The Nature of DSI: A Historian at the COP15 in Montréal

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What does nature mean to us as historians? That’s surely one of the biggest questions that has haunted environmental historians since the scholarship took over the role of investigating the concept, freeing it from natural philosophy and the philosophy of history. Nature is material; that’s perhaps what most of us would think of. Despite the difficulties in defining nature, environmental historians seek to understand the relationship between humans and representatives of nature. A plant, a crop, animals, trees; few would deny that we are talking at some degree about natural forces when we list objects that have material expression. However, the concept of nature is complicated when attention is given to the immaterial aspects of it, such as Crick and Watson’s description of DNA and the global governance of genetics emanating from the Green Revolution.

The concept of nature is complicated when attention is given to the immaterial aspects of it.

Being an environmental historian foremost implies dealing with the loss of nature. In this regard, it is a seemingly sad task to follow the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD)—initially agreed upon in 1992 and repeatedly revisited by the conference of the parties (COPs)—but it is a necessary one, since capitalism puts an unprecedent threat on our good Mother Earth. The CBD established a global system of national sovereignty over biological resources (with the extension to genetic resources) and set out three main objectives: 1) conservation of biological diversity; 2) sustainable use of biological diversity and 3) fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the use of genetic resources; those guidelines were supposed to be mainstreamed into the domestic policies of the parties (nowadays the CBD has 193 parties; only Andorra, the Vatican, South Sudan and the USA have not signed the treaty).

For me, as a Brazilian environmental historian accustomed to narrating ecological clashes on nature, this should by no means be anything new. Of course, destructive histories may not be the sole job of environmental historians as Stefania Barca (2020: 1) reminded us in her Forces of Reproduction by stressing out that environmental history should also focus on the “earth defenders (…) that reproduce humanity by taking care of the biophysical environment that makes life itself possible.”

Bearing this in mind, I travelled to Montreal in early December 2022 to attend the COP15. Working on a collaborative research project in Germany (“Structural Changes of Property” at the Friedrich-Schiller University Jena) in which I am supposed to assess the relationship between property and access-and-benefit-sharing (ABS) with a focus on Brazil, my mission was to accompany the discussions on the genetic destiny of nature and the terms of its future appropriation, especially after the disruptive technology represented by digital sequence information (DSI).  

Scenes from COP 15 in Montréal, Quebec, Canada in December 2022. Photographs taken and provided by Eduardo Relly.

Brazil is an outstanding case to explain what it is at stake. No other country in the world has more genes to be discovered and used than Brazil. Further, no other country pins its hopes onto a bioecological-biotechnological-genetic vision of the bioeconomy as much as Brazil does. “Reindustrialization will come from the environment and ancestral knowledge,” Ms. Marina Silva, Brazilian Minister of the Environment, recently stated. What Silva meant by her statement is that traditional knowledge (TK), coupled with genes of the biodiversity, will reignite the Brazilian economy.

The Nagoya Protocol states that benefits (profits) emanating from the use of biodiversity shall be shared with the peoples and communities who possess traditional knowledge of them.

However, genes are not free to plunder anymore, as was the case during colonial times. Access and use of biodiversity have been subject to the sovereignty of nations since the original CBD and especially after the Nagoya Protocol (NP). The NP states that benefits (profits) emanating from the use of biodiversity shall be shared with the peoples and communities who possess TK of them. Users and providers of genetic resources (GR) constitute a bilateral system of benefit-sharing, since users of GR are obliged to share benefits with the providers (be they nations or Indigenous people/traditional communities). Significantly, one realization coming out of the NP is that estimates indicate that western science knowledge of nature is still quite limited. In countries like Brazil, large swathes of land are still under the control of Indigenous peoples and local communities (IPLCs), who steward a myriad of beings, which are largely unknown by western science. Roughly speaking, the biggest slice of nature has not been cut yet! Is that nature material? The CDB defines GR as “genetic material of actual or potential value.” For the CBD-people, GR meant a material being; a plant, a fungus, a frog. However, access to nature does not depend on the materiality of nature anymore. DSI and biotechnology have changed this game.

