The Biotrade Initiative:
Programme for biodiversity-based development
Miguel Rojas
Keywords:  International organization; Biodiversity prospecting; Technology transfer; Relation public-private sector.
Correct citation: Rojas, M. (1999), "The Biotrade Initiative: Programme for biodiversity-based development." Biotechnology and Development Monitor, No. 38, p. 11-14.

The growing concern over the loss of biological diversity poses an argument that biodiversity conservation can be promoted through its profitable use. Following this logic, the Biotrade Initiative was set up as an international framework to create new ‘bio-partnerships’. This programme carries opportunities for developing countries to sustainably use and commercialize biodiversity. However, its use as an engine for economic growth in these countries might be limited by institutional and macro-economic constraints.

Tropical forests in developing countries are estimated to harbour between 50 and 90 per cent of the total number of species on earth. Growing concerns regarding the conservation of biodiversity led to the adoption of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) in 1992. This international treaty aims at the conservation of biological resources, the sustainable use of their components and the fair and equitable sharing of the benefits arising from their use.
It is often argued that the profitable use of biodiversity is the only incentive for its conservation. At the same time, for those developing countries that are rich in biodiversity, funds generated from the use of biodiversity could add to the country’s development. Hence, the third Conference of the Parties (COP) of the CBD in November 1996, launched the Biotrade Initiative. It is a collaborative effort that involves the Secretariat of the CBD and several United Nations agencies such as the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). Promoting the profitable use of biodiversity requires the collaboration of different actors that are very often perceived as potential rivals, both in industrialized and developing countries: the private sector, including both multinational corporations and local companies; governments; universities; financial institutions; and local and indigenous communities. If successfully implemented, cooperation could take place both at the local community and national levels.
The core activity areas of the initiative cover:
Bioprospecting. Genetic resources are screened for commercially valuable chemicals and genetic compounds.
Non-timber forest products (NTFPs). Biological resources other than timber that can be harvested from forests for own use and/or for trade. Examples of NTFPs include medicinal plants, fibres, resins, oils, and gums.
Eco-tourism. Richness in biological diversity, including wildlife, can be attractive for the development of tourism. Eco-tourism is based on biological diversity and its use it in a sustainable manner.
The Biotrade initiative consists of three complementary components: Firstly, the country programmes. The countries’ opportunities and constraints for the development of a sustainable bio-resource industry will be assessed, and ‘bio-partnerships’ will be facilitated. Other activities are related to training and capacity building. Secondly, market research and policy analysis will be conducted to include issues such as Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), technology transfer, and benefit sharing mechanisms. Thirdly, internet and communications services will be established to disseminate and exchange the country programmes’ experiences.
The initiative plans to implement six country programmes in the next five years beginning with Colombia, Peru and Vietnam. It is not primarily intended as a financial measure, but to serve as an ‘honest broker’ facilitating cooperation among the diverse players in the field of sustainable projects that help biodiversity conservation.

Partners for development
In November 1998, Biotrade organized a conference in Lyon, France, called "Bio-partnerships for Sustainable Development: commercialisation and the bio-industry challenge". This conference acknowledged that private investment in developing countries is mobilizing several times more resources than public international aid. Although this trend does not hold true for all developing countries, it creates potential incentives for innovative projects. The intention is to involve the private sector with other stakeholders, such as local community organizations, to develop and market environmentally-sound products.
During the conference several projects and new financial schemes were presented to promote sustainable development and the conservation of biodiversity in developing countries. For instance, the Brazilian bank Banco Axial has been appointed by the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation to select and manage equity investments in a diversified mix of environment-related enterprises throughout Latin America. Banco Axial aims to generate capital returns for the investors while helping to conserve biological diversity. It will focus on certified sustainable forest management, native species reforestation, non-timber forest products, eco-tourism, aquaculture, and organic agriculture.
Another project of the Biotrade Initiative is the cooperation between Daimler-Chrysler (Germany/USA) and Poverty and Environment in Amazônia (POEMA), an organization initiated by the Federal University of Pará, Brazil. POEMA promotes local small-scale entrepreneurs to process coconut hulls into headrests for lorries produced in Brazil by Daimler-Chrysler. The project is intended to conserve biodiversity by making use of waste products.
Although this example highlights the growing commitment of the private sector to engage in new ventures to conserve biodiversity, it also shows that biodiversity conservation has become a buzzword for many activities that are not always directly related to its original meaning. If using wastes to promote the local economy is a biodiversity conservation effort, possibly any concrete example of sustainable use of natural products is covered under the umbrella of the Biotrade initiative. Although such an approach might enjoy some public attention, in the long run, this initiative will not meet its goals without clear guidance to what type of projects should be identified, selected and promoted.

