A Better Future for the Planet Earth

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Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad (INBio)

Rodrigo Gamez Lobo Interview Summary
( President, Instituto Nacional de Biodiversidad )

Overview/ Profile

Lecture document



TV Program

Costa Rica is a land of beautiful nature and home to approximately 4% of all the plants and animals in the entire world. Its small area is equivalent in size to Kyushu and Shikoku in Japan. Professor Daniel H. Janzen and the National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) have contributed to the conservation of biodiversity and the restoration of tropical forests in Costa Rica over a long period of time.

Dr. Rodrigo Gamez Lobo has served as the Director of Costa Rica's National Biodiversity Institute (INBio) since its foundation 25 years ago.

I. The Foundation of INBio

In the late 20th century, the population of Costa Rica increased drastically. The nation's population of 300,000 at the beginning of the 20th century had increased 13-fold to 4 million by the end. With this rapid increase in population came the need for more farmland and pasture, which led to deforestation. In the 1970s, the government initiated measures to designate 10 to 12% of national lands as conservation areas. Unfortunately, however, the government had set no priorities on what to conserve. Although scientists in Europe and the United States had been very interested in the nature in Costa Rica and conducted research, Costa Rica had no experience with scientific approaches to nature and so depended on advice and guidance from overseas. Although conservation areas are usually established to protect specific species, Costa Rica had simply designated conservation areas on an ad hoc basis. In fact, the concept of sustainability was also vague. Therefore, they needed to start by deciding what to conserve.

After earning my doctorate in virology at the University of Illinois in 1967, I started teaching at the University of Costa Rica. In 1986, the government established the Ministry of Natural Resources, Energy and Mines (MIRENEM) to implement innovative measures for natural conservation into the country's socio-economic development. I was asked by Oscar Arias, President of Costa Rica, and the Environment Minister to serve as environment advisor. I was involved in the establishment of the Planning Commission of the National Biodiversity Institute with a group of scientists that included Professor Daniel H. Janzen, who was engaged in studies on tropical forests in Costa Rica. We discussed the establishment of a system that would facilitate the conservation of ecosystems. With funding from the MacArthur Foundation, we also established the New Strategy and Conservation Program for Costa Rica to reinforce systems to support conservation areas. The ACG, which was introduced in the interview with the Professor Janzen, resulted from a pilot plan of this project.

The Planning Commission concluded that it would be essential to have a national biodiversity institute, and proposed the idea to the President and Environment Minister. However, they thought the plan was unrealistic and rejected the idea. Although Costa Rica had designated conservation areas, they had not yet grasped the idea of considering people as a part of nature and conserving nature in order to profit from it. For this reason, our proposal was a bit too early. Looking back at that time, our idea was excellent, but too abstract.

The Planning Commission did, however, understand the need for the National Biodiversity Institute, and Professor Janzen strongly recommended the establishment of this leading-edge research institute that was the first of its kind in the world. When our proposal was rejected, I resigned my position as scientific advisor to the government. In the wake of my resignation, the Planning Commission considered the possibility of establishing the institute without government financial support, and asked for approval as a private organization. In fact, an independent INBio would achieve much more than it would have been able to under direct government control. Although the establishment of the research institute was approved, we encountered a very real problem with funding. Without collateral, borrowing money from the bank was out of the question, so we had to start from nothing.

Fortunately, we could secure lands with a loan from the National Park Foundation, and received a grant of 800,000 USD from the MacArthur Foundation. We also made a list of organizations that might provide support and applied to them for grants. Although I did not know the first thing about applying for grants, Professor Janzen had plenty of experience. As a result, we received financial support from the Netherlands, Norway, Canada, and Spain, and the World Bank, which made it possible for us to establish the INBio in October 1989.

II. INBio - Initial Activities

Our staff on the day we opened for business consisted of myself and one of my assistants from the University of Costa Rica. Staff gradually increased to include an accountant, office clerks, and personnel in charge of inventory. The Nature Conservancy, an American environmental conservation organization that had been involved in a project in Costa Rica decided to outsource research to INBio, which allowed biologists as well as information and science specialists to join INBio.

I can say that the initial goals of INBio were both simple and complex. We wanted to realize a society in harmony with nature and believed that we would be able to achieve the goal. In addition to our scientific and academic approaches, we thought that the realization of our dream would require a system that would allow local residents to participate in the activities not as observers, but as organizers.

