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Costa Rica Anti-Biopiracy Program: INBios

Vanessa Danley

Brazilian attorney, J.D., LL.M. candidate in Environmental Law and Natural Resources at University of Oregon School of Law.

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Costa Rica is a small Central American country, with a land area of only 51,100 square kilometers (0.03% of the planet’s surface) and 589,000 square kilometers of territorial waters.1 Despite its small size, Costa Rica is one of the twenty countries with the greatest biodiversity in the world.2 There are more than 500,000 species found in the country, which represent nearly 4% of the total species estimated worldwide.3

To protect such rich biodiversity, Costa Rica created a comprehensive legal framework for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity.4 Costa Rica is also a party to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) and had implemented its provisions into domestic law with special attention to the benefit-sharing provision.5

In 1989, The National Biodiversity Institute (“INBio”) of Costa Rica was created to support the country’s conservation efforts and to promote sustainable development.6 INBio is a private, non-governmental, non-profit, public interest organization that works with different governmental institutions, universities, the private sector, and other domestic and international public and private organizations.7 Its philosophy is to conserve biodiversity through study, research and improvement of the people’s quality of life.8

INBio is considered to have broken new ground for bioprospecting contracts.9 It established research agreements for the study of chemical substances and genes present in plants, insects, and marine organisms and microorganisms, which may be utilized by the pharmaceutical, medical, biotechnology, cosmetics, food and agricultural industries.10

Image Copyright DoctorWho (Flickr), 2012

The most recognized and publicized bioprospecting agreement is the Merck-INBio agreement.11 Merck is a U.S.-based pharmaceutical company.12 The parties entered into a contract in 1991 and subsequently renewed the contract many times.13 The agreement provides that INBio would allow Merck’s access to “chemical extracts from wild plants, insects, and micro-organisms” in exchange for an up-front fee of $1 million.14 The agreement also provides that Merck is required to build a facility and fund the education and training of local scientists.15 Merck spent $135,000 on equipment, the setting up of the facilities, and the training of INBio scientists in the extraction process.16 Another advantage of the agreement is that INBio would receive 3% of worldwide sales from royalties on products developed in accordance with the agreement.17

The INBio-Merck contract requires that no biological samples are removed from Costa Rica. INBio provides for chemical extracts and not actual specimens to Merck.18 Second, Costa Rica invests in hiring locals trained by Merck scientists to collect the specimens and perform all extractions in Costa Rican laboratories, which in turn creates new jobs for the Costa Rican economy.19 The Merck-INBio agreement is a good example of a bioprospect contract, in which the funds are used towards biodiversity conservation.20 The agreement stipulates that INBio contribute 10% of the up-front fee and 50% of any future royalties to the National Parks Fund to be invested in conservation.21

Although the Merck-INBio agreement is a good example of how bioprospecting contracts can help preserve biodiversity and promote sustainable development by empowering the local workforce and by creating well-established mechanisms for better distribution of funds, the Merck-INBio enterprise failed to take into consideration the role of traditional knowledge in obtaining the genetic material.22 Bioprospecting contracts should have clauses to recognize the traditional communities’ rights to biodiversity and their knowledge by providing a reasonable amount of compensation directly proportional to the millions of dollars made in profit for the use of genetic resources.23

Despite the shortcomings regarding compensation for traditional knowledge, the Merck-INBios agreement is a success because it generated incentives to benefit Costa Rica’s environment, such as the creation of the Wildlife Conservation Law.24 INBio also entered into agreements with the U.S. biotechnology company Recombinant BioCatalysis, Inc., and also the U.S. computer company Intergraph Corporation. Both agreements led to improvement for the sustainable development of Costa Rica.25


This is a segment from the articleBiopiracy in the Brazilian Amazon: Learning from International and Comparative Law Successes and Shortcomings to Help Promote Biodiversity Conservation in Brazil, published by  Florida A&M University Law Review in Spring 2012, Vol. 7 No. 2. Contact for information about obtaining the full article.


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