By Lizzie Wade
A pioneering effort to show that pre- serving tropical biodiversity can pay big dividends is in danger of shutting down. Costa Rica’s new government is reviewing a previous administration’s plan to save the National Biodiversity
Institute (INBio) from crippling debt and
has revoked some of its government contracts. Just as INBio is trying to transform
itself to achieve a more stable future, it may
succumb to the financial problems that have
plagued the institute for a decade.
INBio was founded in 1989 to inventory
all of Costa Rica’s biodiversity. Its financing
was based on contracting with pharmaceutical companies and others that hoped to
prospect for medicines and other chemicals
in the country’s plethora of species. Set up
as a nongovernmental organization (NGO),
INBio promised a model for how developing
countries could make money by conserving
and exploring their biodiversity. “INBio was
the poster child for chemical ecology and
conservation,” says Jon Clardy, a biological chemist at Harvard University who has
worked with INBio in the past.
But it inspired criticism in Costa Rica.
Many scientists and academics, especially
those based at the University of Costa Rica
(UCR) in San Pedro, worried that corpora-
tions would take unfair advantage of Costa
Rica’s natural resources. Others felt that a
national institute of biodiversity should be
run by the state. Still, a string of Costa Ri-
can presidents heartily supported INBio as
it cut deals with companies such as Merck
and succeeded in cataloging about 28% of
the country’s biodiversity.
Yet the corporate fees collected for granting access to INBio’s collection turned out
to be insufficient to cope with the financial
squeeze that followed. “The strength of the
opposition never became visible until INBio
got really weak. And by weak, what I mean
is that they began to run out of money,” says
ecologist Daniel Janzen of the University of
Pennsylvania, a co-founder of INBio who
maintains close ties.
INBio’s current crisis can be traced back
to 2000, when the institute opened INBioparque, a biodiversity theme park that
aimed to attract tourists. INBio borrowed
$7 million to build the park. But “you don’t
go to Costa Rica to go to Disney World,” Janzen says. The money earned by INBioparque
and the institute’s bioprospecting contracts
never came close to covering the new debt.
Although the park is a popular educational
destination for Costa Rican families and
schools, “from a financial standpoint, it was
a failure,” says Rodrigo Gámez, co-founder of
INBio and president of its board of directors.
After loans for the park came due,
INBio negotiated a bailout in 2013 in which
the Costa Rican government would buy
INBioparque’s land and transfer INBio’s
sample collections to the National Museum
of Costa Rica in San José. Relieved, INBio
began planning to pivot toward a new business strategy based on environmental consulting at home and abroad.
But after UCR professor Luis Guillermo
Solís was elected president of Costa Rica,
the new administration balked at the deal.
Patricia Madrigal, vice minister of environ-
ment, estimates that between purchasing
INBioparque’s land and assuming responsi-
bility for INBio’s collections, the deal would
cost the government nearly $18 million U.S.
dollars, at a time when the country has ad-
opted austerity measures to deal with a fi-
nancial crisis. Her office recently concluded
a review of the purchase on INBioparque’s
land, but the judgment remains under wraps.
The bailout “has taken us by surprise, finan-
cially and logistically,” Madrigal says.
Gámez points out that Madrigal is a long-
time critic of INBio; after the bailout was
announced last year, she co-wrote an op-
ed against the deal with biologist Vivienne
Solís, the new president’s sister. Gámez
sees “a clear intention to shut down the
institution” in other government actions,
notably the decision by Madrigal’s office
to revoke INBio’s eligibility to administer
funds awarded to Costa Rica by the United
Nations Development Programme’s Global
Environment Facility Small Grants Pro-
gramme. That cuts off one of INBio’s few
remaining revenue streams. Madrigal says
the move is part of a larger anticorruption
campaign and that no private organization
will be allowed to administer international
grants awarded to Costa Rica from now on.
Madrigal underlines that she has no intention to close the institute, nor the power
to do so, because it is not a federal agency.
“There is no spirit of persecution against
INBio,” she says.
But Janzen has come to believe that setting up INBio as an NGO was a mistake that
left it vulnerable to political whims and unstable funding. If INBio survives by transferring its collection and park into government
hands, it may become something closer to
the public-private hybrid Janzen now envisions. But it won’t be the INBio that he and
Gámez founded and that conservationists
had looked to with hope. As it stands, “it’s a
tossup whether an institution that’s hit that
hard can stay alive,” Janzen says. ■
institute faces financial crisis
New government rethinks plan to take over INBio’s
money-losing theme parks