The Great Biodiversity Debate

June 14, 1992|By TIMOTHY B. WHEELER | TIMOTHY B. WHEELER,Timothy Wheeler covers environment for The Baltimore Sun.

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.

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