Biodiversity for drug development
The prospecting of biological resources for drug development plays a key role in the initiative’s biodiversity-based development efforts. At present half of the 20 most sold medicinal products in the world are developed from natural product research, with total annual sales of around US$ 15 billion. By 2002, the market for plant-derived drugs is expected to grow up to US$ 30 billion. According to Edgar Asebey, from Andes Pharmaceuticals (USA), a company specialized in bioprospecting for anti-cancer drugs, 40 per cent of all prescription drugs in the USA are based on natural products. This figure rises to more than 60 per cent, if anti-cancer drugs are considered. The production of pharmaceuticals is research and development (R&D) based and it is estimated that R&D budgets of leading companies account for 10 to 15 per cent of their annual sales. If parts of these expenses were spent on biodiversity prospecting in developing countries, equitable sharing of benefits as it is foreseen by the CBD could help these countries to create new sources of revenue and to extend their scientific capabilities. Bioprospecting for drug development becomes even more attractive to pharmaceutical companies, as developing countries are not only rich in biodiversity, but also in traditional knowledge and healing practices.
These expectations have led to the initiation of projects in regions with high biodiversity. In Costa Rica, the Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio) was created in 1989 as an early example of the possibilities of taking advantage of biodiversity in developing countries. In 1991 INBio started a joint programme with the pharmaceutical company Merck & Co. (USA) to study and catalogue the Costa Rican biodiversity as a potential source of drugs (see also Monitor No. 15). Over the years it has developed new joint projects with other companies, such as the US enterprises Bristol-Myers Squibb and Diversa to find substances not only for drugs, but also essences for the perfume industry and agrochemicals, especially nematicides, that can be important for the banana industry. Though a pioneer, INBio is not alone in the context of developing countries. The Bioresources Development and Conservation Programme based in Nigeria, and the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR) in South Africa have similar projects. In the case of CSIR a consortium was launched in October 1998, with the aim of investigating most of the 23,000 indigenous plants in South Africa over a period of ten years. The consortium was inspired by the success of a pilot bioprospecting project that led to the discovery, patenting and licensing of an anti-obesity agent from an indigenous plant.
Apart from the university-based efforts of South Africa and Nigeria, there are also activities arising from the private sector. In 1995 Andes Pharmaceuticals started a joint venture with a local group to search for new anti-cancer drugs, called BioAndes de Colombia S.A. This joint venture became the first company to apply for access under the "Common Regime on Access to Genetic Resources" of the Andes Pact (see also Monitor No. 33). The company claims to carry out ‘sustainable bioprospecting’ by transferring advanced proprietary screening technology to the source country of biodiversity, for the discovery of drugs. The capacity to gain information on chemical composition and its potential use for drug development should sustainably allow these countries to add more value to the raw samples and increase their value in the marketplace.

Access and benefit sharing mechanisms
Biotrade Initiative officials stress a so-called ‘rights and benefits’ approach, arguing that both rights and benefits should be addressed at the same time. In their view merely concentrating on fighting for rights, and waiting for the proper definition of all rights of local and indigenous communities would mean the loss of many years in the struggle for biodiversity conservation.
In the same line, the initiative pursues a ‘protect and promote’ strategy, encouraging instruments and mechanisms that could protect and promote intellectual property, traditional knowledge, and biodiversity, for national or local producers as well as local and indigenous communities. As part of the Biotrade country programmes, the Spanish patent office provides technical assistance for developing countries in these legal issues. However, it remains to be seen if this assistance will be of use for issues that go beyond the drafting of patent legislation.
It is important to stress that problems related to remuneration for biodiversity are not confined exclusively to developing nations, as is illustrated by the case of the Yellowstone National Park in the USA. In the 1980s, research involving a sample of a thermophilic (heat-loving) bacteria, first isolated at Yellowstone, led to the development of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) technology, which is now commonly used for the multiplication of DNA fragments. This technology brought revenues of several hundred million US dollars to the company that first developed it, but no remuneration for the source at Yellowstone. As the authorities of the national park are determined to use part of future revenues arising from bioprospecting for the educational and scientific purposes of the park, a new policy was devised to enforce a scheme for benefit sharing. In 1997 the park entered a partnership with Diversa to bioprospect in exchange for royalties on resulting products. However, public interest groups filed a lawsuit against this use of the park’s natural resources and the agreement was suspended in March 1999 by a US District Court.

