Conclusion an introduction to this volume

The remainder of this volume provides the details of the argument presented here. In short, the volume was constructed by requesting a series of eminent scholars to address the salient points concerning plant communities, pharmaceutical production, intellectual property rights and biodiversity conservation, each from the perspective of his or her own field of specialisation (botany, ethnobotany, chemistry, economics, law and policy).

Part A presents the botanical and ethnobotanical basis for the informational value within plant communities. The chapter by Fellows and Scofield starts by elaborating on the evolutionary basis for the generation of secondary metabolites, and their anticipated usefulness. The chapter by Wood Sheldon and Balick extends this analysis to the interaction between plant and human communities, arguing that the experience of human societies with plant communities is one part of the important values generated by plants.

Part B of the volume contains a discussion of the manner in which this information is input into the pharmaceutical industry, and the particular value of plant-based diversity in fulfilling this role. The chapter by Albers-Schonberg discusses the evolution of the pharmaceutical industry as it is currently recognised from its origins in the widespread use of natural compounds. He notes the development of two intertwined strategies in the discovery of new useful compounds: medicinal chemistry and natural screening. The first concerns the better understanding of the nature of human disease processes and interventionist measures; the second concerns the search for initial templates for use in building up compounds with the desired activity. He argues that both have been and will remain inseparably important contributors to the pharmaceutical discovery process.

The chapter by Aylward analyses the capacity for biological diversity to contribute within the pharmaceutical discovery process. He reviews several natural screening programmes and finds that they are largely concerned with microbial organisms, rather than plants. He also finds that there exists little cultural diversity remaining for ethnobotanists to exploit. This analysis places a ceiling on the value of plant-based biological diversity, as the nature of the substitutes for plant diversity are identified and discussed. The value of plant diversity for pharmaceutical purposes is given in concrete terms in a survey provided in the chapter by Pearce and Puroshothaman. Given the history of plant use in the pharmaceutical industry, they find an annual value of about $25 billion within Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to be within the realm of this experience. This is an estimate of only the use-value of plants, and leaves many of their most important values (in providing basic information important to the creation of other chemical compounds) outside of the calculation, so this valuation gives a concrete floor to the attempt to place a value on plant community diversity in the pharmaceutical industry.

Part C of the volume concerns the institutional context within which these values of plant diversity are regulated. Swanson summarises the problem of diversity regulation, both the forces that drive diversity into decline and the general values that require protection. He then further analyses the nature of the institution required to channel these values into diversity conservation. The institution known as intellectual property rights is generalised to fit the range of assets capable of generating information (in addition to human intellect), and it is re-termed a system of informational property rights. The chapter by Walden analyses the existing state-of-play in the application of legal institutions to the conservation of biological diversity. Although he finds numerous institutions that have been extended into the realm of living organisms, he finds that there is little prospect within existing institutions for the creation of express incentives to conserve diversity. This implies the need to adopt a sui generis informational rights regime.

Part D of the volume analyses the conflicts within culture between homogeneity and diversity. Brown finds that medicinal plants are most relevant because of the important role that traditional medicine plays in most peoples lives; it is still only a small minority of the earth's peoples who utilise Western medicine, although the rate of adoption is high and always increasing. Hence, the commercial exploitation of medicinal plants is increasingly a matter of concern. The issue here is whether the concrete values of biological diversity in the pharmaceutical industry can be brought back 'down to earth' to provide constructive incentives for the conservation of the basic resource. Brown earmarks a relation here between cultural diversity and biological diversity. As traditional medicines are supplanted by modern pharmaceuticals, it is possible that the real values of plant diversity may be returned to communities via pharmaceutical royalties and this might in turn be translated into conservation effectiveness. It is more likely, however, that the supplanting of locally-evolved medicines will lead to a reduced valuation for many of the substances currently being used, and possibly a reduced respect for diverse resources generally.

Khalil's contribution to the volume eloquently argues that the uniformity in global systems of knowledge and institutions of property rights already conveys this sense of disrespect for locally-evolved systems. He cites the case of Dr Akilu Lemma, the Ethiopian discoverer of the natural fungicide endod (a berry-producing plant found in that country), whose reported discovery was treated with scepticism until it was transported and replicated within a western laboratory. The patent to the usefulness of the compound was then awarded to the western institution that demonstrated its usefulness under those conditions. It is this manner of discrimination, Khalil argues, that causes the useful features of local cultures and systems to be supplanted by globally homogenous ones.

Most importantly, Khalil concludes the volume with the plea for increased diversity within global institutions, in order to recognise the important contributions of diverse cultures and diverse resources. This is the conclusion to this work : diversity conservation at the biological level requires increased respect for the values of diversity at the scientific and institutional levels as well. It is only when human society comes to recognise the importance of a balance of both the local and the global that diversity conservation can occur.

Part A

Plant communities and the generation of information

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