Cover Image
close this bookBiodiversity Prospecting - A World Resources Institute Book (WRI, 1993, 352 pages)
close this folderI. A New Lease on Life
View the document(introduction...)
View the documentGrowing Demand for Genetic and Biochemical Resources
View the documentWhat is at Stake?
Open this folder and view contentsThe Evolution of Biodiversity Prospecting Institutions
Open this folder and view contentsBiodiversity Prospecting Guidelines
View the documentNotes
View the documentBibliography


Walter V. Reid, Sarah A. Laird, Rodrigo Gámez, Ana Sittenfeld, Daniel H. Janzen, Michael A. Gollin, and Calestous Juma

In September 1991, Costa Rica's National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) - a private, non-profit organization - and the U.S.-based pharmaceutical firm Merck & Co., Ltd., announced an agreement under which INBio would provide Merck with chemical extracts from wild plants, insects, and micro-organisms from Costa Rica's conserved wildlands for Merck's drug-screening program in return for a two-year research and sampling budget of $1,135,000 and royalties on any resulting commercial products. INBio agreed to contribute 10 percent of the budget and 50 percent of any royalties to the government's National Park Fund for the conservation of national parks in Costa Rica, and Merck agreed to provide technical assistance and training to help establish drug research capacity in Costa Rica (Aldhous, 1991).

This agreement represents a watershed in the history of "biodiversity prospecting" - the exploration of biodiversity for commercially valuable genetic and biochemical resources. (See Eisner 1989,1992.) For decades, ecologists and environmentalists have been arguing that pharmaceutical and other commercial applications of biodiversity should help justify its conservation. However, industry investment in natural products research since the mid-1960s has been small, and it actually declined in the pharmaceutical industry during the 1960s and 1970s. Clearly, the INBio-Merck agreement demonstrates a shift in industry focus and the true economic potential of these resources.

This ground-breaking agreement also shows how companies can return a portion of the benefits of pharmaceutical development to the developing country where the chemical compounds originated. Further, it ensures that some of these proceeds will directly finance conservation while the remainder will indirectly finance conservation through biodiversity research and development in association with the national parks. Coming as it did during the final negotiations of the International Convention on Biological Diversity, the Merck-INBio agreement validated what was becoming - after heated debate - an underlying tenet of the convention: the fair and equitable distribution of the benefits of the use of genetic resources among all those who invest in their continued existence.

Although its close link to conservation efforts has earned it exceptional attention, the Merck-INBio agreement is just one of a rapidly growing number of biodiversity prospecting ventures. For example, Japan has launched a major biodiversity research program in Micronesia, the U.S. National Institutes of Health is screening wild species for compounds active against HIV and cancer, and both Indonesia and Kenya are establishing inventory programs similar to INBio's, and are exploring possible biodiversity prospecting activities.

This flurry of interest and enthusiasm in biodiversity prospecting is taking place in a policy vacuum. Virtually no precedent exists for national policies and legislation to govern and regulate wildland biodiversity prospecting. Yet, the more than 150 countries that signed the International Convention on Biological Diversity in 1992 now must pass implementing legislation that establishes just such a policy framework.

The stakes are high as countries begin to fill this policy vacuum. Done well, biodiversity prospecting can contribute greatly to environmentally sound development and return benefits to the custodians of genetic resources - the national public at large, the staff of conservation units, the farmers, the forest dwellers, and the indigenous people who maintain or tolerate the resources involved. But carried out in the mold of previous resource-exploitation ventures, biodiversity prospecting can have a negligible or potentially harmful effect on biodiversity conservation and environmentally sound development.

This report offers suggestions to governments, non-governmental organizations, scientists, and industry on designing effective and equitable biodiversity prospecting programs, with a particular focus on the use of biodiversity in the pharmaceutical industry. The premise of Biodiversity Prospecting is that appropriate policies and institutions are needed to ensure that the commercial value obtained from genetic and biochemical resources is a positive force for development and conservation.

The value of biodiversity as a raw material for pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries is only a portion of its value to society. It makes good economic sense - and often meets ethical norms - for countries and communities to conserve biodiversity whether or not they become biodiversity prospectors. Indeed, it is entirely possible - and sometimes highly appropriate - for nations to invest in biodiversity conservation without ever seeking to commercialize genetic and biochemical resources. The normative question of whether or not countries should commercialize genetic and biochemical resources is not addressed here, but the urgent need to ensure that the commercialization already under way supports conservation and development is. In particular, three problems must be overcome if biodiversity prospecting is to contribute to national sustainable development and the long-term survival of wildland biodiversity.

