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Carlos Alfredo Joly and Vanderlei Perez Canhos:In favor of the environment

Amongst 142 countries, Brazil achieved a prominent position in the recently announced Environmental Sustainability Index. But the coordinators of FAPESP's Biota program warn: there is still plenty of room to be conquered in the international scena


At the beginning of February, Brazil received some good news: for 2002, it is occupying the 20th place amongst 142 countries in the Environmental Sustainability Index (ESI), drawn up for the second year running by specialists from the American universities of Yale and Columbia. The list, with Finland in first place, followed by Norway and Sweden, was unveiled in New York, at the World Economic Forum, responsible for ordering the work. And it has some comforting details for Brazilian self-esteem.

For example: with an overall score of 59,6, on a scale from zero to one hundred, Brazil comes 31 places ahead of the United States, which was given 52,8. And let it be recorded that this powerful nation took 11th place on the list in 2001, while we were in the modest 51st place now occupied by the USA. Twenty indicators, obtained from 68 variables, went into the make-up of the 2002 version of the ESI. They include environmental information, as well as social and institutional information.

To comment on the ESI, its criteria and its real importance, we looked for a recognized Brazilian specialist in biodiversity. But as the prizewinning FAPESP Biota program, which completes three years this month of March, is a hothouse of them, we ended up talking, not with one, but with two researchers, turning it into a rather uncommon interview, with Carlos Alfredo Joly and Vanderlei Perez Canhos. The former is Biota’s coordinator, the professor of plant ecology at the Botany Department of the Institute of Biology of the State University of Campinas (Unicamp); the latter is a member of Biota’s coordinating nucleus, presiding director of the Center of Reference for Environmental Information (Cria) and a retired professor in Food Microbiology at Unicamp. The long conversation was not limited to the ESI – it passed through Biota and issues involving research into biodiversity in Brazil and abroad. Some of the main parts of the interview with the researchers now follow:

I am going to begin with the question of the sustainability index. What importance does the position achieved have for Brazil?
Carlos Alfredo Joly – It is a bit difficult to say. They presented this index for the first time in 2001. Now they are presenting this 2002 version. And they start the new version by talking like this: forget the 2001 version, because the methodology has been completely modified. So the date for 2002 cannot be compared with the data for 2001. It is a start, they are going to have to improve their parameter to expand the number of things taken into consideration and to get to know a little better the reality of each country, to know, for example, how much is invested here in Brazil in the research area. But it is good news.

Do ventures like FAPESP’s Biota program have an influence on the place achieved by Brazil?
J – They no doubt have a positive influence, since one of the parameters taken into consideration to attribute the index is investment in research for conservation or for the solution of environmental problems. But in the way the index was made up now for 2002, it weighs heavily for Brazil’s position that we have the largest area of tropical forest in the world, with something like 80% of its total intact. We do not have effective information for several of the parameters, but the quality of the water also had a strong influence. In the state of São Paulo, we discuss this question as being a problem, in line with the vision of the effort that is being made to recover the basins and to maintain the potential water supply.

But the availability of water in the Amazon basin, regarded as intact, primary, with a gigantic volume of water, must surely have thrown Brazil’s score upwards for this aspect (66 points for environmental systems). Those responsible for the index also carried out a certain grouping of criteria that took into account per capita income and the gross national product. I think that Brazil could gain more in the area, for example, of international cooperation, which is something else they took into account, and where the United States, for example, lost a lot of points.

The United States got 28 points, and Brazil 50.
J – Because we take part in the Biodiversity Agreement, the one on Climatic Changes, we are a country that is active as far as the Kyoto protocol is concerned, even though it does not apply obligatorily to Brazil, since it provides for targets for the already developed countries. We are well integrated, though it could be better. In some new ventures, like the Global Biodiversity Information Facilities, the GBIF, for example, Brazil could be taking a more active part, and, so far, our participation has been that of a listener, because there has still been no manifestation from the Brazilian government.

But looking at the figures, can a Brazilian researcher concerned with biodiversity not now feel a certain tranquility?
J – There is increasing anxiety, as the country may get the false impression that things are better than they actually are. And that we therefore do not need to make an effort or such significant investment, because the environmentalists have painted the picture blacker than it is.

