The Great Biodiversity Debate


In the steamy rain forests of Costa Rica, farmers, former bartenders, housewives and truck drivers are collecting thousands of tropical plants and insects and stuffing them into ,, boxes, jars and plastic bags.

Once cataloged and freeze-dried, they will be shipped to the United States for study in the laboratories of Merck & Co. Inc., this country's biggest drug manufacturer.

In a high-tech form of prospecting, Merck is paying $1 million to sample Costa Rica's mushrooming national collection of bugs, flowers and dirt.

It's a long shot, but the company hopes to strike it rich by finding an as-yet undiscovered cure for cancer or some other wonder drug lurking in the jungle. And if Merck does come up with something it can sell, the firm has agreed to share the profits with the Costa Ricans.

This deal, struck last September, was cited last week at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro as a pioneering example of how rich and poor nations can work together to preserve the world's rapidly dwindling natural bounty.

Ironically, though, the arrangement between Merck and the Costa Ricans is ammunition for friends and foes alike of the treaty on "biodiversity" adopted at the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development, which ends today.

The treaty, nearly three years in the making, was negotiated in Nairobi, Kenya, last month by 98 nations, including the United States. But just before the summit began 11 days ago in Brazil, the Bush administration announced it would not sign the pact, calling it "fundamentally flawed."

That rejection, along with President Bush's tough talk about not sacrificing American jobs to environmental extremism, raised the hackles of Third World diplomats. It also isolated the United States in Rio from its traditional allies in Europe and Japan, who swallowed their own misgivings and pledged to sign the treaty.

What exactly is "biodiversity," and why won't President Bush sign a treaty to preserve it?

"Biodiversity" is just shorthand for "biological diversity," which in turn is nothing more -- or less -- than nature's amazing variety.

Biologists estimate there are anywhere from 5 million to 80 million species of plants, animals, fungi and microbes in the world. Only about 1.4 million, however, have ever been identified and given scientific names. That is because we humans have focused mainly on the large, visible mammals, birds and plants, which make up less than 5 percent of all the species.

Jungles like Costa Rica's are practically brimming with untapped biodiversity. Though they occupy only about 7 percent of the world's surface, tropical forests harbor at least half of all the world's species, and maybe as much as 90 percent, scientists say. Tiny Costa Rica, about the size of West Virginia, has 5 to 7 percent of the planet's natural bounty, or maybe 500,000 species.

But in recent years, scientists have warned that species are disappearing at an increasing rate as the world's booming population clears more and more land for farming and homes.

The rate of deforestation increased by 50 percent during the 1980s, the United Nations says. More than 66,000 square miles are being destroyed every year -- an area bigger than the state of Florida. Asia is losing its forests fastest, but losses also have been extensive in Latin America and Africa.

Given the current rate at which the biologically rich tropical forests are disappearing, many scientists predict that up to 20 percent of all species could be doomed to extinction within 30 years.

A few skeptics have challenged such gloomy warnings, calling them "pure guesswork" that should not be the basis for curbing economic development badly needed in the impoverished Third World.

But Dr. Peter Raven, director of the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis, says that while the number of species may be debatable, they are unquestionably being diminished by the world's booming population and its consumption of forest and rangeland.

"You can argue about the dimensions, but you sure can't argue about the direction," he said last week.

Bush administration officials agree that action is needed to preserve the world's plants and animals, and they say that the United States, with its tough Endangered Species Act, has been a world leader in conservation.

But the treaty is bad, they say. Their major contentions are:

* The treaty would commit the United States to giving developing countries "a blank check," unspecified millions of dollars to preserve their forests and other "hot spots" of biodiversity.

* The pact could hinder the biotechnology industry, in which the United States is a world leader. It could require American corporations to give away genetically engineered medicines and disease-resistant crops, developed and patented at great expense.

* Language in the treaty also suggests that biotech products pose health or environmental threats, and they object to anything that might lead to more regulation of what they contend is a proven safe industry.

Environmentalists have lashed out at the Bush administration, but the biotech industry applauds the U.S. refusal to go along with the treaty as it stands. Weakening patent protections threatens to rob the industry of its competitive edge, spokesmen say.

"It's more or less holding a gun to people's heads," said Alan R. Goldhammer, technical director for the Industrial Biotechnology Association, which represents 135 companies engaged in developing genetically engineered food, crops and medicines. "We would just as soon see references to biotechnology deleted from the treaty, because we are not clear at all how that relates to preservation of biodiversity."

