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Forbidden knowledge

Researchers want to review rules that limit access to the genetic heritage

It was the third and last expedition to Atol das Rocas. A team of Brazilian and American researchers had identified there a nursery of lemon sharks, and was hoping to conclude the collecting of material for analyzing the reproductive behavior of this species in the South Atlantic. “We wanted to know if the offspring of up to ten pups born to the female was from several males or from just one”, recalls biologist Ricardo de Souza Rosa, of the Federal University of Paraíba (UFPB).

Sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF), of the United States, the ship was ready to weigh anchor when the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (Ibama) informed that the project had been canceled: a Presidential Decree, published in May 2000, prevented access to any information of a genetic origin without authorization from the Council for Management of the Genetic Patrimony (CGEN), created by the PM itself. “It was to no avail arguing that the project, with its three-year duration, had been approved by the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development (CNPq), by the Ministry of Defense, as a foreign ship was involved, and even by Ibama itself.

We lost the funding, and the project came to an end”, Rosa laments.The same Presidential Decree, n° 2186-16, that interrupted the investigations into the lemon shark, brought to a halt, three years ago, research that has as its focus the country’s biodiversity assets. With the intent of protecting the genetic patrimony and the associated traditional knowledge form acts of biosquatting – and, at the same time, complying with the resolutions of the Convention on Biological Diversity, to which Brazil is a signatory – the PM submitted to the same rules and supervision both scientific research and commercial exploitation.

Furthermore, it gave a single body -the CGEN, regulated by Decree 3945 of September 2001 – the competence to judge scientific projects, “without, however, endowing it with the technical and scientific staff and structure for analyzing hundreds of processes”, as Carlos Alfredo Joly, the coordinator of the Biota/FAPESP program, says. Since it was set up, the CGEN has approved a little more than a dozen projects, and, according to Joly, none for research.The requirements of the MP have wreaked veritable havoc in the areas of knowledge that involve collecting the assets of biodiversity. “All the works for master’s and doctor’s degrees that required permission for research have not been able to be carried out, which has caused serious problems for meeting the deadlines set by the various development agencies”, says Miguel Trefaut Urbano Rodrigues, from the Biosciences Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP).

The interchange of materials between national and international scientific institutions has also been jeopardized, since the Presidential Decree lays down that the remittance of components of the genetic patrimony should follow the same rules as for the authorization of research. Brazilian science has paid a high price for this: the country does not have, for example, taxonomists specialized in several groups of organisms, and it is usual practice among zoologists and botanists to material to be identified by specialists from other countries. Worse still: the prohibition works in both directions. “The international institutions have stopped lending Brazilian specimens deposited in their collections for fear that the material would be confiscated”, Joly says. “We are living under a sort of undeclared moratorium”, adds Rodrigues.

Under suspicion
Represented by the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC) and the Ministry of the Environment (MMA), the scientific community is trying to repair the damage. Nobody contests the need for efficient legislation to protect Brazilian biodiversity, the largest on the planet. “But, in the case of the PM, there is a mistake in its focus”, notes Josê Rubens Pirani, from USP’s Biosciences Institute. “Biopiracy is not in the universities or in the research environment. We scientists have addresses and a public existence”, he explains. “The PM has put science under suspicion”, adds Joly. According to the motion by researchers from the Biota/FAPESP program, forwarded to the government transition team at the end of last year, “basic and fundamental research cannot be limited by virtue of a potential uncertain and unforeseeable application, which can only and must only be regulated when it takes on a clear shape”.

One of the main criticisms of the Presidential Decree lies in the fact that it was drawn up without any consultation or prior debate with the scientific community. “The PM came as a surprise because since 1995 at least three bills have been going through the channels of the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate to regulate the access to the genetic patrimony. These projects have been trampled over”, Joly reckons. Also contested is whether the CGEN is competent to define rules for scientific research, since scientific, environmental and indigenous communities are not represented on the council.

The first measure by Minister Marina Silva, in the attempt to put forward a solution for the tension with the scientific community was to ask the SBPC to appoint two representatives to take part in the CGEN as guests. The area of Biological Sciences will be represented by Carlos Alfredo Joly, with Fábio de Mello Senna, from USP in Ribeirão Preto as his substitute. The SBPC was awaiting a reply to an invitation made to two representatives of the human sciences area, according to Glacy Zancan, the SBPC’s president. The new members of the council will have a voice, but no vote. “The vote depends on new legislation”, points out João Paulo Capobianco, the secretary for Biodiversity and Forests at the MMA.

Thematic chamber
To change the current legislation, there are two routes: either the government present a Bill, for the conversion of the Presidential Decree, or its approves a new law changing the rules of the game. According to Capobianco, the MMA preferred the second option: it will present proposals for amending the Law on Access to Genetic Resources – originally drawn up by the minister herself -, now approved in the Senate and ready to be debated in the Chamber. To propose and analyze amendments, the Ministry created within the CGEN a thematic legislation chamber, made up of representatives of the government, non-governmental organizations, and by two specialists in the subject appointed by the SBPC.

The modified project will be presented to the Chamber of Deputies, before going back for further voting in the Senate. “The expectation is that the new law will be voted before the end of the year”, says Capobianco.The scientific community hopes that the new law will differentiate between the collection of genetic material for scientific research and the commercial use of biodiversity. It is also suggesting that authorization for access to biodiversity should be given by the development agencies to which the research projects were submitted.

“CNPq, for example, would put forward one more form to be filled in, should the research involve biodiversity assets and the plea would be judged by its advisors”, Joly details. This authorization would not exempt the researchers from meeting the requirements and specific items of authorizations for research and collection in conservation units. Should prospects arise for a technological or commercial application in the course of the project, they would be advised to the development agency and to the CGEN. “This idea is under discussion”, says Capobianco. “We cannot run the risk of favoring unsuitable actions. We have now begun discussions with the CNPq, via Ibama, to define procedures and to speed up the approval of scientific research”, he revealed.

The Saga on the researchers from the Cebrid

Elisaldo Carlini, a director of the Brazilian Center for Information on Psychotropic Drugs (Cebrid), of the Federal University of São Paulo (Unifesp), was awaiting authorization from the CGEN to go ahead with a project for investigating a Krao plant pharmacopoeia that it had been carrying out with the support of FAPESP since 1999. “We are only going to wait until April 31”, Carlini would warn. Biologist Eliana Rodrigues has already identified 164 plant species used by the shamans for medicinal purposes, 138 of which may have a potential for acting on the central nervous system and the possibility of being put to good use in developing new drugs.

The researchers responsible for the project had just complied with the latest requirement from the CGEN: they sent the MMA a list with all the data gathered in the research, including the names of the plants and their uses. This task called for the researchers to break a commitment signed with the Krao Indians, to keep in secrecy the scientific name of the plants and their possible therapeutic use. “At the last meeting with the Public Prosecutor’s Office, they told us that we had to follow the law and hand over everything that was being asked for”, explained Carlini.

If the authorization is once again postponed, he will quit the project. “We’ll collect information on plants from the cerrado (savanna) and the Pantanal (swamp land). If necessary, we will do the research in Paraguay or in Bolivia.” Authorization from the CGEN may be the last obstacle for this research, which has remained interrupted for two years. The differences in the interests of the two associations that represent the Kraos – Vyty-Cati and Kapey -, which ended up keep the researchers away from Kraoland, have been overcome.

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