable benefit sharing.

The Convention on Biological Diversity and its complementary agreement, the Nagoya Protocol, describe the mechanisms to be put in place at the national level to access and share the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources in a fair and equitable manner.

At a broader level, all countries should ratify the protocol and put the legal provisions in place. This would help all countries, including SIDS, to get their fair share of benefits.

While international conventions imply obligations generally addressed to States, users of genetic resources – including private entities such as companies and research centers – also have an active role to play.

The Bonn Guidelines, developed before the Nagoya Protocol, provide a checklist of user responsibilities that must be followed even in the absence of legislation in a provider country.

Furthermore, as bioprospectors typically leverage traditional knowledge and practices to extract genetic resources from a national territory, benefit sharing is essential to promote local and sustainable development.

Legal frameworks can help balance the interests of different stakeholders with a country’s policy objectives. There is a long tradition of sharing the benefits of genetic resources. These past agreements can be used as a source of inspiration by SIDS when negotiating with bioprospectors.

Sustainability, the way forward

As SIDS move forward to realize the potential of marine bioprospecting, it is crucial to remember that their wealth also lies in their biodiversity.

It is therefore important to progress in a sustainable way, which preserves the marine environment to ensure its productivity for decades to come, and to protect other economic sectors dependent on the ocean, such as fishing and tourism.

As UNCTAD accelerates its work to help countries build and strengthen their productive capacities, it will support SIDS to sustainably develop bioprospecting as one of the viable sectors with the greatest potential to economically support these vulnerable countries.

Lynn A. Saleh