Monthly Archives: April 2014

Biodiscovery: are the megadiverse mega peverse?

Many moons ago when I started as a policy analyst I worked on an issue called biodiscovery. It’s about the commercialisation of natural resources like the ones found in the Amazon rainforest.

Getting drugs from bugs

As a policy issue, biodiscovery is probably best explained by example. Imagine a Norwegian scientist goes on holiday to Germany. As is his practice when picnicking everywhere he takes a couple of soil samples. When he gets home to his lab he runs a few tests and finds something scientifically interesting about an organism in the soil. That discovery leads directly to the development of a new drug that improves receptiveness to organ transplants. The scientist becomes filthy rich as a result and many more transplants are successful. The policy questions are things like:

  • Should this kind of activity be regulated?
  • Does the scientist owe anything to Germany where he made his discovery?
  • Should the scientist have intellectual property over his discovery?

These questions are complicated enough but there’s two dimensions that make them even more complicated. First, as in the above example, this kind of commercialisation is often international. Any regulation needs to be international too. These issues are discussed in the context of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) which has been under negotiation for basically ever. Second, imagine that the scientist’s ‘discovery’ was actually traditional knowledge that an indigenous population had been using since time immemorial. Does that change the scientists’ obligations?

The policy process was grindingly slow, partly because of the need to engage simultaneously with indigenous groups and the international system. I found it pretty frustrating compared to the cut and thrust of biofuels legislation, my other project at the time. But the fundamental issues were very interesting and visiting Ecuador’s rainforest has made me think of them again. Continue reading Biodiscovery: are the megadiverse mega peverse?

Policy wonk digest: Ecuador


  • In a glimpse of the future under a Labour government in New Zealand, trucks are expected to drive in slower lanes. This policy appears neither controversial nor especially significant here.
  • There are breathalysers at bus stations which we assume bus drivers need to use before driving us about. Not sure whether this adds to our comfort level, or not. The fine for failing a test is $10USD.
  • For reasons we can’t quite put our finger on the government is subsidising the purchase and operation of electric stoves presumably instead of gas ones. Basically they offer to pay the electricity bill for a new stove until 2017.
  • In 2010 a new law renegotiated contracts with oil extracting multi-nationals changing the government’s share of revenue from 13% to 87%. Seven of the sixteen foreign oil companies pulled out and their fields were taken over by a government company instead. Overall, revenues from oil still increased.
  • As a result, Ecuador’s investment in infrastructure has jumped and it’s now spending more on roads than anywhere else in Latin America. You can see the construction everywhere. And, in what seems like a travel miracle, our buses get to their destinations faster than our guidebook estimates.
  • Direct democracy has become a major feature of Ecuadorian policy making. The referenda are complicated. Sometimes the questions have annexes of explanatory notes. Best as we can tell these binding referenda are useful and not used to determine whether they’ve got enough firefighters.

Raining on our parade


Baños sits in a beautiful hollow surrounded by green hills. Today they’re completely covered in mist and persistent rain. Our plans to walk for views of volcanoes have been scrapped. Plus:

  • The wifi here is especially frigid.
  • Our wall plug literally blew apart the cord for our camera charger. With a bang.
  • Fiona dreamed that the replacement day pack we are thinking of buying was bought by someone else, and I dreamed that the Pakistan High Commission turned down our request for a visa because we had the wrong kind of envelope.
  • In New Zealand today everyone has a public holiday but we do not.

These are our issues.



Dear God, what’s the difference between a basilica and a cathedral?

South America is short on a few things: stable and genuine democracies, cheddar cheese, salad and competitive air travel markets. But it is certainly not short of catholic churches. Virtually every town, no matter how small, has a major catholic church as the centre piece of its plaza. The one in Baños, where we are at the moment, gets lit up a night like it’s from Disneyland.

Many of these churches are known as cathedrals. Some are known as basilicas. Some are neither. I thought that a basilica was a kind of super cathedral but it turns out I was wrong. In venn diagram terms: not all basilicas are cathedrals, though some are. Not all cathedrals are basilicas, though some are.