Limitations and alternatives
In spite of the alluring potential of biodiversity for drug development, it is important to notice several aspects that could diminish the value of biodiversity for development purposes in the South.
Firstly, developing countries need a scientific and institutional base to utilize the potentials of bioprospecting fully, and move up the ladder of added value. Otherwise biodiversity might become another ‘bulk commodity’ for which the value-adding processes, such as preliminary screening of compounds or clinical medical trials, remain in the hands of actors from industrialized countries. In South Africa, for instance, officials from the CSIR claim that there is good opportunity to profit from bioprospecting, due to the country’s advanced institutional capacity in several areas of chemistry. As for INBio, its development has been facilitated by Costa Rica’s investment in education, and human resources development. Nonetheless, INBio is still mainly committed to the collection of raw samples.
Secondly, technological alternatives could diminish the value of bioprospecting for drug development. As combinatorial chemistry, the computer-aided production and screening of large quantities of synthetic compounds is gaining momentum, there is also less need for drug researchers to rely on substances derived from nature. Rational drug design, based on the understanding of the molecular interaction between a drug and its target, is another technique that can diminish the potential value of biodiversity. Both these approaches profit from increasing information on the genetics of human diseases, since this knowledge might contain keys to the functioning of the drugs. Industry’s re-assessment of drug development strategies is also reflected by the decision of the US enterprise Eli Lily to terminate its contract with Shaman Pharmaceuticals (USA), a company specialized in ethnobotany and bioprospecting.
Research in microbial diversity must be considered as another potential alternative for drug development. Whereas developing countries harbour most of the world’s plant biodiversity, micro-organisms colonize virtually all places on earth. Of special interest for industrial processing are those micro-organisms that are adapted to extreme circumstances, such as the presence of toxic metals, extremely acid or alkaline environments, or thermal stress. Though most of this diversity has not yet been studied, industrialized countries have their own reservoirs of this type of biodiversity. For instance, in Yellowstone National Park some estimates indicate that less than one per cent of thermophilic bacteria have been identified. In fact, several on-going efforts of this type of bioprospecting are located in industrialized countries. The US company Diversa, for instance, carries out research on microbial biodiversity not only in developing countries such as the Philippines and Costa Rica, but also in Iceland and the USA.
Finally, the exploitation of biological resources for drug discovery may render limited financial rewards, compared with other uses. According to Nicolas Mateo, coordinator of bioprospecting at INBio, during the last ten years Costa Rica has obtained revenues from bioprospecting of approximately US$ 2.6 million. In comparison, he estimates that eco-tourism, which to a certain extent is also based on biodiversity, contributed US$ 700 million per year to the national economy. Nevertheless, it can be argued that bioprospecting has led to other benefits, such as the training of Costa Rican scientists. Furthermore, public awareness of the value of biodiversity has increased, which in turn puts pressure on the government to implement conservation measures. However, these benefits remain difficult to quantify.
Though the Biotrade Initiative is still a new endeavour, it now constitutes a global network for the use of biological diversity to support social and economic improvements in developing countries. A number of projects are linking biodiversity conservation with remuneration for its sustainable use. However, the implementation of the initiative will be judged according to its ability:

While the use of biodiversity for development purposes is a way to stimulate its conservation, destruction of natural resources does not only occur because of a lack of useful alternatives. However, national policy that acts as an incentive for destructive land-use constitutes a powerful deterrent for environmental conservation. For instance, in Costa Rica during the 1960s and 1970s, credits for agricultural activities were only granted if a sizeable proportion of the land offered as a collateral had been previously deforested. Activities such as the Biotrade Initiative cannot replace the development of macro-economic policies favouring the conservation of natural resources.
Miguel Rojas

P.O. Box 3229-1000, San José, Costa Rica.
E-mail gandoca@yahoo.com

Ricupero, R. (1998), "Biodiversity as an engine of trade and sustainable development". POEMA tropic, No. 1, January-July, pp. 9-13.




Personal communications with R. Villet (USDA), R. Lojenga and R. Sanchez (UNCTAD)

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