We started a parataxonomist training program for local residents before the establishment of INBio. Professor Janzen's wife, Dr. Winnie Hallwachs, was in charge of teaching, and trainees were eager to start work to discover new species after finishing the program. Some were so motivated in fact that they collected and sorted plants, insects, and fungi with little sleep. This was even more impressive when you understand that our budget was limited and so they worked as volunteers. Our budget is still limited, so even now we have few parataxonomists at INBio.

Based on the method developed by Dr. Hallwachs, we started collecting and managing inventories of major species in the conservation areas. Inventory management required an information management system, which we started developing at the same time. However, information science was not a known field in 1989, so we needed to develop the system by ourselves. We hired specialists and finally succeeded after overcoming a number of hurdles. In fact, one of our first publications after the establishment of INBio was the Encyclopedia of Biology, a publication intended not only for scientists, but also for the general public, reflected the use of information science applied to biodiversity.

We needed to collect as much information as possible on species, ecosystems, tropical rainforests, mist forests, dry forests, and mangrove to design natural methods for identification at the molecular and genetic levels. It was believed that only scientists were qualified to collect samples. Therefore, we narrowed down our list of priorities to a certain number of species for scientific classification. We thought that limiting the number of species would make it easier for scientists to help in the effort. We finally had a group of 450 scientists around the world helping us voluntarily. If we had had to finance the work carried out by these scientists, it would have cost 2.5 million USD per year. Therefore, we can say that INBio's success was the result of international cooperation. At the same time, we also thought it would be very important to include Costa Rican scientists and engineers, and residents from the areas surrounding national parks and conservation areas in the project. If local residents acquire knowledge on biodiversity along with the authorities and are given the chance to participate, the project would be more successful.

All natural history museums around the world participate in the inventory of samples, and the information is stored at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Museum, and Missouri Botanical Garden in the United States, as well as at other museums in England and Germany. However, it was not the museums themselves that collected samples, but individuals and independent organizations. INBio collected its own samples in the conservation areas. We prioritized plants, insects and fungi for collection, and classified them into identified and unidentified species. I believe that INBio was the first organization that inventoried species in its conservation areas, integrated all information, and made a database available to everyone.

INBio's strategy was to raise global interest within one year. Professor Janzen invited journalists to come and see what we were doing in Costa Rica and asked them to publicize our activities. Then well-known magazines started featuring activities that linked national development and conservation in the regions. Professor Janzen played an important role in a wide range of areas, including the above-mentioned PR concerning our activities. Since the government of Costa Rica started discussing the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development produced at the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, attention was focused on INBio. People became more aware that Costa Rica had a research institute specializing in biodiversity via global news. As representative of INBio, I joined the government delegation on the Rio Declaration as a scientific advisor.

III. INBio - Current Activities

1. Organization

There are currently 108 people working at INBio. It is a non-profit organization operated in accordance with the laws and regulations of Costa Rica. It has a General Associate Assembly composed of about 50 honorary members, including Mr. and Ms. Janzen, university researchers who were involved in the foundation, individuals from the private sector, and members of the general public. The Assembly determines general policies, selects executives, and submits annual reports. Under this Assembly, there is a Board of Directors composed of seven members. The Directors are selected every two to three years, and their responsibility is to determine policies and plans. I have been serving as a Director for 25 years. This is the last term for me, however, and I will resign next May. Professor Janzen is in charge of inventory and information science, applies for government approval for research projects, and gives lectures every month.

INBio is operated with funding for individual activities and contracts for research. In addition to the subsidies for education and inventory, for example, we receive orders from companies and research institutes for bioresource research, and for the management and redevelopment of parks and conservation areas.

Although the government of Costa Rica allocates a tremendous amount of money to its universities, it limits the budget allocated to nonprofit scientific organizations, and does not make government subsidies available to them. Therefore, we apply for grants from overseas organizations such as the National Science Foundation in the United States, the Academy of Science in China, and the Japanese Science and Technology as a project base.

We also established the INBio Park, a theme park that allows visitors to see and feel nature directly. The admission fees are low, and the income is used only for the park management. It is not a source of income for INBio.