First, growing commercial interest in biodiversity will not necessarily fuel increased investment in resource conservation. Genetic and biochemical resources are often described by economists as "non-rival public goods." In other words, their use by one individual does not reduce their value to others who use them. Because any user benefits from investments in their conservation, market forces will lead to less conservation of the resource than its value to society warrants.1 In fact, unregulated biodiversity prospecting and drug development could speed the destruction of the resource. In one particularly egregious example, the entire adult population of Maytenus buchananni - source of the anticancer compound maytansine - was harvested when a mission sponsored by the U.S. National Cancer Institute collected 27,215 kg in Kenya for testing in its drug development program (Oldfield, 1984).

Second, there is no guarantee that the institutions created to capture the benefits of biodiversity will contribute to economic growth in developing countries. Quite the opposite has been the case historically. The chief commercial beneficiaries of genetic and biochemical resources found in developing countries have been the developed countries able to explore for valuable resources, develop new technologies based on the resources, and commercialize the products. The Convention on Biological Diversity provides a framework that may boost developing countries' negotiating strength and foster needed investments in conservation, but it will be up to individual nations to pass the laws and establish the regulations needed to achieve these benefits. From a conservation standpoint, unless developing countries do realize benefits from these resources, summoning the political will to conserve them will be difficult.

Finally, biodiversity prospecting is just one of many forms of biodiversity development that could take place in the countryside to help raise living standards there. In most countries, the people living side by side with wildland biodiversity - farmers and villagers, indigenous peoples, forest dwellers, medicinal healers, and fisherfolk - hold the key to its survival. If local and national citizens do not get something out of maintaining wildland habitats, the habitats will be converted to timber plantations, farms, or other productive uses harmful to biodiversity. Yet, in many cases sustainably managed wildlands won't yield enough direct economic benefits to support large local populations, so governments will have to ensure that a share of the national benefits from activities such as biodiversity prospecting are used to meet rural development needs. How well biodiversity prospecting institutions contribute to sustainable development thus ultimately depends on how effective local and national government policies for conservation and development are.

Many institutions involved in biodiversity prospecting are described in this report, but most attention is given to INBio because of the world-wide interest it has generated and the demand for detailed information on its structure, objectives, and operations. INBio is a product of Costa Rica's biological, political, and social environment. And Costa Rica, with its high percentage of conserved wildland, highly educated population, relatively small indigenous population, small size, and considerable scientific capacity is a friendly climate in which to attempt innovative structures for biodiversity management. The processes that are being fostered at INBio as a pilot project are, however, relevant throughout the tropics. No doubt, the biodiversity management needs in other countries will require unique solutions, but useful guidance can be obtained from the experiences of INBio and other institutions discussed here.

This report is aimed at two overlapping audiences - one interested primarily in the general policy issues related to biodiversity prospecting and another in specific guidance on the design of organizations, legislation, and contracts for biodiversity prospecting. This chapter - oriented to the first audience - introduces the issues related to biodiversity prospecting and broadly sketches the types of policies needed in "source countries" to ensure biodiversity's sustainable and equitable use. It addresses fundamental questions of ownership and access to biodiversity, the economic opportunities provided by biodiversity, the costs and benefits of public versus private control of the resource, and the rights of indigenous people and other local "custodians" of biodiversity.

The subsequent chapters provide detailed guidance on specific biodiversity prospecting activities. In Chapters II and III, Rodrigo Gámez, Ana Sittenfeld, Alfio Piva, Eugenia Leon, Jorge Jimenez, and Gerardo Mirabelli describe INBio's institutional structure and current biodiversity-prospecting program. Since INBio was designed to meet both conservation and development objectives, these chapters may help others trying to launch similar institutions or activities.

Biodiversity prospecting typically involves several types of written or implied contracts: between the collector and the company interested in the resource, between the collector and the state, between the collector and the communities providing ethnobotanical data, and sometimes between local collectors and larger collecting institutions. In Chapter IV (and Annex 2), Sarah Laird explores the nature of collector-company contracts and tells how they can be shaped to serve conservation, development, and equity. In Chapter V, Dan Janzen, Winnie Hallwachs, Rodrigo Gámez, Ana Sittenfeld, and Jorge Jimenez examine the "contract" or research agreement between the collector and the state from these same perspectives.

Chapter VI, by Michael Gollin, explores one of the more contentious issues of biodiversity prospecting - Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) - evaluating whether or not IPR regimes can be structured to support conservation. And, in Chapter VII, Calestous Juma tackles the question of how countries should structure their technology policies to ensure that the use of biodiversity leads to the development of a technical infrastructure that will yield long-lasting benefits.

In this rapidly evolving field, it is not surprising that this report leaves some questions unaddressed. But it should nonetheless help policy-makers at least become aware of the questions surrounding the potential for biodiversity prospecting. Historically, the exploitation of a "new" resource has led to its exhaustion and to the destruction of local communities and cultures. It will be no easy task to ensure that biodiversity prospecting harnesses these same forces in support of biodiversity conservation and rural development.