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From the fields to the courts

Appellate Judge Elton Leme, a self-taught botanist, has already classified more than 350 species of bromeliads in Brazil

Carreiras_Elton Leme in Cachoeira do Caracol, Rio Grande do Sul (2014)Personal archiveAs a teenager in the 1970s, Appellate Judge Elton Leme used to hide in the woods of his father’s farm, in the Gaviões district of Rio de Janeiro in search of bromeliads and orchids. “I wanted to build a nursery to raise golden lion tamarinds,” he says. He soon gave up on the idea, but continued to grow the plants he found. My grandfather and I converted an old henhouse into a greenhouse, and soon there was a small collection of bromeliads. As they flourished, he photographed them and drew them, but was unable to classify all of them.

At age 19, Leme started taking specimens to taxonomist Edmundo Pereira, then a researcher at the Herbarium Brandeanum in Rio de Janeiro, who helped him identify them. It wasn’t long before science determined that one of his bromeliads was new, and the plant was named Vriesea eltoniana in his honor. When he realized that one of the boy’s other plants was new as well, Pereira asked him if he wanted to be honored or take part in preparing a scientific article that would introduce the plant to the world. “I opted to take part in the publication of the new species.”

Now, at age 55, the self-taught botanist, who works at Superior Court in Rio, has already classified more than 350 species of bromeliads and has as many publications as a professional botanist. “Over the years I combined a basic knowledge of botany, morphology and taxonomy as well as other areas,” he says. By doing this he gained sufficient independence to continue his research and publishing. As a result, he gets invited to lecture at international conferences, where he has strengthened the bonds of cooperation with botanists and biologists from other countries.

With these closer scientific relations, he has produced 241 articles in collaboration or alone, in addition to books as author or coauthor, all on botany. Today, Leme maintains several lines of cooperative research with researchers from universities in Germany, Austria, the United States and other countries, for whom, he says: “knowledge is worth more than titles,” unlike how it works in Brazil in his opinion. His collaborations are more restricted in Brazil in that he limits himself to researchers from the Botanical Gardens and the Federal University of Vale do São Francisco in Pernambuco State.

While working on botany studies, Leme enrolled as an undergraduate law student at Rio de Janeiro State University. “I developed a taste for law just as much as I enjoyed botany and I majored in the environment,” he says. Law and botany complemented each other, and sometimes they were mixed together. Scientific journals often ask Leme to review articles on botany. “Maybe it’s my training as a judge that makes me more impartial, and that’s why foreign publishers often ask me to serve as a reviewer.”