March 14, 1997

IOCD's Biotic Exploration Fund

Development Programme or Corporate Proxy?

If you have a close eye on bioprospecting, you may have heard about the particularly grandiose plans of the International Organisation for Chemical Sciences in Development's (IOCD) Biotic Exploration Fund". The Fund is a major international effort to promote bioprospecting originally proposed by Thomas Eisner, an academic who "conceived and facilitated" the Merck/InBio deal in Costa Rica. IOCD has hired a former Science and Technology Adviser to the World Bank to push the Fund, which is being aggresively promoted to many potential Northern funding agencies.

IOCD, a Belgian-chartered international NGO with a legal identity in the United States, is unabashedly fanatical about the potential for bioprospecting to protect the environment and be a "sustainable source of economic development." In fact, according to IOCD, without bioprospecting, the world's diversity may be doomed: "In comparison with the severity of the global biodiversity crisis, the amount of bioprospecting in developing countries is clearly far too small. Hence, the only appropriate response to the global crisis would be a great expansion of the scale and quality of bioprospecting throughout the developing world."

The IOCD is planning to raise up to a half million US dollars from international donor agencies for a 3-5 year programme in several countries. It plans to start the Fund's work in Guyana and South Africa. The Fund will provide training for Southern scientists in identifying potential new pharmaceutical products based on "ethnobotanical, taxonomic, and ecological clues." Having identified promising plants, animals, and microbes, IOCD says the scientists it trains will then "provide a reliable stream of extracts and chemicals...for screening by appropriate commercial clients."

IOCD isn't saying who these "appropriate commercial clients" are; but a list of financial supporters of IOCD's February 1996 "Symposium and Workshop on African Medicinal Plants" in Victoria Falls, Zimbabwe offers insight into who IOCD is working with in the private sector. For the African conference, IOCD obtained financial support from Ciba Geigy and Sandoz (now collectively known as Novartis - Switzerland), Shaman Pharmaceuticals (US), Moet Hennessy-Louis Vuitton (France), and several other chemical and pharmaceutical corporations.

IOCD says Southern scientists trained by the Fund will emphasize the importance of dealing respectfully with indigenous people and provide them opportunities for participation and compensation. But in the end, the Fund's formidably difficult - some might say Quixotic - aim is to create "commercially viable enterprises that can deal with multinational chemical and pharmaceutical companies on a professional, mutually beneficial basis."

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