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Ecology

Nature under a new look

At the age of five, the Biota program is consolidating data about fauna and flora and investing in environmental education

eduardo cesarSuperciliated guan, common in the Atlantic Rain Foresteduardo cesar

Launched officially in March 1999, the Biota-FAPESP program is concluding its fifth year of life with achievements without parallel amongst similar ventures intended to map biodiversity in a large swathe of land.  Never has so much been known as today about the most varied forms of life found in the state of São Paulo, a territory with 250,000 square kilometers, a little larger than Great Britain – be they microorganisms, plants or animals, inhabiting dry land, fresh water of the sea. Up until now, US$ 10 million has been set aside for some 50 projects of Biota, an umbrella program that houses the most diverse of ventures and in different areas.

Within Biota, there are studies about freshwater fish and marine animals; works about the distribution of the mammals of the Americas; projects that try to discover trees capable of removing large quantities of pollutant carbon dioxide from the atmosphere; surveys of the degree of preservation of the native vegetation of the state. One of the most recent offspring of the program is BIOprospecTA, a network that is looking for biopharmacons hidden in the forests and rivers, whose first four projects have just been approved. These are just a few examples of the range of Biota. There could be others, but the list would be enormous.

With the dedication and the competence of the 500 researchers and 500 under and postgraduate students who are taking part in its projects, Biota has inaugurated a new way of doing research in the environmental area. It has stimulated working in conjunction and the interchange of information, in particular via the Internet, amongst researchers based on dozens of institutions in São Paulo (and from other states and even from abroad), who previously tended to remain isolated in their specific field of work. “FAPESP did not start to spend more on environmental studies with Biota. It started to spend better”, claims biologist Carlos Alfredo Joly, from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp), a former coordinator of the program. “We changed the paradigm of people who work with natural history. The motto now is to share data.”

The cooperative spirit has orientated the programs major ventures. When they go into the field looking for samples of species for their works, the Biota researchers use, for example, the sample methodology for collecting organisms and fill in a standard card on the specimens taken. Next, the data on what has been collected is inserted into Biota’s Environmental Information System, Sin Biota, a virtual tool that has booked the records of roughly 56,000 species found in São Paulo (44,000 of terrestrial life, 8,000 from sea water, and 4,000 from fresh water). Accordingly, with the scientists adopting common procedures, it becomes easier to compare the records of different items collected by the program’s different researchers. “Even researchers from outside Brazil comment that there is no international project like Biota”, comments Maria Cecília Wey de Brito, the director-general of the Forestry Institute, in São Paulo.

Since last October, the information generated by Biota has been integrated with the SpeciesLink network, an even larger database that joins together records from 38 scientific collections, 24 institutions from São Paulo and 14 from abroad. The very creation of SpeciesLink – under the charge of the Environmental Information Reference Center (Cria), in Campinas, which also implanted Sin Biota – was only possible thanks to the existence of the program on the state’s biodiversity. SpeciesLink is one of Biota’s projects. Environmental information on some parts of the state is still missing, like the western region, where little vegetation has been left over and there is a shortage of researchers.

But nobody doubts that knowledge about biodiversity in São Paulo was one thing before Biota and another today. “We have now attained sufficient critical mass for us to begin, without stopping the work of collecting species in the field, to generate proposals for public policies in the area of environmental conservation”, says Ricardo Ribeiro Rodrigues, from the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (Esalq), of Piracicaba, Biota’s new coordinator. One of the ideas defended is not to restrict the efforts for preserving nature merely to the inside of the public or private areas legally constituted as conservation units.

Several of Biota’s studies show that maintaining a park as an island of biodiversity while its environs has been devastated is not a very effective policy. The destruction of the surroundings affects life inside the green oasis. It is an effect similar to the effect of the edges on the destinations of a river.  There are no healthy watercourses with sick or destroyed banks (and vice-versa). Talking of the liquid medium, when coordinating the preparation of the recently issued Catalog of Freshwater Fishes in Brazil, Naércio Aquino de Menezes, from the Zoology Museum of the University of São Paulo (USP), was astonished with the submerged reality in the areas of the Cerrado, the savanna in the heart of Brazil. “We found many residues of soybeans contaminating rivers in the central region”, comments Menezes, one of Biota’s lead researchers. “We are trying to record all the species of fish we find, before they end.”

Suffocated rivers
The ordinary citizen tends to associate the pollution of rivers and lakes basically with the existence of industrial activities and large cities in their neighborhood.  The filth of the Tietê in its stretch that cuts the São Paulo capital is the most flagrant example of the deleterious action of human and factory waste matter on a river.  This is part of the aquatic tragedy, but not the whole of it. The advance of plantations and pastures is also suffocating many rivers and stream over the interior of the state and of Brazil, besides causing directly the deforestation of areas of native vegetation. One piece of good news originating from work in Biota, coordinated by researchers from the Forestry Institute, was that, at this beginning of the century, the area of native vegetation in São Paulo has increased 3.8% (1.2 square kilometers), in relation to the area existing ten years ago. The growth, albeit timid, was concentrated in the strip of the Atlantic Rain Forest, the state’s most extensive ecosystem.

In the north and in the northwest of São Paulo, where there fragments of savanna that account for only 1% of São Paulo’s native vegetation, deforestation still flourishes. In these regions, different from what occurs in the savannas of central Brazil, agricultural expansion is dictated by the cultivation of sugarcane, not of soybeans. Advances in the ecological question, like the small growth in the area of the Atlantic Rain Forest in São Paulo, arise from the coming into force of a stricter conservationist legislation and the adoption of concrete measures for reducing aggressions against nature.

And, the researchers believe, above all from the awareness acquired by the population of the need to preserve the environment. From here onwards, one of the points to be emphasized more by Biota is the question of environmental education. How can one transform and disseminate the technical knowledge generated by the program’s scientists into information intelligible for masters and teachers, who have the function of passing on these concepts to the new generations of citizens? By encouraging specific ventures of environmental education within Biota. “Today, we have three projects with this profile”, claims Rodrigues, the program’s new helmsman.

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