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Biodiversity Prospecting

Using Genetic Resources for Sustainable Development

Argues that biodiversity prospecting ventures won't succeed if they don't promote sustainable development. Focus on three institutional elements that will ultimately determine the course of this industry: organizations, contracts, national legislation.

Executive Summary

More than half the world's plant and animal species live in one tropical forest or another--and nowhere else on Earth. Coral reefs and other coastal ecosystems add hundreds of thousands, if not millions more species to the thin and variegated film of life that covers the globe. As the search for wild species whose genes can yield new medicines and better crops gathers speed, these rich habitats also sport more and more specimens of a relatively new breed--the biodiversity prospector. Like the nineteenth-century California gold rush or its present-day counterpart in Brazil, this "gene rush" could wreak havoc on ecosystems and the people living in or near them. Done right, though, bioprospecting can bolster both economic and conservation goals while underpinning the medical and agricultural advanced needed to combat disease and sustain growing human numbers.

What "doing right" means in this context is the central question of Biodiversity Prospecting: Using Genetic Resources for Sustainable Development, by WRI Vice President Walter V. Reid and seven of his colleagues, here at WRI and elsewhere. The need for answers is urgent since all the major pharmaceutical firms are already hard at work screening the genetic storehouses found in Brazil, Costa Rica, China, Micronesia, and other biologically diverse countries. Arguing that the very great potential benefits from such ventures may be overwhelmed by the actual harm they cause, the authors describe the kinds of organizations, contracts, and laws needed to ensure that both human communities and their natural surroundings benefit from the bioprospecting boom.

Although many institutions around the world are pioneering this new field, the report focuses on Costa Rica's National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) because its arrangement with Merck & Co., Ltd.--the world's largest pharmaceutical firm--represents new ways to promote conservation, as well as manage information and inventory. Indeed, INBio's stated aim is conserving biodiversity, not exploring its commercial potential, which it views as merely one way to finance conservation. The authors do not view the INBio-Merck arrangement as a model that other would-be contractors should follow, but as a promising pilot project that offers lessons vital to the success of bioprospecting ventures elsewhere.

At the Earth Summit, the United States refused to sign the biodiversity convention which was signed by more than 150 nations, claiming that agreements like that between Merck and INBio would obviate the need for an international treaty. The authors of Biodiversity Prospecting take the opposite view, asserting that contracts entered into by one or another gene-rich country will be feasible and effective only in the context of international agreements that settle such questions as who owns biodiversity, how access to it can be controlled, and how intellectual property rights and profits can be equitably divided between local communities and prospecting corporations.

As this book went to press, President Clinton reversed the U.S. position and signed the biodiversity convention on June 4, 1993. As of 1996 the Senate has not voted on ratification of the Convention, leaving the United States in the position of "observer" rather than "party" to the Convention.

Since wealth and technology are as concentrated in the North as biodiversity and poverty are in the South, the question of equity is particularly hard to answer in ways that satisfy everyone with a stake in the outcome. The interests of bioprospecting corporations are not the same as those of people who live in a biodiversity "hot spot," many of them barely eking out a living. The authors describe ways that hard-pressed rural communities can benefit from bioprospecting in their vicinity--for instance, thorugh the training and jobs provided by INBio's parataxonomist program. They also stress that people have a right to regulate and charge for access to the biodiversity that surrounds them and to be compensated for their intellectual contributions to the discovery and development of new products. Unfortunately, as the authors note, experience has taught that these rights mean little in practice unless they are clearly defined and strongly defended by local and national governments. Since such clarity and support are often absent, the authors recommend that corporations and governments in the industrial world assume more responsibility for ensuring that bioprospecting is done legally and with the informed consent of the communities involved.

The contract between Merck and INBio is a private contract and not open to public inspection. Biodiversity prospecting includes a draft contract that can help pharmaceutical companies and collecting organizations negotiate agreements. The draft contract, as the authors note, is not a universally applicable model, however, and is not intended for wholesale adoption. Rather, it is an educational tool intended to enable collectors and institutions in developing countries to enter negotiations with large corporations and their representatives with some knowledge of the issues and potential solutions.

Altogether, the essays in Biodiversity Prospecting explore many different strands of thought and theory that come together in this relatively new industry, elaborating on issues only touched on in other publications. Its recommendations extend those laid out in the Global Biodiversity Strategy and in such WRI reports as Conserving the World's Biological Diversity, Keeping Options Alive: The Scientific Basis for the Conservation of Biodiversity, and Trees of Life: Saving Tropical Forests and Their Biological Wealth.

We would like to thank the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Norwegian Royal Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Swedish International Development Authority, the United Nations Development Programme, the Canadian International Development Agency, The Surdna Foundation, the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, and the W. Alton Jones Foundation for their generous support of WRI's general research on biodiversity conservation issues. For their foresight and support, we are deeply grateful.

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