Lovejoy's AIBS addr. & absence of IPRs

Joe Vogel joevogel at FLACSO.ECX.EC
Sun Sep 18 19:18:21 CDT 1994

"Where are Intellectual Property Rights?"
A Comment to Thomas Lovejoy's "Will Expectedly the Top Blow Off?":

Although it is hard to criticize Dr. Lovejoy's eloquent, sweeping
and yet succinct plenary address to the AIBS, one issue was
conspicuous by its absence: intellectual property rights (IPRs) and
their role in the Convention on Biological Diversity. The absence
of IPRs in any discussion of biodiversity preservation can lead to
serious misperceptions. For example, Lovejoy states "In the
meantime the United States has reversed its awkward stance on the
Biodiversity Convention. We have signed the convention despite its
imperfections, and the ratification is before the entire Senate now
that the foreign affairs committee has voted 16-3 in its favor".
Has the United States _really_ changed its position? The Bush
objection to the Convention concerned Article 16 which recognizes
a claim of the country of origin to any biotechnologies based on
its germplasm. Although President Clinton signed the Convention
with much televised hoopla on Earth Day 1993, he nevertheless
attached an "interpretative statement". As reported in the
newspapers (e.g., Richard L. Berke, "Clinton Supports Two Major
Steps for Environment," _The New York Times_, 22 April 1993, pp.
A1, A10.), Clinton told reporters "We think we have done the work
necessary to protect the intellectual property of American
companies that they would not have to share technology with
developing countries that provide resources for products
manufactured by those companies." Clinton's interpretative
statement is an attempt, of dubious legality, to negate Article 16
of the Convention on Biological Diversity. Hence, one can make the
case that the positions of Clinton and Bush are, essentially,

Despite a range of opinions regarding how IPRs can be extended over
biodiversity (see for example, The Crucible Group, _People, Plants,
and Patents_ Ottawa: International Development Research Centre,
1994 or Joseph Henry Vogel, _Genes for Sale: Privatization as a
Conservation Policy_, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994), no one
seriously doubts that such IPRs can become a major financial source
for biodiversity preservation. For example, again quoting from
Lovejoy's address, "I have made much in the last three years of the
multibillions of dollars of economic activity deriving from the
enzyme from the Yellowstone hot spring bacterium _Thermus
acquaticus_ described by Thomas Brock and which makes the
polymerase chain reaction (PRC) possible". If IPRs were to exist
over _Thermus acquaticus_, at a royalty rate in conformance to,
say, copyrights over books, then hundreds of millions of dollars
would remit to the U.S. National Park Service for the maintenance
of Yellowstone. The same argument can be made for _Taxus
brevifolia_, the western yew: the royalties generated could outbid
the timber industry for the ancient forests of Olympic Peninsula
and thereby eclipse the legal battle over the spotted owl. There is
also tremendous economic appeal to IPRs over biodiversity: the
preservation of these habitats would be paid by those who actually
consume the products from these habitats (e.g., biotechnologies)
and not by taxpayers who may derive little or no use. In essence
the IPR is a type of user fee. Coincidentally, memorial Nobel
Laureate Milton Friedman argued for just such fees with respect to
Yellowstone some 30 years ago: "If the public wants this kind of an
activity enough to pay for it, private enterprises will have every
incentive to provide such parks. And, of course, there are many
private enterprises of this nature now in existence. I cannot
myself conjure up any neighborhood effects or important monopoly
effect that would justify governmental activity in this area." (p.
112 of "The Role of Government in a Free Society", Milton Friedman,
pp. 104-117 in _Private Wants and Public Needs_ 2nd ed., Edmund S.
Phelps, ed., NY: W.W. Norton, 1965).

Besides not rewarding landowners for the preservation of habitats,
the lack of IPRs over biodiversity also leads to a sub-optimal
employment level in the long-term management and discovery of such
biodiversity. Lovejoy perceives the dearth of graduate training and
comments "At the same time we are probably nanosecond away in terms
of graduate training time from recognizing that the toughest
limiting factor in addressing global environment problems is
available human resources in the environmental sciences
particularly systematics and ecology. Now is the time to be bold
and increase graduate training in these fields even before the
specific jobs are in sight." For those of us in academia, this
introduces a Faustian dilemma: do we encourage specialization in
areas which the public refuses to finance or do we let our
disciplines decline through attrition? Leon Jaroff wrote an
excellent feature article entitled "Crisis in the Labs" for Time
Magazine (26 August 1991, pp. 45-51) on precisely this issue of
under- and unemployment of new PhDs in the natural sciences. Again,
IPRs over biodiversity can help correct this imbalance: young
ecologists and taxonomists would become in great demand if
biodiversity were no longer "the common heritage of mankind".

My remarks are not geared solely to the developed world. I think
the argument is especially relevant in the developing world where
education is more often an investment rather than a consumption
good. I teach environmental economics at a post-graduate faculty in
Ecuador (FLACSO). Many of our students graduated from La
Universidad Catolica where there is now a surge of undergraduate
majors (in the 1000s) in a new field called "eco-tourism" and a
correspondent precipitous drop of majors in traditional fields like
anthropology (9 students). Is it any wonder? Eco-tourism is a
lucrative market in Ecuador while anthropology depends on a public
sector which is strapped for cash and facing cut-backs. If IPRs
were to be extended over biodiversity, then ethnobotany and related
anthropological expertise would suddenly rise in demand (a la
"biodiversity prospecting" or "genesteading") and I have no doubt,
the students would be forthcoming.

In sum, one cannot divorce IPRs over biodiversity from the myriad
issues concerning its preservation.

Joseph Henry Vogel, PhD
Profesor-Investigador Asociado
Area de Economia
Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales
Ulpiano Paez 118 y Av. Patria
Casilla: 17-11-06362
Quito, Ecuador
tel 593 2 231 806/ 542 714
fax 593 2 566 139
e-mail: joevogel at

More information about the Taxacom mailing list