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Biodiversity: Costa Rica v. Merck & Company

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Declining biodiversity across the world has compelled many countries to come up with effective conservation measures that enhance sustainable use of natural resources. The Costa Rica National Institute of Biodiversity entered into unique agreement in 1991 with a pharmaceutical company, Merck & Company, which allowed joint exploration and exploitation of biodiversity for the benefit of the pharmaceutical company and conservation of the environment to save the declining biodiversity. The prime objective of the agreement was to enhance sustainable use of untapped resources in Costa Rica forests in production of medicine by Merck & Company, while Costa Ricans would benefit from conservation of natural resources using profits accrued from production of medicine. According to Blum (2003), the agreement stipulated that the Merck & Company should pay the Costa Rica National Institute of Biodiversity a million dollars and some royalties from the developed drugs in exchange of insect, plant, soil, and microorganism samples obtained from Costa Rica forests (p.4). The agreement between Costa Rica National Institute of Biodiversity and Merck & Company, set precedence in conservation of natural resources because it depicted how pharmaceutical companies can sustainably explore and exploit natural resources. Despite the benefits of conservation, there are still ethical reservations regarding the use of natural resources to benefit Costa Ricans.

Ethical Perspective

From an ethical perspective, biodiversity that exist in the Costa Rican forests is a natural property of Costa Ricans who live around the forests. An environment consists of ecosystems that continually sustain themselves for centuries with the maximum number of biodiversity at all instances; unfortunately, human activities that involve exploitation of natural resources have been destructive and unsustainable, thus creating an ecosystem imbalance, which threatens decimation of biodiversity. Since human beings are part of ecosystem and are highly dependent on it, activities that tend to eradicate biodiversity in the forests have equal effects on humanity. According to Axt and Corn (1993), destruction of ecosystems does not only lead to loss of plant and animal diversity in the forests, but also threatens the existence of humanity for they all coexist in the same ecosystem (p.4). Thus, people who live in the same ecosystem as diverse species in the forests are the ones who should own all species that live in forests. Therefore, it is unethical for any organization to claim to have any exclusive right to explore and exploit natural resources in a given ecosystem without considering the welfare of those living within the ecosystem.

Although the government has noble responsibility of ensuring that people conserve their natural resources, it does not mean that natural resources should belong to a given ministry and thus bar locals living around forests from exploiting the natural resources sustainably. The Costa Rico v. Merck & Company agreement unethically allowed National Institute of Biodiversity, which is a private organization, and Merck pharmaceutical company to exploit natural resources from the forest while terming it as an effective collaboration of conserving natural resources. Axt and Corn (1993) argue that, biodiversity plays a significant role in maintaining and sustaining varied ecosystems across the world and cumulatively help in balancing earth’s ecosystem (p.7). Thus, if biodiversity is crucial to pharmaceutical companies when exploited, what explains the fact that the local people who benefit from biodiversity in their natural settings do not benefit from exploited resources except in conservation measures? Therefore, ethics demand that local people should not only benefit from natural resources of biodiversity in their natural settings, but also when exploited by pharmaceutical companies or any other body for that matter.

Commercialization Benefits

The local people should be the first to benefit from commercialization of natural resources since the resources are part of their ecosystem. Moreover, since human beings form an integral part of an ecosystem and are substantially dependent on natural resources, exploitation of natural resources without considering to reward them amounts to human abuse. It is abusive and discriminative to restrict human beings from exploring and exploiting natural resources in their own environment while allowing foreigners to benefit from the same resources. Natural environment with all its biodiversities has been a home for human beings since the beginning of life and thus segregation of natural resources from human beings is inhuman. Chichilnisky (1993) argues that, industrialized countries have depleted their natural resources and are currently scrambling for meager natural resources in developing countries without giving due benefits to the communities conserving them (p.3). The communities surrounding Costa Rican forests should be beneficiaries of commercialized natural resources because they belong to their ecosystems, which have an impact on them if poorly exploited without considering sustainability.

Given that government of Costa Rica plays a central role in conservation of environment, it should be also a beneficiary of commercialized natural resources. Conservation measures require a substantial deal of resources necessary in ensuring that there is sustainable exploitation and management of natural resources for the benefit of society and posterity. In addition, government formulates appropriate laws and policies that aim at protecting natural resources. Effective implementation of policies and laws depend on cooperative relationship between communities that utilize natural resources, and government ministry that deals with matters of conservation. Dedeurwaerdere (2003) asserts that, sustainable use of natural resources and conservation of the environment is a noble responsibility of a government in ensuring that future generation receives maximum benefits from the current environment (p.6). Hence, to enable the government to continue with conservation of environment, benefits obtained from commercialization of natural resources should aid in conservation of the environment. Thus, government should be another beneficiary of commercialized natural resources.

Worth of Costa Rica Biodiversity

Costa Rican biodiversity is more worth than just a million dollars and royalties from manufactured drugs; it has cost historical efforts of many generations to maintain biodiversity. Merck pharmaceutical company had an advantage because many generations have been conserving biodiversity until this generation for the company to value it at a million dollar. The value of Costa Rican biodiversity is worth many generations because once destroyed, no value of money can restore extinct species of plants and animals. The commercial value of natural resources cannot have comparative value with natural ecosystems that cumulatively form part of the earth’s ecosystem, which is critical in sustaining lives on the universe. According to Blum (2003), the value of biodiversity lies in ecosystem diversity, species diversity, and genetic diversity in which all are interrelated in that, loss of one results into loss of others (p.2). Real value of Costa Rican natural resources is concomitant to historical efforts that have maintained biodiversity through all centuries since the beginning of life and thus invaluable.

