In a major reversal of U.S. environmental policy, the Clinton Administration is preparing to sign a biological diversity treaty that former President George Bush refused to support at last year's Earth Summit, knowledgeable sources said Tuesday.
Bush had opposed the treaty to protect the world's wildlife amid concerns it would not protect the patents of American biotechnology firms, which prospect in tropical forests for plants, animals, insects and microorganisms useful in making drugs and other products.
The Clinton Administration, also worried about patent protection, is expected to issue a declaration that interprets the pact as protective of intellectual property rights when the United States signs it. Sources said Clinton will announce his intention to sign the pact in a speech today.
With the participation of the United States, the world's largest industrial player, the pact is likely to have substantially more impact. The United States is a major contributor of aid to developing nations and leads the world in biotechnology.
Following negotiations with the Administration and environmental groups, the biotechnology industry appears to have dropped its previous opposition to the treaty. An industry spokesman attributed the change of heart to the Administration's willingness to issue the interpretive statement that would accompany the signing.
"We have been working with the Administration, and we are very, very pleased at what the prospects are," said Richard C. Godown, senior vice president of the Industrial Biotechnology Assn.
The treaty provides a series of steps that nations must take to save plants, animals and other organisms in their habitat and says developing nations that harbor the bulk of this wildlife should be compensated for protecting it.
In the past, drug companies have made millions of dollars from products derived from plants taken without compensation from poor countries. The treaty is designed to give developing nations a financial incentive for conserving their tropical forests, which are rapidly being cleared for timber, fuel and agriculture.
Scientists have hoped the pact might limit the loss of tropical forests, where most species live. Many researchers believe that half of all plants, animals and other living organisms will be doomed to extinction by the middle of the next century if the destruction of forests continues at current rates.
In refusing to sign the treaty last summer, the Bush Administration isolated the United States from its allies at the summit in Rio de Janeiro and subjected Americans to intense worldwide criticism. Other industrialized countries signed the pact and issued their own interpretive statements on patent protection.
Under the treaty, developing nations must "endeavor" to open their forests for environmentally sound uses, such as research for new drugs. In return, industrialized nations are obligated to give financial aid and to share technology under "fair and most favorable terms."
In a draft of the accompanying interpretive statement, the Administration defines "fair and most favorable" as terms that are "voluntarily agreed to by all parties."
In addition to addressing patent concerns, the Administration's statement is expected to limit or qualify the United States' financial obligations under the pact.
"It has had to go through several hurdles, but it has basically cleared them," a knowledgeable source said of the Administration's attempts to come up with acceptable language.
T. J. Glauthier, a director at the World Wildlife Fund, said the Administration "deserves a lot of credit" for working with both industry and environmental groups to craft a solution acceptable to a majority on both sides.
But a handful of more radical environmental groups, including Greenpeace and Earth Island Action, have complained that the Administration is bending too far in accommodating industry's concerns in the interpretive declaration.
In a prepared statement issued Tuesday, the groups accused the Administration of "being willing to compromise the protection of species around the world in order to ensure profits for American biotechnology companies."
Glauthier attributed the criticism to "some confusion among the groups about the substance of the treaty." He said it requires companies under "mutually agreed terms" to compensate developing nations for the natural materials they take. The interpretive statement would just "clarify" that both sides must agree to the amount and kind of compensation, he said.
Environmental activists have blamed Bush's refusal to work out language acceptable to the biotechnology industry on meddling by former Vice President Dan Quayle's Council on Competitiveness, which strongly opposed the treaty.
"There were certain folks who had concerns that were then blown out of proportion by Quayle's Competitiveness Council," said John Fitzgerald, an attorney with Defenders of Wildlife.