15 April 2014

To fortify Ecuador’s bioeconomy, Rafael Correa takes a scientific tour of the United States

by Juan Fernando Villa Romero

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Ecuador’s President Rafael Correa (Ph.D. in Economics, University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign) ends the first week of his tour in the United States, accompanied by Ecuador’s Secretary of Higher Education, Science and Technology, René Ramírez, and the Manager of the Public Company Yachay, Héctor Rodríguez. On April 9, the president visited the Wyss Institute at Harvard University, and sent his companions to the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both recognized worldwide in the field of applied scientific research.

Perhaps most interesting was the visit of President Correa to the laboratories of Scott Strobel at Yale University. Since 2008, Strobel has been exploring the diversity and potential applications of endophytic organisms isolated from the Ecuadorian Amazon. At Yale, Strobel introduced President Correa’s speech entitle “Scientific and Technological Transformation of Ecuador” with the following words: “Students of the Catholic University of Ecuador and Yale fell in love with field research in biological sciences in Ecuador…”

The president stressed the value of the Yasuní National Park as a biodiversity hotspot for the world. He also highlighted the commitment of the Ecuadorian government with the implementation of a “knowledge economy,” primarily through an unprecedented investment in education, scientific research and technology. For example, Rafael Correa emphasized the government’s investment in public infrastructure (15% of GDP) and in higher education (2% of GDP) which today enables around 8,000 Ecuadorians to study at international universities to then return and strengthen the country’s education system.

Rafael Correa also emphasized asymmetries in cost-benefit distribution for regional development, specifically the cost of environmental pollution, climate change and the traditional patent system for Ecuador, as compared to the benefits related to the provision of ecosystem services from countries of the Amazon Basin, a region that regulates global water cycles and climate and is home to the highest concentration of biodiversity on the planet.

The only question asked of the President by Strobel referred to the end of the Yasuní-ITT initiative in 2013, which proposed to leave underground 20% of Ecuador’s oil reserves thereby preventing the transfer of 407 million tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, in exchange for international financial commitments in the range of US$4 billion.

There was not, however, a detailed explanation of how Ecuador’s public investments would result in a significant source of revenue for the economy, a crucial question considering that oil resources will not guarantee that revenue in the long term. In this regard, Ecuador should consider the dissimilar experiences of Colombia and Brazil in the area of discovery and use of biological resources. Based on this reflection Ecuador must effectively coordinate public investment in scientific research to generate products and services for the global market. Colombia and Brazil have differed in their strategies to explore the potential of their biological and genetic resources.

Colombia is betting on economic liberalization to commercialize its biodiversity and resources with an emphasis on the protection of intellectual property through patents. One example: the collaboration of IPOC with the SynBERC group in the United States. Brazil, on the other hand, currently reviews its hyperprotectionist approach that prioritizes access and research by Brazilian professionals, hindering international collaboration and the marketing of any technology developed. In this sense, Ecuador should seek its own mechanisms to encourage the active exchange of information, materials, techniques and technology while strengthening its educational and technological apparatus domestically.

In this context, given its small but extremely rich geography, Ecuador should explore the potential of open exchange mechanisms to avoid the tragedy of the commons –by predation and ignorance, and the tragedy of the anticommons –from alienation through patents.

For example, the traditional academic training at Ecuador’s Millennium Schools could be framed in a directed exploration of the biodiversity of Ecuador; the result of this work may be published in scientific journals. It would not be the first time that primary school children publish, and there is much to discover! Simultaneously, the open and active exchange of information, materials, techniques and technology with the world would enable DIYbio groups to explore those resources thus embodying the promise of cognitive democratization, as the computer revolution did in the decade of 1970s. The same means of exchange would facilitate the collaboration of Ecuadorians and foreigners interested in exploring the biodiversity of Ecuador as a source of solutions that range from pharmaceutical research to biofuels. The result would be a system of generating knowledge that enriches itself and the country in the long term, and that intelligently leverages the unique diversity of Ecuador.

This could not be more timely. South America is emerging as a world power in the field of research and development in biotechnology. Brazil uses biological production platforms for the large-scale synthesis of renewable diesel, and recently announced a collaboration with BASF focused on the development and optimization of industrial strains. With the purchase of Agradia, Monsanto announced its entry into the market of microbes for crop production, and recently with Novozymes formed the BioAg Alliance for the discovery, development and commercialization of the first commercial strains. These biotechnological initiatives are covered in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s report, 2014: “Access to Genetic Resources in Latin America and the Caribbean: Research, Commercialization and Indigenous Worldview.”

What remains to be resolved are the precise mechanisms through which the countries of the Amazon Basin, the most biologically diverse region on the planet, take advantage of these developments to build an economy for the 21st century which, beyond being purely extractive and devastating in the long run, rationally take advantage of the unique resources of the region to ensure an authentic and sustainable development for future generations.

Follow Juan Fernando Villa-Romero on his blog Librería Metagenómica.