ILPCs worldwide are undoubtedly the guardians of nature. In a world of material nature, for this nature to be accessed and used, users of GR (mostly from the Global North) should comply with the NP. Yet, in the last 10 to 15 years biotechnology—in a costly-effective manner and via digitalization—permitted the widespread sequencing of genetic information that material nature holds; the information derived from the sequencing is then digitalized (it becomes DSI) and put online. This information is then at the disposal of the global community for further and uncontrolled retrieval in the spirit of open science. DSI is a placeholder that entails DNA sequences, protein sequences, or molecular data, that could be accessed virtually and used for research and development. By using DSI instead of a material sample, users of GR may bypass the NP. Consequences are disastrous: ILPCs may not receive the benefits over their TK associated to GR.

DSI was first mentioned at the COP13 (2016) and it has become perhaps the most controversial topic of the subsequent COPs. In Montreal, I followed the discussions on DSI and on the NP. Overall there were six policy options to be discussed. Nevertheless, the big questions were 1) whether DSI would fall into the NP; and, in positive case, 2) whether DSI would demand a multilateral fund for benefit-sharing and 3) whether a definition for DSI could be agreed upon. For the first question, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico, and others strongly advocated for DSI to be contained under the NP and stated that their national ABS legislations already rule DSI. This view prevailed, and the Japanese instance was defeated. That was perhaps the greatest outcome of the COP15: DSI is under the CDB and benefit-sharing applies to it. In the second question, Brazil and the African Group gained the upper hand, that is, the “hybrid solution” (bilateral to enhance traceability, multilateral when traceability is impossible) coupled with the NP, but with the compromise of a multilateral fund for ABS to be defined at the COP16. The third big question could not be solved by the parties; COP16 will deal with the concept of DSI, and working groups are currently working on it. A welcoming feature of all these discussions lies in the inclusion of Fair and Care principles for Indigenous data sovereignty in the final decision (agenda item 11).

The dematerialization of nature is a reality of everyday practices in academia and in research and development worldwide.

There is still a long way ahead. The dematerialization of nature is a reality of everyday practices in academia and in research and development worldwide. DSI use is centered in countries of the global north which possess technological capabilities, and most DSI comes from megadiverse countries from the Global South. The colonial/post-colonial structures are quite visible and the power rift among countries mirror such inequalities.

When I was in Montreal, I did not meet any other historians there; perhaps, I was just unlucky. Furthermore, the only reason for me to be at the COP15 was the very fact of being employed in a sociological research group. Is DSI relevant to historians at all? When will ABS and DSI becomes “history”? What can we bring to the discussion? Hard to answer. COP15 showed me clearly how marginalized our scholarship is within the big stage of biotechnology. I do not believe though that our job in this business is to run after biotechnology. Most of the debate underlies a historical tone we as historians are used to; it is still about colonialism, racism, and capitalism. ILPCs have begun politicizing DSI; we need to learn from them and build a critical instance towards biotechnological immaterial nature.

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Eduardo Relly, environmental historian, is currently Post-Doc Researcher (Wiss. Mitarbeiter) at FSU Jena in the JRT03 „Eigentum an genetischen Ressourcen: Zur Aneignung traditionellen Wissens in der Bioökonomie“. Eduardo Relly has a Master in Environment and Development from the University Vale do Taquari in Southern Brazil and completed his PhD Studies in History at Freie Universität Berlin in 2019 with a dissertation on the transfer of environmental knowledge between Germany and Brazil under the background of commons privatization and settler colonialism policies. He has been active mostly in Brazilian and German academia, since he has taken over research as well as teaching positions in Bielefeld (BGHS, Uni Bielefeld), Munich (Rachel Carson Centre, LMU München), São Leopoldo (University Vale do Rio dos Sinos, UNISINOS) and Porto Alegre (Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, UFRGS). His research interests include: subtropical climate/ecologies; commons; ethnohistory; Guarani archaeology; global agricultural and sylvan knowledge; biological/genetic resources; migration studies (focus: German migration to overseas).

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