Ignacio H. CHAPELA is Assistant Professor (Microbial Ecology), Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, University of California, Berkeley, and Scientific Director, The Mycological Facility: Oaxaca, Capulalpam, Oaxaca, Mexico. A Mexican biologist dedicated to ecological research on fungi, his career has spanned from a purely biochemical/ecological base in Mexico through research stages in academia (Univ. of Wales, Cornell University) and three years of scientific research in the discovery of new pharmaceuticals with Sandoz, Ltd (Basel), to an involvement in the debate on biodiversity loss, its economic and social consequences, and the perspectives for future action. Returning to Mexico, he helped found the Mycological Facility: Oaxaca, where he now serves as Scientific Director. The Dept. of Environmental Science, Policy and Management, UC Berkeley, has recently provided a home to build upon his dual interests as a natural scientist and an environmental practitioner.
As the loss of biological diversity continues unabated, conservation is rapidly changing from a question of scientific or touristic interest to one of central political and economic relevance. It is not sufficient to declare the moral or ethical value of genetic resources: an urgent re-valuation in economic terms is increasingly needed to provide at once the tools and the reasons to preserve biological diversity. To be of any relevance to conservation, this re-valuation must take place (a) for marginal biological species forming the bulk of genetic assets, (b) for marginal environments representing most of the biodiversity-rich landscapes, and (c) for marginalized communities, for whom the immediate biological environment must fulfill basic economic needs. Microbes are paradigmatic in that they have remained outside of human consciousness until very recently.
A case study will be presented in Oaxaca, Mexico, where the tools (infrastructure, know-how, negotiation capacity) have been deployed to enable a coalition of local indigenous communities to discover, and hence use, microbial resources in their forests. Embedded within a larger management plan for the area and a resilient communal institutional framework, this project has so far promoted the Right of Appropriation of these communities vis-a-vis their genetic resources (microbial and other), over and above the general discussion over Property Rights emanating, top-down, from the Biodiversity Convention. Asserting their Rights of Appropriation, these communities are effectively stopping -even in cases reversing- the loss of biological diversity from their lands.
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