JULIA OLIVA INTERVIEW
Maria Julia Oliva, graduated in Law from the University of Mendoza, and specialised in Environmental Law, is currently the Deputy Director of the Union for Ethical BioTrade (UEBT). In addition, she coordinates UEBT’s work on access and benefit sharing (ABS), a subject in which she is a recognised expert worldwide.
Julia, your career path is fascinating for anyone interested in biodiversity conservation and ethical benefit sharing. In light of this, first of all, how did UEBT come into your life?
I studied Law, always with the idea of orienting myself on environmental issues. I focused on the link between the environment, trade and business, because the need to integrate sustainability principles in productive activities seemed clear to me. I worked in Geneva with international organisations, where trade, intellectual property and biodiversity issues were negotiated. This work is extremely important and interesting, but I was keen to get closer to the practical side. That is why I joined UEBT, which works very closely with companies to improve social and environmental practices. I have been working at UEBT since 2009, and it is very gratifying to see how over the years the awareness of the importance of biodiversity and the adoption of good practices for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity have increased.
Could you briefly explain what UEBT consists of, as well as your work as an ABS policy coordinator?
UEBT is a non-profit organisation that promotes respectful sourcing. We work with companies that use ingredients derived from biodiversity – for example, plants and vegetable extracts and oils – for the production of food, medicine and/or cosmetics. We support these companies to evaluate, improve and validate their operations and value chains in terms of good social and environmental practices.
A key issue that comes up in our work is access and benefit sharing or ABS. ABS refers to a series of principles and rules that govern how companies or other actors use biodiversity to research new ingredients and develop new products. It is a way of recognising the value of biodiversity in research and development and supporting practices that contribute to the well-being of local communities and to the conservation and regeneration of biodiversity.
What is the reason for the existence of UEBT? Why was it important to create this organisation?
UEBT came out of the work of the Initiative for BioTrade, a programme of the United Nations. The objective of this programme is to promote the use of biodiversity with respect for social, environmental and economic principles. UEBT was created in 2007 to support and validate good business practices. Companies that join UEBT, such as Provital and many others, are working together so that the way in which the ingredients of biodiversity are grown, collected and used serve to regenerate nature and ensure a better future for everyone.
On the one hand, we are faced with a critical situation for biodiversity. There is talk of a sixth extinction, not only due to the loss of species, but also due to the loss or degradation of the habitat or ecosystem of those species.
And it is not only about seeking to conserve certain areas, but about achieving a balance, an assessment of biodiversity and everything that it provides us with directly (such as food, fibres, medicine) and indirectly (climate regulation, crop pollination. , fresh water, etc.). It is also about achieving sustainable use and fair distribution of benefits. But how can we promote sustainable use? Giving value to the elements that make up those ecosystems. By giving them value, this critical situation also becomes an opportunity, an opportunity to promote practices that respect people and biodiversity, and thus promote a world where both thrive and are in balance.
Now is a key moment for biodiversity. The international community is discussing the framework that will guide biodiversity policies and practices for the coming decades. I think it is a great opportunity for companies to consider their contribution and responsibility as important players in these issues. Also, luckily, there is much greater awareness in general of the relevance of the situation. Biodiversity is no longer conceived as something that should only exist in the Amazon, for example, but is in everything that surrounds us. Business actions that promote the environmental richness of our surroundings, from a tropical jungle to a forest near Barcelona, are significantly contributing to the cause.
What do you like most about your job? Have any particular projects been especially rewarding for you?
Well, look, two things that I love about my work are, firstly, the group of people with whom I get to work and collaborate, their enthusiasm and positive energy is a real pleasure to encounter, and secondly, the creativity of the solutions that we achieve in the projects, in other words, the fact that our work is always aimed at providing solutions that really serve companies in their desire to conserve biodiversity. Seeing that work reflected in results is the most rewarding thing. An example of which we are extremely proud is the biodiversity barometer, a measuring instrument (through consumer surveys) of the level of awareness regarding biodiversity. Thanks to this idea, we have been able to measure the increase in consumer awareness in all countries during these ten years. In fact, it has become one of the instruments used to measure the goals established in the Biological Biodiversity Convention, and through which companies can better perceive the growing interest in the issue from end consumers.
Here at Provital we develop cosmetic active ingredients, coming from natural raw materials, which are used by final product laboratories. In this supply chain of cosmetic products, how can suppliers, intermediaries, distributors, manufacturers, etc., actively participate in this conservation of biodiversity and social balance? Is there a point in the chain that is especially critical?