Taking in conjunction what we have in reserve, in biodiversity not too threatened plus the government initiatives , quality of life, domestic product, in short, everything that the index takes into account, which Brazilian region is more has the best balanced?
J – The southeastern region. It is the one that has suffered most from the economic cycles that lead to the destruction of the plant coverage, but it is where it is easiest to rally public opinion regarding conservation or pollution or improvement in the quality of life. It is also the region that has the most complex legislation for the environmental area. And so, in spite of being the area most impacted in terms of the environment, the southeastern region is still the one with most equilibrium, for its corresponding investment in science and technology and the legal framework in its hands for conservation.

Let me take advantage of the arrival of Professor Canhos to ask why we are mere listeners at the GBIF?
Vanderlei Canhos
Firstly, I would like to make a comment: our relatively high score in the index came about as a result of the natural resources we have, and, as well, to Brazil’s pro-active participation in the policy and international treaties on biodiversity. I do think, though, that Brazil’s participation in the sphere of science and technology is still not happening completely. There is the example of the GBIF, which is an international venture for working on the technical issue of sharing information on biodiversity.

And why is it that Brazil does not play an active part in the GBIF, as it has a program of the scope of Biota Fapesp, which is even well structured as far as its database is concerned?
C – It is because biodiversity is a strategic theme for the Brazilian government, so the government’s representatives are very cautious about adhering to any venture, without making many internal consultations beforehand.

Whose initiative is the GBIF – governments, states or NGOs?
C – It is a initiative of states, but it is outside the Convention of Biological Diversity. What has happened is that several countries that are more pro-active in the question of science and technology, such as the Scandinavian countries, Holland and Australia have realized that the science and technology agenda has still not gotten there, even though the Convention is extremely important, because it works on the political question, on the question of the change of paradigm, on polemical issues, like GM food and the question of invasive species.

The GBIF, then, arose in the ambit of the discussion of the Mega Science Forum, of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development), with the main objective of dealing with the scientific question of information on biodiversity. When the need became quite clear for having a global infrastructure to serve as support for scientific and technological development in this area, after a series of workshops, studies and documents that took place over a period of five years, they decided to put this venture into practice.

Do the facilities refer above all to the Internet network?
C – Yes, the exchange of information. And this is something that is extremely indispensable, because one of the main products of this infrastructure is basically the organization of the Catalog of Life, a huge project. This is not something very simple, because in the course of the last 300 years we have built up knowledge on almost 2 million species already described by science. It is extremely difficult to organize all this knowledge, which is distributed over different international institutions, in drawers of herbariums, museums, in collections of microorganisms, etc. This can only be done with international collaboration.

A program like Biota, as far as I understand, would be a fundamental step for this collaboration.
J – We have to have the following perception: Biota was born of a process of maturing in the community, which assimilated such documents as the Convention on Biological Diversity, worked on it and organized itself in the form of a program. It will not repeat itself like that in other Brazilian states. We can expand Biota into other states, in Brazilian territory, and use the tools that have been developed. But the process of creating the program was unique, because we were at a stage of maturity that at the national level had still not happened. In São Paulo, what was achieved was having a Secretariat of State for the Environment implementing the convention on biodiversity, a governor who put Agenda 21 as a parameter for his targets of government, and this did not happen at the same time in the country as a whole.

There is therefore a certain difficulty for bodies like the Ministry of Science and Technology or the Ministry of the Environment to get into a discussion, because they do not feel they have sufficient backing from a scientific community of the whole country, that can say “look, we can go into the GBIF, we will go and do it, because it really is good”. What they hear is “the people involved with Biota think that the GBIF is an excellent idea”, but this is a localized vision. Then I think that this is the problem, how can you manage to do this political jump and say “this really is something that interests the whole country, and not just a given portion of the scientific community”?

What actual results are you showing to the different research groups scattered over the country that are capable of mobilizing them in the same direction?
J – Biota has about 35 projects under way, involving from 300 to 350 doctors in the state of São Paulo and a high number of students for a master’s degree and pupils doing scientific initiation. In this state alone, it covers almost 600 researchers in all. In the other states, there are some 70 researchers collaborating with the program, and almost 60 abroad.

We have developed a tool that standardizes the way how the recording of the collecting is carried out, making it obligatory to use the GPS (global positioning system), which indicates the precise geographical coordinates of where collection takes place and the possibility of coupling this information with a cartographic database. Accordingly, there is beginning to be a distribution in space of the occurrence of the species. Being able to visualize this is Biota’s biggest attraction.

On this database, what percentage of the species have been surveyed?
J – This database is a mapping out of the remaining native vegetation in the state. The areas replanted with pine and eucalyptus also appear on it, which we think it is important to put, because they allow the existence of a pulp and paper industry of the size we have in São Paulo, without there being greater pressure on the native vegetation. The cartographic database is coupled with the database. So the moment a researcher observes a species, he records its occurrence and enters the information on the database.