A basilica is a church that has had the honour of being a basilica bestowed upon it by a pope. That’s generally because it has some special relic, or is otherwise a site of pilgrimage. To use the hilarious analogy of one catholic forum, a basilica is like a soldier who has been given a medal. For example, here in Baños there’s a basilica because someone thought they saw the Virgin Mary in a local waterfall, they put a statute of her in their church and some pope or other decided that was special enough.

There’s something like 1400 basilicas in the world of which more than one in three are in Italy. Rome is home to the four ‘major’ basilicas. This includes St Peters which, remarkably, isn’t a cathedral.

A cathedral is the seat of a bishop who heads a diocese. The word comes from a Latin term that describes a bishop’s throne. There are a lot more cathedrals than there are basilicas.

Here endeth the lesson.


Hallucinogenic tourism

At our jungle lodge in the Amazon we met two Ecuadorian tourists who had no interest in the jungle. They weren’t much interested in seeing animals either. They’d traveled from Quito and bought a package from a tour agency in the hope of taking yage.

Yage – also known as ayahuasca – is a psychedelic brew of infusions of various plants from the Amazonian rainforest. It’s been prepared by shamans for centuries. Originally it was used for medicinal purposes to try and get someone through the terrible fevers of jungle diseases like malaria. It also had a spiritual purpose for some indigenous groups and to the Santo Daime a kind of catholic-indigenous-something else religion that brought shaman beliefs and yage with it to Europe in the twentieth century.

Nowadays, yage, it seems, is mostly a tourist attraction. People who take it talk of spiritual revelations and insight into the universe. They describe how they feel purged of evil afterwards and have a stronger sense of who they are. I’ve written before about the twerp who left his wife and baby to travel to Colombia for a drug binge and then wrangled a book deal. His yage revelation was that he should go home. Mind blowing.

Yage also has some pretty nasty side effects. Or, depending on your perspective, maybe they’re inherent in the experience. Nearly everyone vomits violently. Many defecate. Others experience hot and cold flashes. And while the hallucinations are supposed to be spiritual, some of them can also be pretty freaky. The whole thing sounds like an episode of John Safran versus God. It would make a pretty excellent episode.

Our Ecuadorian friends had searched high and low to find a shaman who would offer them yage. The drug is technically illegal in Ecuador (and internationally acknowledged as a class one narcotic) but it seems that, as an indigenous practice, a blind eye is turned. These things are not easy to police when they happen in the middle of the jungle after all.

So you can imagine their disappointment when they arrived at the shaman’s to find the yage ceremony had started hours beforehand without them. The ten or so tourists that were gathered were already well down the track and they were unable to join in. That kind of slip up wasn’t atypical of the agency who looked after us in the jungle though none that affected us were as singly disappointing as what the Ecuadorians faced. They missed their chance, and we missed our chance to quiz them. We’ve had to settle for the remarkably scant internet descriptions instead.

Animals of the Amazon

We are out of the Amazon jungle and I am now ready to judge all animals contained therein.

Animals we like

  • Monkeys. Ever since our travel to India we have been of the view that monkeys add to any attraction (what would the Taj Mahal be without them, hm?).
  • I want to make a particular shout out to squirrel monkies. They live in troops of thirty or forty and so are easier to spot. They also get points for looking like kittens when they jump, and because they live near to Capuchin monkies who have superior sight (and therefore ability to spot predators) #gainsfromtrade.
  • Sloths. We actually saw none. But that is only because they hide so well in plain sight #teamsloth.
  • Caimans – a particularly bad ass kind of small crocodile that were kind enough to let us (inadvertently) swim in their river during their eating time without incident.

Animals we have defriended

  • All other animals that were not polite enough to allow us to view them on our visit. Including and especially pink river dolphins, tapirs, anacondas and a range of jungle cats.
  • Mosquitos. Obviously. Even the non-malarial kind.

