SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica—This story has no happy ending. Quite the opposite, it tells the tale of how the relative success of a country can harm initiatives intended to understand and protect its natural resources. The National Biodiversity Institute of Costa Rica (INBio), founded in 1989, is imploding, thereby weakening of one of the nation’s pillars of scientific investigation. Costa Rica is not the only victim here. In a time during which more scientists are investigating plant compounds to develop drugs to improve our quality of life or treat illnesses, all inhabitants of this planet lose out, including those who have never heard of INBio.
INBio’s importance is clear when one looks at its productivity: The institute has led research on about 30 percent of known species in Costa Rica with the participation of more than 600 scientists from 42 different countries. The site features the second-largest biological collection in Latin America, with more than 3.5 million specimens. This collection has been catalogued online in its entirety, unlike others in Latin America. Further, more than 25,000 users come to INBio’s Web site daily and institute has welcomed visitors from 125 different countries. Work at INBio has yielded 2,500 scientific articles and it has organized 316 conventions at sites worldwide.
So, why is INBio collapsing? The causes stretch back to its very beginning.
The origins of INBio
According to the official story, in 1989 Costa Rican government determined it was in the national interest to understand biological diversity, conservation and sustainable use. It thereby decided to create a largely autonomous state institute to serve that need.
The government failed to set the plan in motion, however, so supporters of the idea created a private, nonprofit institute instead, and INBio was born. Looked on favorably by the government the institute began to receive generous donations from organizations such as the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency and the MacArthur Foundation in the U.S. Bolstered by such support, INBio grew and matured, collecting various awards including the Prince of Asturias Award for Technological and Scientific Research in 1995.
Rodrigo Gámez, a Costa Rican scientist and a co-founder of INBio, reported in El Financiero, however, that donations began to decrease in 2005. In some years the institute’s budget shrank to $5 million and then down to $300,000 in 2012. “Costa Rica became a consumer economy, and we were left out,” Gámez said. “We never received support from the government. Every year we saw reductions in our operations. Donors asked, ‘If what you do is so important to the government, where is their support?’”
Handing over the collection
INBio continues to operate, but it will not be the same. The institute must sell its land north of the capital, which included a park dedicated to environmental education (INBioparque). In 15 years of existence the park welcomed more than 1.5 million people, many of them students. But on March 31, its administration was given over to a partnership of three government ministries (Environment and Energy, Education, and Culture). Since then, the ministries asked INBio to continue to manage the park for one more year. Another section of the property will become part of national conservation effort. INBio also must hand over its biological collection to the state. Maintenance of the collection, for which electricity alone costs $300,000 annually, exceeds the institute’s budget. The collection is valued at around $76 million.
Some critics question the way that INBio operated. Vivienne Solís Rivera, biologist and sister of Costa Rican president Luis Guillermo Solís, disagreed with ex-minister of environment and energy, René Castro, over the origin and activities of INBio. “Rather than funding staying in the hands of a ‘national’ institution or its work assumed by existing institutions like our National Museum,” Solís wrote in La Nación, “the work went to a private association. The private institution, which today we call INBio, began negotiations to sell the wealth of our country to companies which wanted to make money off of chemical compounds taken from our land, and then patent the procedure for medical or cosmetic production.”
In reality, INBio focuses less on the inventory of the region’s biodiversity and more on finding uses and applications for it.
Randall García, director of INBio, defended the institute’s work. INBio “handled the subject and biodiversity better than any country in the world,” he says that, thanks to INBio, “no other country has developed a national inventory of biodiversity like Costa Rica and no other country has such precise information about the species present in their protected areas.”
García agreed, however, that financial instability “has been the main limit for this institution of great achievements.” INBio today continues to employ the same staff and to fulfill service contracts with 45 countries.