Equity over exploitation:
global guidelines for corporate giants

"There's something very restful about Costa Rica's rainforest. The air is warm, humid and clean. It's a very beautiful place, like a cathedral: dark, very still and peaceful... There are all kinds of sounds: monkeys calling in the distance and swinging in the trees, birds everywhere."

- Lynn Helena Corporale, senior director and scientific liaison for Merck Research Laboratories, who negotiated the Merck-INBio agreement

by Rosemary Brown, reprinted from Co-op America Quarterly
eeting amid insects, rain and heat in Costa Rica's Guanacaste National Park, negotiators from the National Institute of Biodiversity (INBio) and US-based Merck & Company developed a revolutionary agreement to research local rainforests.
In 1992 Merck, the world's largest pharmaceutical company, and InBio, a Costa Rican nonprofit research center committed to cataloging the country's half-million insects and plants, arranged a mutually beneficial joint venture. INBio would provide Merck with plant and insect samples in return for $1 million in funding and a $140,000 donation of equipment. Part of the money would be used to fund rainforest preservation.
The controversial Merck-lNBio venture is among the case studies in an international research project exploring the impact of transnational corporations on the developing world. Recognizing transnational corporations as the powerhouses of the global economic system, the Council on Economic Priorities (CEP) and its British partner New Consumer launched the project to promote responsible corporate behavior.
Transnational corporations have the power to do good and bad, at home and abroad. Harnessing socially and environmentally responsible behavior, and putting a stop to harmful corporate deeds, are important steps in countering the damaging effects of globalization. CEP and New Consumer are researching model initiatives.
"With global influence comes global responsibility," says Deborah Leipziger, CEP project director for the Transnational Corporations Project in the U.S. "Because of their extensive resources, corporations are in a position to address social and environmental problems by developing better practices.
Negative examples of transnational corporations' involvement in developing countries are well known, says Leipziger. "The success stories are not, despite their relevance to other companies and to the development process in Latin America, Africa and Asia."
The Merck-lNBio venture is heralded by some as a benchmark initiative to curb exploitation and cultivate corporate responsibility in developing countries.
The agreement stipulates that Merck receives the exclusive rights to screen INBio's samples for medicinal properties. If a drug is developed from one of the samples, INBio will receive royalties from drug sales.
"Historically, companies looking for plant and animal species simply went to developing countries and took them," says Leipziger. "Not only does the Merck-lNBio agreement compensate Costa Rica by funding conservation efforts, it also fosters the local scientific community. For the first time, a developing country will receive royalties if a drug is developed from INBio's samples."
In the agreement, much of which remains confidential, INBio contributes 10 percent of its budget and 50 percent of its royalties to conserving national parks in Costa Rica. Merck will also provide technical assistance to Costa Rica to develop indigenous drug research capabilities.
To many, the agreement is just another example of corporate exploitation of resources in developing countries. INBio director Dr. Rodrigo Gamez disagrees. He believes the biodiversity within the forests of Costa Rica belongs to everyone, not just Costa Ricans.
Another model emerging from the research is the work that Levi Strauss & Company has done with its contractors in developing countries. "While many transnational companies seek low-wage havens where occupational safety and environmental standards are not enforced, Levi Strauss produces clothing only where strict safety and environmental standards are upheld and where employees are treated ethically," says Leipziger.
While being applauded for its overseas initiatives, Levi Strauss is being assailed closer to home. Criticized and boycotted for relocating factory operations - and therefore jobs - away from communities in the United States, the actions of Levi Strauss help to illustrate the global vs. local dilemma.
One step towards solving that dilemma is ensuring that corporations are accountable and understand their global and local responsibility to people and the planet. By promoting corporate guidelines and models, the CEP/New Consumer project aims to help corporations meet their responsibilities.
There are lessons in the research for everyone - corporations, developing countries, national governments, trade unions, consumer groups and non-governmental organizations, as well as individuals who want to use their purchasing power to support "better practice."

Case Studies

3M: Global environmental impact reduction program. Hitachi: Training and technology transfer. Unilever: Development of appropriate technology on plantations in Africa and Asia. Shell: Training and skill extension in Nigeria. Premier Beverages: Quality assurance project incorporating social and environmental standards on tea plantations. Ford: Reduction of CFC use in Brazil.
For more information, contact: CEP, 30 Irving Place, New York, NY 10003; (212) 420-1133.