US Should Take a Stand on Biodiversity

WE should thank President Bush. Strange as it may seem, the United States did biodiversity conservation a great service at the Rio summit.

It's true that Mr. Bush missed an opportunity for global leadership and failed to show solidarity with other nations in the new world order on an issue that affects us all - the future of life on Earth. But by rejecting the Biodiversity Convention, by pitting the US against the rest of the world, the president turned almost everyone else into biodiversity advocates and made "biodiversity" a household word overnight. It would have taken us another 20 years to do that.

But where do we go from here? Speaking as Americans rather than as international conservationists, we think it's time to drop the antediluvian "spotted owl vs. the loggers" vision of jobs and the environment. Endangered species are the ambassadors of biodiversity, which is the raw material for the new growth industry of the 1990s - biotechnology. We need to recognize that this biodiversity-base industry will be a major source of jobs and economic growth.

At the very least, biotechnology is going to be a new Silicon Valley. More than likely, it's going to be a new Space Race. And if we don't move quickly to take the lead, to invest in it with the same levels of intensity, dedication, and resources that we used to beat the Soviets to the moon, you can bet that we're going to lose out to the Japanese and the Europeans.

We aren't going to succeed just by protecting our patents either. It's going to take new and innovative approaches like the Merck-INBIO arrangements in Costa Rica, which is a model for how pharmaceutical companies and tropical countries can work together to develop rain-forest resources for everyone's benefit. It means forging real partnerships - not just the same old North-South resource rip-off of times gone by. We're not dealing with 19th-century colonies or even the newly independent, naive, young na tions of 20 to 30 years ago. The developing countries of the tropics are becoming increasingly sophisticated and aware. They will be seeking real partnerships in the utilization of their wealth, and they have some 80 percent of the world's supply.

Taking a stand on biodiversity isn't a matter of principle, even though, in the long-term, human survival depends on the maintenance of other life on Earth. The Japanese aren't increasing their environmental assistance by 50 percent (to an unprecedented $7 billion over the next five years) out of altruism. They're doing it out of enlightened self-interest and a strong desire to stay ahead of the pack in the global economy. Same for the Europeans.

Let's also not forget the once subtle but increasingly obvious relationship between global geopolitics and the environment, sometimes referred to as "ecosecurity." Very soon the tropical countries will be home to 4 out of every 5 human beings on Earth. These nations depend on their natural resources even more than we do and the increasing degradation of their resource base is a recipe for disaster, both for them and our country as well. We need to help the tropical countries maintain healthy environments

and future options, or very soon their lack of economic opportunities will come back to haunt us all.

HERE'S also a need to fill the leadership vacuum that exists in the global environment. As Bush correctly pointed out in his speech in Rio, the US has always been the environmental leader. We created the first national park in 1972, the first national-park system at the turn of the century, and our Endangered Species Act remains a model of environmental legislation. But this is no time to sit on the laurels of decades past. As we enter a new era, we need to recognize the complexity of the issues and chal lenges that face us.

For a start, Bush might consider creating a presidential commission on biodiversity along the lines of the one established by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari of Mexico. The Mexican commission reports directly to Mr. Salinas and has some $10 million to support its initiatives. He could take his cue from Gov. Luiz Fleury Filho of Sao Paulo, Brazil's most powerful state, who spent days in Rio talking with international conservation leaders about ways to collaborate in conserving the rich biological reso urces of his state. He could add a few environmentalists to the Council on Competitiveness and shift the "jobs at any cost" mentality that prevails among the Vice President Dan Quayle's men. At the very least, the president might listen more closely to the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, William Reilly.

Above all, since the president has stated his support for biodiversity - but just didn't like the convention - he could express his commitment by making some significant increases in funds made available for conservation in tropical countries. Not token amounts, but a genuine investment that will surely pay off for the US in the years to come.

The Rio summit marked the start of a new era, a new way of measuring superpowers status, a positive step toward a new world order based on true international cooperation and a healthy global environment. But the international-leadership role remains vacant. We in the US can take our place at the helm of this new order, or we can be content with our early achievements and watch the rest of the world pass us by. This choice is ours.

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