The Politics of Biodiversity

Article excerpt

For many of the more than 190,000 women who will be diagnosed with breast cancer this year, the drug Taxol could be what saves their lives. The active ingredient in Taxol, termed one of the "miracle drugs" of the past 10 years, was originally isolated from the Pacific yew tree.

"Thanks in large part to medicines developed in the past decade, cancer deaths are on the decline," said Alan Holmer, president of Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA). Still, one out of every four Americans will die from cancer, which remains the second leading cause of death by disease.

The No. 1 weapon against cancer today has come to be pharmaceuticals, which are often developed through research on biochemicals found in wild plants and animals. The industry had revenues of $359 billion in 2000, as much as $180 billion of which came from products developed from living things. According to a recent study by the UN Environment Program (UNEP), however, one potentially lifesaving drug is lost every two years as a result of plant extinction.

Thus, biodiversity loss could have a big impact on medicine, bioengineering, and health care in the United States and other Western countries, promising to make it one of the more serious environmental-- and ultimately political--issues of this century. Why? Because wealthy nations want access to potentially drug-rich biodiversity, and the greatest diversity of organisms is found in an equatorial belt of relatively poor countries in which poverty, war, and corruption are apparently contributing to the extinction of plant and animal species. A hopeful recent trend is the emergence of a movement by private-sector philanthropic groups to aggressively conserve targeted tropical areas.

The problem of biodiversity loss is illustrated in Brazil, where vast stretches of rain forest teeming with plants and animals, many as yet unknown to science, are being cleared by poverty-stricken homesteaders, who farm for a few years and then abandon the exhausted soil. Another example is Liberia, in which the West African tropical forest has shrunk before an onslaught of illegal lumbering that has financed the barbarous Revolutionary United Front rebel group in next-door Sierra Leone. In the United States, government and corporations have improved air and water quality and greatly reduced the concentration of toxins in the environment, but efforts to protect endangered species have been less successful.

With the human population rising worldwide, the battle promises to get worse before it gets better. Still, there are reasons for optimism. One is a proposal to spend $30 billion to purchase and protect a slew of rain-forest tracts that contain the world's greatest biodiversity concentrations.


Some might reasonably ask why we should worry about the loss of species as a result of human activity, especially when more than 99 percent of all species that have ever come into existence have become extinct. What is the point of trying to prevent what may be inevitable?

Scientists and environmentalists contend that we should care because all species--in addition to their potential medical value--provide scientific, economic, and recreational benefits. Harrison Ford, a longtime Conservation International board member, tells us we should worry because "plants and animals provide food and medicine, clean our air and water, and keep our planet alive."

As a PhRMA report, The Value of Medicines, indicates, drugs "help people--and the health care system--avoid disability, surgery, hospitalization, and nursing home care, often decreasing the total cost of caring for an illness." In addition, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, finding new plants is crucial for improving farming, because they can be bred with existing domesticated varieties to make crops "more productive, nutritious, durable, or simply better tasting. …