Benefit-sharing is a general term used to define the fair and equitable sharing of the monetary and non-monetary benefits that arise from the use of genetic resources, most often within the sphere of bioprospecting. Valuable genetic resources are often found in developing countries, whereas bio-discovery labs are mostly located in developed countries. Because of this, benefit-sharing calls for the benefits derived from commercial discoveries to be shared between the countries where the researchers are based and the countries where the genetic resources originated. Beyond this general understanding, however, there is a remarkable lack of clarity as to what benefit-sharing exactly entails and how it applies in relationships characterised by power and capacity asymmetries. That is why the ERC-backed BENELEX (Benefit-sharing for an equitable transition to the green economy – the role of law) project conducted the first systematic evaluation of how international law can support the use of benefit-sharing as a tool for equitable change. “The BENELEX project sought to understand whether benefit-sharing can be used within the contexts of bioprospecting, conservation, extractives, and knowledge production,” says ERC grantee Elisa Morgera. “Specifically, we looked at how international law can be used to support fair and equitable partnerships between countries in the Global North and the Global South, as well as among governments, indigenous peoples and the private sector.”
Benefit-sharing on the international stage
Benefit-sharing is currently being discussed within the framework of international processes involving the bioprospecting, agricultural, health care, maritime and deep-sea mining sectors. “Benefit-sharing is often an issue at the national and local levels, especially in the context of common uses of natural resources like logging and mining, as well as conservation initiatives and renewable energy development,” explains Morgera. Much of the controversy around benefit-sharing stems from fears that developing countries lack the funding and technology needed to benefit from a profit-driven, high-tech economy. Furthermore, there is concern that indigenous and local communities will be marginalised as their contributions to, for example, environmental management can be difficult to capture in purely economic terms.
The benefits of benefit-sharing
Against this backdrop, BENELEX researchers conducted an in-depth, inter-disciplinary and international investigation on how benefit-sharing can alleviate these fears. Despite the complexity of the research, the conclusion was clear: benefit-sharing can reframe many issues as an opportunity for mainstreaming equity across different international and environmental regimes, both among and within states. “The project clarified how the international legal concept of fair and equitable benefit-sharing should be understood within the framework of international human rights law and as a common approach for cooperation in areas like conservation, climate change, ocean governance, and bio-based research,” says Morgera. From this research, the BENELEX team produced training modules for advocates and lawyers of indigenous peoples and local communities. These modules provide practical guidance on operationalising benefit-sharing and concluding benefit-sharing agreements. Furthermore, the findings contributed to Principle 15 on benefit-sharing of the 2018 UN Framework Principles on Human Rights and the Environment. Morgera and her team continue to advise various international organisations, civil societies and governments about benefit-sharing, and are currently working on publishing five books on the topic.
BENELEX, benefit-sharing, equitable change, international law, genetic resources, bioprospecting, conservation, extractives, knowledge production, indigenous