2. Activities

INBio promotes the activities listed below to achieve its mission of "supporting all efforts made to gather knowledge on the country's biological diversity and promote its sustainable use" setting the goal of "promoting greater awareness about the value of biodiversity to achieve conservation and improve quality of life."

1) Monitoring and Inventory

INBio has a collection of about 4 million specimens of arthropods, mollusks, plants, and fungi living in Costa Rica. Through the efforts of Prof. and Dr. Janzen, the DNA of all specimens has been barcoded, which catalogues appearance, genetic characteristics and explanations. Other countries have implemented similar systems; however, it was INBio alone that digitalized all the specimen from the beginning. This effort has been recognized with a wide variety of awards.

INBio has finished detailed scientific analyses of 29,000 species, which account for one-third of the analyzed species in the entire country. Some 3,000 among these had not been analyzed before. About 26,000 out of 29,000 species had been analyzed overseas, but not in Costa Rica. They were analyzed by INBio for the first time in the country.

While storing specimens is costly, INBio is the only institute that provides information via the Internet free of charge. Although we considered charging for this, because researchers at INBio and other specialists who cooperate with INBio receive grants, we decided it wouldn't be right to charge for the results of our work. Our website has 24,000 visits daily from both in and outside of the country, which makes it the most visited site in Costa Rica.

2) Environmental Conservation based on Information Developed and Delivered by INBio

For the purpose of conservation and the sustainable use of biodiversity, INBio shares biodiversity information not only with the general public, but also with organizations in the private sector to assist them in their decision-making processes. This leads to the establishment and maintenance of a broad network with a wide range of sectors associated with environmental conservation. INBio information processing adds value to responsible decision making by various sectors.

We integrate information collected by domestic research institutes and universities and stored by different museums such as the Organization of Tropical Studies with information acquired from overseas research institutes engaged in studies on tropical forests in Costa Rica. In addition, we are planning to gather results of research carried out in the country, share them with research institutes both at home and abroad, and integrate other information acquired overseas. We are also involved in the Costa Rica Biodiversity (CR. Bio) Project, which seeks to integrate the efforts of academic and government organizations for the national Biodiversity Information Management System in the near future.

Information owned by INBio is used to manage biodiversity in conservation areas at the national level. In other words, the information can be used to collect major specimens from ecosystems to be conserved and to determine effective ways of managing the conservation areas. We think that the conservation areas are too small for the wealth of biodiversity in Cost Rica, and that the areas should be gradually expanded. Dr. Janzen is working earnestly toward this goal, insisting that conservation areas should be based on the species to be protected, not on politics or the economy.

3) Education and Communication

INBio shares information and knowledge about biodiversity with different audiences (decision makers, the general public, the tourism industry, teachers, students, etc.), aiming to create greater awareness about the value of biodiversity with the goal of promoting behavioral changes that will benefit conservation. INBio also disseminates information about biodiversity utilizing mass and social media.

INBio carries out a wide range of biodiversity conservation activities based on "bioliteracy," a concept developed by us. UNESCO also sent a mission to learn about our activities. "Bioliteracy" cultivated through the experience of direct contact with nature is precious and something for which there is no substitute. In order to provide such opportunities to everyone, INBio designed a theme park called INBio Park. It was built with significant input from Dr. Natalia Zamore, and it has become much more popular than we expected. Since it opened, one-fourth of the population of Costa Rica has visited. It is best to start education during childhood. Psychologists and educators state that nothing is superior to direct contact with nature.

Since we learned from a public opinion survey that Costa Ricans get more information about biodiversity from media than school and public education programs, we asked the Ministry of Education to include information about biodiversity in the official curriculum and promote media exposure. We work hard to increase awareness among the general public, which is the first among Aichi Biodiversity Targets agreed to at the 10th Meeting of the Conference of the Parties (COP10) to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) held in Nagoya, Aichi.

We also provide information to promote eco-tourism. Costa Rica has become one of the major destinations for ecotourism in the tropical zones in South and Central America. About 2 million tourists visit this small country of 5 million each year. Before the Costa Rica football team created a sensation at World Cup 2014, the country itself was not so well known. However, it has become known around the world as a green country and has an increasing number of tourists. Currently, tourism is the second largest source of revenue behind the technological industry, which manufactures such important items as microchips. Tours to observe nature bring direct profit to regional society; therefore, we work hard with the people in the regions to conserve nature.