For example, I ask for the distribution of such and such a species of fish in the state of São Paulo, and the database will put dots on the map showing where it occurs. This is the current stage. In the following stage, which is the project that Vanderlei has now started to develop and is coordinating, this system will be worked on to develop modeling tools. Then we are going to have a capacity for forecasting that we do not have today.

Forecasting what?
J – Where the species occurs.

Can a calculation be done as to how many species there are within the remaining vegetation?
J – for the flora, it can, because there is a project, financed by FAPESP, the Phanerogamic Flora of the State of São Paulo, which estimates that there are something like around 8,000 species of plants in the state. For animals, it is more complicated. We have estimated of vertebrates, there are close to 2,000 species, considering the sum of 773 fishes, 250 amphibians, more or less 750 birds, 186 reptiles. As for invertebrates, nobody knows.

C – Even less about the microorganisms. As people estimate that only 1% of everything that exists is known and we are talking of 2 million known species in the world, the estimate is then that this total number of all the species may vary between 20 and 100 million. But I would like to make a few more comments about Biota at the international level.

I think that the program has a few very interesting peculiarities, which are not just the fruit of these last three years, but of all the investment that FAPESP has made in biology in the course of the last 40 years. Now, then, we are getting to the point, with biology in the state of São Paulo, where we are making a synthesis of things. And from the way that Biota is being constructed, with the possibility of carrying out an analysis of species on top of geographical information, and of connecting all this to taxonomic information on the flora, to digital maps of the inventories already drawn up of the flora, and others that are being carried out within the scope of Biota, we have a convergence of information that makes Biota a unique program at the international level, and I have felt this at various meetings.

In synthesis, what is the unique quality of Biota, compared with other projects?
J – Look, what marks it is that it is a very tightly bound program, because at the same time that Fapesp is financing the information system, it is also financing the surveying projects.

C – One other thing that marks Biota is that it is a big program, but small in terms of the country, so it is manageable. In the United States, there is a big project in which what they are basically trying to do is to integrate all the data on American ecosystems and American biodiversity within a common system called the National Biological Information Infrastructure. There, they have monthly meetings with representatives from 11 government agencies, plus non-governmental organizations, and it becomes a problem of very great dimensions to lay down and harmonize standards.

Biota, being smaller, manages to be more agile and integrated in its methods and procedures.
C – Right. Because Biota is not just a plan, it is a functional prototype that can be extrapolated to other programs, other regions of the country. And on that point the question of the GBIF is very interesting, because what is being discussed now is the question of standards, of metadata to integrate information from different sources, to integrate biological data with environmental data. This still does not exist. It is now that one will be working on larger scale tools, this is the big issue that is still not resolved, and in this sense Biota is a unique and exemplary program.

J – I think that there are at least another two characteristics of Biota that reinforce its uniqueness. Therewas a whole lot of work with the community, which took much into consideration what the researchers were doing, and this led to their participation. We did not want to change anyone’s characteristics of work, on the contrary, if that person was trained, qualified, he is the most suitable one for defining what is relevant for the group he is working on. I want him to continue working on that, except that this is going to generate information that is no longer just for his scientific works, but is going to go into a larger skeleton and which may have a greater use.

The only thing centralized in Biota are the maps and lists of species, all the rest the researcher releases through the home page. It is the researcher who decides on what and how to make things available. This creates a very big relationship of trust. People trust in the system and see an advantage in being able to crosscheck their information with that of other people. And the other thing that is fundamental for the program is the fact that is has guaranteed long term finance, based exclusively on scientific merit, something that the members of the Steering Committee (a committee for assessment, external to the program) always stresses.

Let me insist on Professor Canhos to give his opinion on the index. Is it good for Brazil to have got the 20th place?
C – It is good for this comparative effort to be made, and for the effort to be annual. Last year, the United States was in 11th place, in 2002 they dropped to 51st. This may be something absolutely questionable, but trying to do an analysis of what can have made the United States drop, I think it is the Bush effect. When we look at the domestic environmental question, the release of areas of reservation in Alaska for the extraction of petroleum, the non-ratification of the Kyoto Treaty and the Biodiversity Convention… And yet one of the conclusions of the ESI is that no country has yet attained the condition of environmental sustainability. Not even Finland. It is something we have to pursue and which is very far away.