By Donella Meadows
–November 24, 1994–
There is static in the United States about our new National Biological Survey — a systematic compilation of information about the biological wealth of the nation. We’ve had a useful National Geological Survey for over a hundred years. But the idea of knowing as much about our biological resources as about our mineral resources is causing conniptions. Environmentalists worry that if we know where valuable plants and animals are, someone will go out and exploit them. Property rights advocates worry that someone will go out and protect them.
We might learn something from a sensible country to our south, a place where people see information not as a threat but a good, and see exploitation and protection not as mutually exclusive but possibly compatible.
Costa Rica is about the size of West Virginia, but it harbors more known species than the whole United States — and probably hundreds of thousands of unknown species. Its past environmental performance has been about as heedless as that of other countries. Costa Rica lost one third of its tropical forest in the 450 years following Columbus, and another third in the past 50 years. Now the Costa Ricans have decided they don’t like eroded land, silted-up rivers and reefs, floods and droughts, and landslides. They have pulled themselves up short and said, “no more deforestation.”
They have already set aside 19 percent of their total land area in national parks, with plans to increase that area by creative reforestation. Costa Ricans don’t regard these parks as less valuable than agricultural or urban land. They see forests as places that provide clean water, flood protection, climate regulation, carbon fixation, wildlife, exotic chemicals, and sites for recreation, science, education, and tourism. They think the forests should pay, because that’s the only way to insure their protection, but they have an enlarged definition of “pay.” “If the best water for making beer comes from a national park,” says Rodrigo Gámez, president of INBIO, the Costa Rican organization that is conducting the national biological survey, “then beer drinkers should pay for preserving the park.”
About 84,000 species are known in Costa Rica, with maybe 500,000 species still to be discovered. It would take the country’s trained taxonomists decades to explore all those species. Costa Rica is speeding up the job with the help of its people.
Farmers, accountants, carpenters, housewives, school teachers, students are trained as part-time “para-taxonomists.” They are paid to collect and preserve bugs, bushes, fish, whatever they find around them, taking careful notes about the location, season, and surroundings of each species and what local folks know about its habits or uses. The collectors are supplied with microscopes and keys for preliminary identification; their samples are sent to INBIO for verification by experts — or for the naming of new species.
Collections are pouring in. They are spectacular for practical as well as esthetic reasons. For example, five years ago 45 kinds of parasitic wasps were known in the world, eight of them in Costa Rica. Now 138 are known in Costa Rica. Each of these wasps could be a natural enemy of insect pests.
When it arrives at INBIO, each species is given a bar code, like a product in a supermarket. All information about it is entered into a computerized data base. The data are available in user-friendly form to the collectors who brought them in and to schools and communities, as well as to researchers. “There’s no point in having a beautiful data base that no one uses,” says Rodrigo Gámez. “The forest is a library; it has to be catalogued and organized and its information made available to everybody.”
The process of doing this inventory, from training local collectors to making a nation-wide library, is turning out to be a super exercise in bio-literacy. The local collectors are becoming experts in the nature around them. They are in demand as teachers and guides. Their training is not intended to turn them into scientists, but it happens that some of them get so interested that they go on for further education.
These educational benefits might be sufficient to justify the survey, but INBIO is working toward other payoffs as well. Gámez sees a future in which Costa Rica exports not bananas, but purified, sophisticated natural chemicals. Each incoming species is screened for drugs, perfumes, dyes, sweeteners, pesticides, genes. This work is being done, as Gámez says, “with the big leagues” — companies such as Merck, Bristol Myers, and Squibb, who are putting up millions of dollars to finance the survey in exchange for contractual rights to whatever new chemicals come out of it. Ten percent of the exploratory funds and 100 percent of any royalties go to Costa Rica’s land protection and biological information and education systems.
Environmental purists have criticized Costa Rica for these deals with drug companies, worried that they are opening the way to exploitation and reducing the miraculous tropical forest to the commercial value of its constituent parts. But the Costa Ricans are smart enough to write good contracts and wise enough to see the larger picture. Gámez says the social and spiritual values of nature are coming to be at least as important in Costa Rica as the economic values. “People will come to see the forest as we see the medieval cathedrals in Europe. Communities wouldn’t dream of leveling their cathedral for a shopping mall, nor their forest, and for the same reasons.”
“You can’t value,” says Gámez, “what you don’t know.”
Could that be true in the U.S. too?
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1994