4) Bioprospecting

Biodiversity includes conservation, sustainable use, and profit distribution. The term "bioprospecting" was coined by the late Thomas Eisner, an entomologist and Professor at Cornell University. It means research activities that utilize biological resources economically in collaboration with other sectors. Professor Eisner stated that INBio was the first research institute that could practice bioprospecting.

We aim to promote the use of new, highly profitable, and sustainable biodiversity resources through genetic and biochemical research carried out in cooperation with local and international private, academic and corporate partners. However, it will take 20 to 30 years to achieve commercialization.

For example, in September 1991, INBio and Merck and Co. (United States), the largest pharmaceutical company in the world, agreed to conduct joint research for two years. INBio committed to cataloging and analyzing plants, insects, and soil samples for Merck. In return, Merck agreed to provide INBio a research budget of 1 million USD, equipment used for extracting chemical substances valued at 135,000 USD, and royalties on any commercial products resulting from the collaboration. This Agreement was renewed, however, Merck, Bristol-Meyers and other European companies that also entered into contracts with INBio later withdrew from the use of biodiversity resources and shifted to the commercialization of products through artificial molecule synthesis.

INBio was a pioneer in the accessing and effective utilization of living creatures. The CBD Chief Secretariat regarded INBio agreements with companies such as Merck as the best model for the effective utilization of living creatures. After consultation with the Ministry of Environment, INBio agreed to divide profits, using half for conservation and half for research and education. INBio enters into five or six agreements each year, including scientific survey projects, which allowed INBio formed partnership with 47 companies.

With the sponsorship of the United States National Institutes of Health (NIH), INBio recently entered into a research partnership agreement with Harvard University and the University of Michigan. This is an outstanding agreement because its six-year period gives us sufficient time to conduct research with them, and we can learn much from such excellent partners. I truly hope that joint research such as this will be carried out between INBio and Japanese companies in the future.

We have already obtained patents for isolated strains of microorganisms with extraordinary potential, and we are currently conducting research with Canada and Korea. With support from the Korean Government, INBio collaborates with the Korean Bioscience and Biotechnology Research Institute (KRIBB) in research on pharmaceutical products that are beneficial for both countries. Some INBio buildings were built with funding from Canada and Korea. If it's possible, we would like to collaborate with Japanese institutes and receive their support too.

5) Technical Assistance and Capacity Building

The institutional experience is a service provided to public and private entities within and outside the country. INBio has collaborated with more than 45 countries around the world on issues related to biodiversity conservation and management, and sustainable and institutional development, aiming to strengthen national ability to contribute to compliance with the Aichi Targets of the Nagoya Protocol of the Convention of Biological Diversity.

We have also received support from the Global Biodiversity Information Facility (GBIF), and entered into an agreement with many countries for instruction on biodiversity informatics. We've already taught in the Republic of Benin in Africa, Butan, Chili and other countries. We also entered into an agreement with the government of Colombia on the development of a biodiversity information system, and we are now discussing an agreement with the government of Ecuador.

6) Policy and Legislation

INBio works in close collaboration with Costa Rica's Government, through agreements and specific projects with the Ministries of Environment and Energy, Foreign Affairs, Education, Science and Technology, and Agriculture, as well as other public and private institutions such as universities and enterprises in and outside the country. In addition, INBio provides information and standards to be used for both national and local governments and assemblies in decision making regarding biodiversity.

IV. Conclusion - Future Goals

INBio believes it is necessary to pay attention to agriculture in the countryside. Looking down at cities from above, nature, farmland, cities, and social infrastructures are independently structured like a patchwork. Cities have been developed without consideration for agriculture, and conservation areas are not related to farmland. We have a dream to redesign and unify the overall scenery of the country. We are seeking ways to redesign our land by taking into account various issues including conservation of nature, organizing life in harmony with nature, securing water and food, and the response to climate change.

Most of the pollution in rivers that run through farmland and cities was caused by the erosion of farmland, which worsens conditions for fishermen. The important thing is to establish a sustainable agricultural system. Of course, politicians need to be more responsible about solving such problems. However, INBio will be able to use its 25-year history of learning from nature help solve these problems as a scientific advisor for the government. We understand approaches to problem solving based on a science. After I retire from INBio next year, I believe INBio will enter a new stage under new leadership.

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