When the idea of BioTrade arose in the context of the United Nations, the idea was to promote the development of chains to reach the market, that is, to use ingredients from the native biodiversity of countries like Peru, for example, and develop products that could make it onto the market. But over time it became clear that this bottom-up approach was not enough, a market demand was needed, which begins with the consumer but also depends on what the brands and their suppliers are looking for. It is then when the strategy is changed and that demand is also used as a pull factor to enhance the value of biodiversity and improve practices in value chains.
There is not just one important link in the chain. To achieve good practice, all players must make a contribution. In other words, all the players in the chain must work together, cooperate and adopt the same commitments to transparency in the way they work and communicate. These commitments will obviously be different depending on the level in the value chain the different types of value chains. For example, at Provital, in some of our chains ensuring tractability and certain essential practices would be sufficient, whereas, in contrast, in other more strategic chains, more significant investment will be necessary to achieve a positive impact. However, despite the differences in the levels of involvement and investment, it is always important to maintain communication between the different players in the chain.
Would you say that in recent years there has been increased bias from all parts of the supply chain in the cosmetics industry? And if so, what do you think has changed or is changing?
The cosmetic industry has a peculiarity, and it is that the consumer has a very intimate and personal relationship with the product, which makes them feel good, and this creates a bond with the product and the major brand, which leads to higher expectations regarding to the demand for natural ingredients. Consumers want something that makes them feel good physically and emotionally. They do not want to apply chemicals or anything that they perceive as toxic to their body, and they do not want to consume anything that makes them feel bad about the effect on the environment or on local producers. It is thanks to this growing environmental awareness of consumers that we have seen more and more efforts from companies in the cosmetic industry.
As I have mentioned before, it is thanks to the pull factor that a chain effect is produced, due to the biodiversity requirements that brands and final product manufacturers demand from their suppliers. This is why B2B companies almost always go one step behind. But there are big exceptions. Companies, such as Provital for example, that have anticipated the demands, have understood the trends and have established strategies and actions that give them a competitive advantage, themselves offering solutions to the brands, inspiring them and also helping them to fulfil their commitments.
At Provital, we believe that the conservation of biodiversity has to be one of our pillars and objectives, we think that it is partly our responsibility as a company. For this, we are guided by specific regulations and certificates. For example, for some time, we have not developed any active ingredient that does not comply with the Nagoya Protocol, on access to genetic resources and fair and equitable sharing of the benefits derived from their use of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Do you consider this protocol, in force since 2014, to be a great step forward? What do you think should be the next step in this industry?
The principles of access and benefit sharing, which recognise the rights of countries and peoples over biodiversity and associated knowledge was a true paradigm shift. These principles, established at an international level but applied through national and regional regulations, require transparency, dialogue and equity in research and product development projects. It is true that the ABS application is complicated, because the authority requirements are developed differently in each country and many doubts remain about how these requirements are put into practice. For this reason, companies often have difficulty understanding procedures, connecting with relevant authorities, finding local partners, etc., which sometimes even leads to project abandonment. Obtaining permits and documentation is a real challenge for companies. At UEBT, we develop different tools and projects to support companies. And here let me applaud the work of your Regulatory department, which with persistence, patience and organisation, has managed to get Provital to obtain these permits in South Africa, Mexico and other countries.
Although in Provital you have embraced the subject, at a general level, the lack of clarity and legal certainty still negatively affects the cosmetic sector, preventing its total incorporation into ABS and establishing it as a “new normal.”
What’s the next step? The incorporation of ABS in all the procedures of healthy companies. But for this, it would still be necessary for the times and ways of working between the private sector and government authorities to come into harmony. But hey, that’s where our goal lies, a real challenge for which we still have to work hard to get all the players aligned.
We are especially proud of projects like Affipore™, an active ingredient produced from buchu, which comes from growing areas located in South Africa. The main priority of these plantations is to promote the conservation and propagation of native African species, providing a sustainable source of natural products. With projects like this, we not only help the conservation of biodiversity, we are also participants in equitable social development in the plant’s growing area. Therefore, we would like to go further and confirm the project also on a legal level. What is your perspective on this project?
This project is an emblematic case for ABS, which shows that it is not just a matter of complying with certain new regulations, but of a new way of working, in which all players contribute. The Buchu is an endemic plant of South Africa, and closely linked to the traditional knowledge of the indigenous peoples of the area. These are very vulnerable communities as a result of their long history of colonisation. The ABS regulations allow recognition of the knowledge of these communities through prior informed consent and benefit sharing agreements. In the Affipore development process, Provital recognises these regulations and principles of access and benefit sharing through collaboration with local partners (E.g.: Parceval). In other words, there is recognition, an appreciation, and a distribution of benefits based on the use of the genetic resource and the traditional knowledge linked to that genetic resource. In short, it is a beautiful project in terms of its conservation and valuation of biodiversity.