The ridiculousness of pennies – new evidence from Ecuador

After a couple of trips to the US and one particularly informative West Wing episode I’ve become fervently opposed to the penny – one cent American coins. They’re stupid:

  • Two thirds of pennies in the US are out of circulation, squirreled away in piggy banks or lost behind couches.
  • What cost a penny in 1950 costs a dime (ten cents) or more now.
  • There’s evidence that businesses spend more in employee time counting and processing pennies than they gain from being paid said pennies.
  • If bending down to pick up a penny on the street takes you more than five seconds, you would have been paid more had you been earning the federal minimum wage.

And now I have new evidence from Ecuador and its use of USD. Even though Ecuador is massively cheaper than the US – yesterday we paid $2 for a two course lunch with juice – you can’t buy anything for a penny here. Pennies are as useless here as in the States.

Ecuador issues its own coins – centavos – to go along with USD. It issues pennies but you scarcely see them. The only place we have been that prices in single cents, rather than rounding to the nearest five (or more commonly fifty) is the supermarket. Their kind of $9.99 pricing is surely about the psychology of sticking under $10. Abolish the penny and it’ll become $9.95 instead.

Fiona’s complaint

At home Easter is about food and holidays. Here it’s just about religion.

Visiting Ecuador’s President

You know you’re visiting a different presidential office when the tour guide goes to some length to emphasise that the portraits only include presidents who were elected constitutionally. But other than that, and the apparently revolutionary idea that gifts to the Office of the President should be displayed for public view rather than squirreled away by that particular office holder, the Presidential Palace in Quito’s main square seemed mostly like a standard head of state office.

The Room of (legitimate) Presidential Portraits, which is used for announcements and press conferences.
The Room of (legitimate) Presidential Portraits, which is used for announcements and press conferences.

We quietly declined the suggestion that we bow to the Ecuadorian flag as a mark of respect. By and large, I’m not wild about flags*, and even if I were Ecuador’s isn’t a great specimen. It looks like Colombia’s, mostly.

You could tell the President was working, because of the costumed guards at his door.
You could tell the President was working, because of the costumed guards at his door.

The run on Correa

Rafael Correa, the current President of Ecuador. When we dropped by he was meeting in the Cabinet room so couldn’t say hello. Hes a very interesting guy and one of few economists who actually get to practice what they preach. His PhD argued that marketisation isn’t effective in Latin America where there’s an entrenched wealthy class. Fine to sell a state owned enterprise in Britain, but do it in Ecuador and the only people who can afford to buy shares are those who are wealthy already. He rose to prominence in Ecuador by arguing it was too subservient to the IMF.

Correa has gained international notoriety for his support of Hugo Chavez and his draconian approach to the Ecuadorian media. He also flagged a free trade deal with the US, arguing that the US can’t make the case for free trade when it still protects its own industry, especially agriculture. On this, at least, he has a point. He’s also carved more oil profits out of companies operating in Ecuador, and come up with an innovative way to profit from protecting the environment.

For all his firebrand socialist language, there’s also a sense that Correa is actually quite pragmatic, certainly more so than Chavez ever was. “The market is a wonderful servant” he says, “but a terrible master”. He purports to use capitalism and socialism as tools to get the outcomes which he wants. On outcomes you can’t really fault him. Since his election in 2007, 1.13 million Ecuadorians have been lifted out of poverty, Ecuador now has the lowest unemployment, and some of the highest growth in the region.

And, ultimately, in a country that has ditched three of its recent Presidents in coups, you’d have to say his seven year tenure means he’s doing pretty well.


*A significant upside of being out of New Zealand at the moment is not having to stomach the ‘debate’ about changing the flag. Though one bright addition is this suggestion from a philosophy professor, which I tentatively endorse, that we shouldn’t have a flag at all. And, if we are going to worry about getting a new flag, we should probably also worry about having ridiculously dressed guards for our politicians.

An economic question

Can anyone make a reasonable argument why Ecuador’s bus operators only allow tickets to be booked two days in advance of travel?