Treaty advocates counter that Third World nations fear they will not get to share the wealth if their plants and animals, which cannot be patented, provide the building blocks for a biotech bonanza. And they note that 80 percent of the biodiversity is in developing countries, which have only 15 percent of the world's wealth and only about 6 percent of the scientists needed to capitalize on their natural riches.

But U.S. officials and industry spokesmen say the Merck deal in Costa Rica shows that the fear of exploitation is unfounded.

"The private sector can do this themselves," said a State Department official. The treaty "assumes developing countries are incapable of negotiating with private companies, which we know from the Merck example is untrue."

Merck spokesman Jeffrey Goldstein says the company has no position on the treaty, but he stresses that Merck views its Costa Rican project as a business deal, not corporate philanthropy.

"We don't know if we'll ever find anything," Mr. Goldstein said last week. "We hope we do, but it's high risk." Indeed, only 1 out of every 10,000 substances tested by pharmaceutical labs like Merck's makes it to market, he noted. Given the development and regulatory hurdles, it can cost more than $200 million for every new drug marketed, he said.

But several of Merck's best-selling drugs came from natural substances. One, Ivomec, brings the company more than $100 million a year as a livestock dip and heartworm medicine for dogs. It came from a micro-organism found in soil scooped from a golf course in Japan.

Ivomec also helps prevent river blindness, a parasitic disease that afflicts 18 million people in Africa. Merck is giving the drug away there because that continent's people can't afford it, Mr. Goldstein said.

But others note that Merck's Costa Rican deal is unusual in several respects. First of all, Costa Rica, though suffering from the same problems of poverty and overpopulation as other developing countries are, has a high literacy rate and has already set aside 4,000 square miles -- roughly a quarter of its land -- in conservation areas.

And Merck's contract is not with the Costa Rican government, but with the National Biodiversity Institute, a nonprofit private agency set up in 1989 on the government's recommendation. The aim of the institute, says its director, Dr. Rodrigo Gamez, is to save the country's natural bounty by finding economic uses for it that do not require its destruction.

In less than three years, the institute's team of 48 rural villagers retrained as taxonomists has collected about 2 million specimens, mostly insects and plants. More species have been recorded in Costa Rica than in the previous 120 years, Dr. Gamez said last week by telephone from San Jose. The interview was briefly drowned out by the sound of rain drumming on the institute's roof.

Despite Costa Rica's success, Dr. Gamez says he supports the biodiversity treaty.

"If the situation we have between Costa Rica and the United States was the same all over the world, the treaty wouldn't be necessary," said Dr. Gamez. "But unfortunately, not all companies are like Merck, and not all countries are like Costa Rica."

Indeed, some argue that the U.S. refusal to sign the biodiversity treaty, intended to protect the biotech industry, may wind up hurting it and costing the United States jobs.

"It's a two-edged sword," said Dr. Rita R. Colwell, director of the Maryland Biotechnology Institute, at the University of Maryland College Park. While the United States may have the technology and scientific capability to develop products from tropical plants and insects, those countries could retaliate by restricting access to them, she said.

Dr. Raven, whose botanical garden has one of the largest collections of tropical plants in North America, says he already hears "rumblings" that U.S. botanists may be denied visas to South American countries such as Venezuela and Brazil because of their resentment of the U.S. rejection of the treaty.

"The language in the text isn't as difficult as the U.S. makes it out to be," contended Scott Hajost, international counsel for the Environmental Defense Fund. European nations and Japan also had problems with the treaty, he said, but decided to sign anyway, believing difficulties could be worked out later.

"The bottom line is: Some people didn't want the treaty, and they used every excuse they could to torch it," he added, referring to leaks that torpedoed Environmental Protection Agency Administrator William K. Reilly's effort to work out a compromise in Rio.

Bush administration officials have hinted the United States might be willing to sign the treaty after Rio if some of the troublesome language in it can be removed.

But many involved with the treaty can't hide their disappointment.

"I can't second-guess the president," said Donald MacLauchlan, assistant natural resources secretary for Maryland who served on the U.S. negotiating team in Nairobi. "But I'll tell you one thing -- the issues there have got to be dealt with. We certainly have to live sustainably on this planet. I hope this will be a beginning."

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