TWN Info Service on Biodiversity and Traditional Knowledge (Apr13/01)
20 April 2013
Third World Network

Dear friends and colleagues,

Once hailed as a bioprospecting success story, and even promoted as a model for other countries, Costa Rica's National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), is now in deep financial and organizational crisis.

News reports from the capital San Jose say that the former Director-General of Costa Rica’s National Museum, Melania Ortiz Volio, has sharply attacked INBio and the policies that surrounded its creation and operation, drawing attention to the irony of INBio seeking a government bailout after it fought for years to strip government institutions of responsibility for biodiversity. 

Below is an article by Edward Hammond, Third World Network's research consultant on biopiracy.

With best wishes,

Third World Network

Costa Rica’s INBio, Nearing Collapse, Surrenders its Biodiversity Collections and Seeks Government Bailout

Austin, Texas, 20 April (Edward Hammond) - Costa Rica’s National Biodiversity Institute (INBio), a 23-year-old private foundation once hailed as a bioprospecting success story, is in the midst of a deep financial and organizational crisis.

According to reports in San Jose’s /La Naci๓n/, the Institute can no longer afford to pay utility bills and other maintenance costs for its sample collections, which consist of more than 3.5 million samples of the country's biodiversity.

INBio will surrender the samples and many of its other assets, including land and buildings, to the Costa Rican government. Carlos Hernแndez, INBio’s Director, calls the process “expropriation by mutual agreement”.

In parallel to the expropriation, the Institute has launched an appeal for public donations to enable it to continue to pay staff salaries and other bills.

In the 1990s, INBio rose to international prominence as a model for bioprospecting in developing countries. It signed an agreement with Merck in 1991 for the two to jointly exploit Costa Rica’s biodiversity to seek new drugs. Businesses and a number of large environmental organizations praised the deal, characterizing efforts to commercialize biodiversity and derive royalty income from patented products as the wave of the future in biodiversity conservation. This brought INBio intense attention at 1992's Rio de Janeiro Earth Summit and in the course of later work around the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

INBio’s bioprospecting activities with Merck and other companies, however, failed to yield sufficient income to support its own operations, much less provide major resources for broader conservation goals. The Institute remained dependent on foreign aid, which peaked at US $4 million in 1999, only to fall to a mere $79,000 by 2007.

INBio’s current annual budget, reportedly about $300,000, is insufficient to maintain its operations. The collections and facilities being turned over are estimated to cost US $1.2 million per year in upkeep. Costa Rica’s environment and agriculture ministries will assume responsibility.

INBio’s financial failure and abandonment of its biodiversity collections has drawn little international attention so far, but severe criticism in Costa Rica. In an editorial published on April 17th, the former Director-General of Costa Rica’s National Museum, Melania Ortiz Volio, sharply attacked INBio and the policies that surrounded its creation and operation, drawing attention to the irony of INBio seeking a government bailout after it fought for years to strip government institutions of responsibility for biodiversity.

According to Ortiz Volio, in 1989, the governmental National Museum and the University of Costa Rica were obliged to surrender their natural history holdings to INBio. Some of the collections dated to the 1880s. The Institute eventually agreed to return the samples after evaluating them, but the government generally yielded to INBio’s arguments that it, a private foundation working with the pharmaceutical industry, was better placed than government's institutions to be the nation’s leading biodiversity research entity.

Ortiz Volio says that INBio’s storehouse of samples will expand the count of items held in national collections, particularly for insects. However, she also writes that INBio’s rapid and commercially oriented collection of samples was haphazard, and lacking in scientific rigor and forethought. The Museum’s collection and curatorship of samples of the nation’s biodiversity, the Director General says, has been more methodical, well planned and well documented.

“The irresponsibility is incredible, as was the initial arrogance, and two decades later, in bankruptcy, [INBio] hands everything back to the State, for it to pay,” concludes Ortiz Volio, “Apparently, what they wanted was fame, medals and prizes and, along the way, to impress the na๏ve.”

The Costa Rican government is seeking to put a brave face on the situation, suggesting that INBio's mission was not so much about conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity, or even maintaining collections, but rather the development of biotechnology. Ren้ Castro, the Environment Minister, told La Naci๓n that "The State will take what isn't novel anymore and falls to it to assume by law, and InBio will keep the innovative and cutting edge part that we were decades late in developing."

Castro’s reference to law is to Costa Rica’s national biodiversity law, which declares the country’s biodiversity as national patrimony, making its protection a responsibility of the state.

The government’s current position, however, doesn’t align with role it previously allocated to INBio or, indeed, to INBio’s own statement of its mission, from better times, when it declared itself to be dedicated to “the conservation of the country's wildland biodiversity through facilitating its use as a resource... under the assumption that a developing tropical society will succeed in conserving a major portion of its wildland biodiversity only if this area can generate enough intellectual and economic income to pay for its upkeep and also contribute to the national economy in rough proportion to its area.”

Despite high profile bioprospecting agreements with Merck and others, however, INBio's intellectual property and other income derived from biodiversity failed to make the institution economically self-sufficient, much less generate major funds from commercial sources for in situ conservation of the country’s biodiversity.

Admitting that the Institute’s vision came up short, Rodrigo Gแmez, President of the Board of Directors, implies that INBio is permanently out of the practical business of biodiversity conservation and management, remarking that “The future of INBio will be that of the size of its brain.”

Gแmez, who in October 2012 was awarded the $100,000 Midori Prize for Biodiversity at the 11th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity in Hyderabad, India, says that INBio needs "a much broader vision than that which we’ve so far developed.”

INBio hopes that an indemnity paid by the government for the land and other assets it is surrendering will enable the Institute to survive. Hernแndez, the Director, is appealing to the public, “We need everyone who believes, or believed in, INBio, or who has benefited from its website to do work, to give us a donation.”

For more information (in Spanish):

Vargas M (2013). /Falta de dinero obliga a INBio a ceder su parque y colecciones/. La Naci๓n (San Jos้). March 9. URL:

Ortiz Volio M (2013). /Lo que retorna el INBio/. La Naci๓n (San Jos้). April 17. URL: