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September 5th, 2007 at 11:36 am

Jail Threat Hangs Over Scientific Pioneers

Marc van Roosmalen is a world-renowned primatologist whose research in the Amazon has led to the discovery of five species of monkeys and a new primate genus. But precisely because of that work, van Roosmalen was this year sentenced to nearly 16 years in prison and jailed in Manaus, Brazil.


Marc van Roosmalen with primate

"Research needs to be stimulated, not criminalised," said Enio Candotti, president of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science. "Instead, we have a situation in which overzealous bureaucrats consider everyone guilty unless they can prove their innocence."

At a biologists’ conference in Mexico in July, 287 scientists from 30 countries signed a petition saying that the jailing of van Roosmalen was "indicative of a trend of governmental repression of scientists," and "discouraging biological research in Brazil, both by Brazilian scientists and by potential international donors."

Brazil’s government officials say they are merely trying to protect the nation’s natural and genetic patrimony; they declined to talk about the van Roosmalen case.

Fears of biopiracy, loosely defined as any unauthorised acquisition or transport of genetic material or live flora and fauna, are deep and longstanding in Brazil. Nearly a century ago, for example, the Amazon rubber boom collapsed after Sir Henry Wickham, a British botanist and explorer, spirited rubber seeds out of Brazil and sent them to colonies in Ceylon and Malaya (now Sri Lanka and Malaysia), which quickly dominated the global market.

In the 1970s, the Squibb pharmaceutical company used venom from the Brazilian arrowhead viper to help develop captopril, used to treat hypertension and congestive heart failure, without payment of the royalties Brazilians think are due them. And more recently, Brazilian Indian tribes have complained that samples of their blood, taken under circumstances they say were unethical, were being used in genetic research around the world.

Brazil has in recent years passed legislation to curb such practices. National sentiment favours the laws, but scientists complain that they go too far, are too vague, confer too much power on authorities who have no scientific knowledge and have created a presumption that every researcher is engaged in biopiracy.



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