Bioprospecting: from theory to practice (and back again)

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This paper critically assesses the theory and practice of biodiversity prospecting in the developing world. Taking the case of perhaps the most famous bioprospecting broker – Costa Rica's National Institute of Biodiversity – rival theoretical discourses on the ‘selling nature to save it’ approach to environmental conservation are unpacked. This approach, currently de rigueur in mainstream global environmental organizations, is touted by its advocates in the academic and policy world as an effective tool for ‘green developmentalism’. For a cohort of university-based left critics, however, bioprospecting is one more troubling example of ‘post-modern ecological capital’ in action, representing the further commodification of nature for profit purposes. By treating the rival theoretical discourses on bioprospecting produced by differently situated knowledge communities as objects of analysis, the paper asks fundamental questions about the grounds on which evaluations of bioprospecting might be made. It is argued that the radical critique buys its logical and moral power at the expense of its practical relevance, while advocates of selling biodiversity have made their case with only limited empirical persuasiveness. On the basis of a heuristic distinction between immanent and external critique, the paper seeks to put the evaluation of bioprospecting in particular, and green developmentalism more generally, on a new cognitive and normative footing. In so doing it impinges on recent debates over the wider relevance of ‘critical’ thinking in human geography and cognate fields in the current conjuncture.

Keywords: Costa Rica; INBio; biodiversity; bioprospecting; evaluative standpoints; internal and external critique; policy relevance; situated knowledge communities; theoretical discourses

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: School of Geography, University of Manchester, Manchester M13 9PL, Email:

Publication date: March 1, 2003

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