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The valuation of Costa Rican natural resources at one million dollars by Merck pharmaceutical company is extremely negligible. Compared to knowledge and profits obtained from manufactured drugs, the valuation ought to be higher. A pharmaceutical company can obtain a single sample of plant, insect, or microorganism and carry out medicinal analysis to obtain a compound of choice. The obtained compound has more value than the samples of organisms collected because, through synthetic chemistry, scientists are able to manufacture the same compound. Chichilnisky (1993) argues that, economic value of biodiversity encompasses value of extracted medicinal compound and perpetual knowledge employed in synthetic production of medicinal compounds (p.4). This means that scientists do not only extract medicinal compounds from organisms that are essential in the manufacture of drugs, but also derive structural formulas of compounds so that they can manufacture them synthetically. Therefore, perpetual knowledge derived from organisms has immense value, worth future generations, because it contributes significantly in the manufacture of drugs in the future.

Ethical Obligation of pharmaceutical Companies

Pharmaceutical companies have an ethical obligation to share profits with countries that they obtain natural resources from, since they should compensate for the loss of biodiversity and conservation measures to ensure sustainable use of natural resources. Samples of the organisms that pharmaceutical companies obtain from various countries are part of natural resources of the respective countries. Such natural resources have great value in that they do not only benefit current generations, but also future generations. Axt and Corn (1993) explain that, biodiversity is beneficial because it maintains favorable interaction within ecosystems, which have played a critical role in agriculture as a wide range of gene pools have enabled the creation of pest, disease, and drought resistant crops that guarantee food production and security (p.7). Natural resources provide a wide range of gene pools in the past. These gene pools have saved agricultural production of food due to climate change and increased incidences of pests and diseases that develop resistance with current pesticides and herbicides. Thus, natural resources are of great value to the country endowed with them, and pharmaceutical companies have an ethical responsibility to compensate for the samples that they extract from various ecosystems.

Moreover, since pharmaceutical companies explore and exploit natural resources for profit gain, it is unethical for them to generate millions of dollars from samples of organisms they use in the manufacture of drugs without compensating countries that own the exploited resources. Natural resources, in terms of biodiversity, have significant value to pharmaceutical companies because a single species of organisms among millions of species can generate a significant deal of money that is worth millions of dollars. For example, according to Chichilnisky (1993), pharmaceutical companies use ginko tree in production of drugs that promote blood circulation, which generate approximately $300 million per year in Europe alone (p.5). Moreover, statistics show that in the United States, about a third of medical prescriptions offered annually emanate from compounds derived from organisms or synthetically produced to imitate natural compounds. Therefore, given the amount of money that pharmaceutical companies generate from elementary organisms, it is ethical and justifiable for them to give due compensation to various countries that own the natural resources.

Justification of Agreement

The agreement between Merck pharmaceutical company and the National Institute of Biodiversity of Costa Rica was ethically justifiable in part; its main objective was to enhance conservation of natural resources and biodiversity. The agreement provided a model of how pharmaceutical companies can collaborate with various organizations in ensuring that there is sustainable utilization of natural resources in developing countries. When viewed from the perspective that developing countries do not have enough technology and inputs to exploit untapped natural resources or do not have sufficient funds to conserve their environment, then it becomes ethically justifiable for them to enter in contractual agreements that lead to sustainable exploitation of natural resources and conservation of the environment. According to Zebich-Knos (1997), since pharmaceutical companies have many resources and are willing to conserve environment, contractual agreement like the one of Merck pharmaceutical company and Costa Rica National Institute of Biodiversity, provides an effective collaboration platform that promotes sustainable development of natural resources and preservation of environment (p.184). Hence, the agreement was ethically justifiable since conservation of natural resources was the objective.

However, the agreement was also not ethically justifiable in part because the Merck pharmaceutical company had an objective of unduly exploiting natural resources in Costa Rica forests. The Merck pharmaceutical company wanted to exploit natural resources excessively; they undervalued compensation and demanded exclusive rights and freedom to evaluate and analyze about 10,000 samples of organisms without any interference from the authorities. If statistics have shown that a sample of organisms can generate millions of dollars per year, what would 10,000 samples of organisms generate? From that perspective, the agreement favored Merck pharmaceutical company while Costa Ricans only benefited from conservation measures, which are incomparable. Moreover, according to Blum (2003), the agreement gave exclusive rights to the National Institute of Biodiversity, which is a nongovernmental organization, to commercialize natural resources and use proceeds at their own discretion yet natural resources are the property of Costa Ricans (p.4). In the agreement, Merck pharmaceutical company was to pay one million dollars to the National Institute of Biodiversity, which consequently received additional royalties from the drugs discovered. Hence, the agreement was ethically unjustifiable because it led to excessive exploitation of natural resources without due compensation of Costa Ricans.


Biodiversities are valuable natural resources given the integral role they play in regulating various processes in an ecosystem. For an ecosystem to function optimally, it must have diverse species of organisms that cooperatively work together in sustaining biological and physical processes of an environment. However, increasing human population has led to over-exploitation of natural resources, which subsequently lead to decline in biodiversity. Declining biodiversity does not only threaten the existence of plants and animals in a certain environment, but also existence of humanity because there is an interdependent relationship in an ecosystem. Therefore, since developing countries lack the technology to exploit natural resources and have insufficient funds to conserve their environment, contractual agreement like the one of Merck pharmaceutical company and National Institute of Biodiversity provides an example of how pharmaceutical companies can contribute towards sustainable exploitation and conservation of natural resources. However, future agreements should not offer an opportunity for pharmaceutical companies and nongovernmental organizations to exploit natural resources excessively without giving due compensation to native communities.

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Biodiversity: Costa Rica v. Merck & Company. (2022, September 15). Edubirdie. Retrieved January 29, 2023, from
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