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Space for Diversity

In Salvador, the SBPC meeting brings together cultural expressions and scientific reports, in an exercise of reflection on the country

An frequent stage for the exchange of ideas, impressions and information on national reality, the yearly meeting of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science (SBPC), which this year took place in Salvador, Bahia, between July 13th and 18th, came up with a noteworthy inventory of the country’s scientific production: 32 conferences, 80 symposiums, and 950 works on display. In short, a marathon, which had some 11,000 persons taking part, above all researchers and university students, although a very lively group stood out, with the white and blue T-shirts they were wearing: 2,706 primary and high school teachers from Recife.

“Many of us did not even know this neighboring city, and now here we are!”  rejoiced Alda do Espírito Santo, one of those taking part in a program for updating knowledge, made possible thanks to an operation that put 60 buses on the road, at a cost of roughly R$ 1 million. In the lectures that they attended, they did not hesitate to raise put their hands and ask simple questions that will certainly help them in their day-to-day at school – they wanted to know, for example, how a gene works.

Organized around the central theme of the Nation and Diversity, the 53rd annual meeting hosted debates that reflected the search for alternatives, the cultural elements and the multiplicity of points of view about the country’s problems. “We have to have the courage to produce science using our own ideas.” stressed a professor from the Federal University of Bahia (UFBa), Eliane Azevedo, at the very lively opening ceremony that took place at the Salvador Convention Center.

Right after the speeches of the authorities, there came the drumbeats of the afoxé ( an African Brazilian percussion group) the Sons of Gandhi, one of the city’s traditional groups, which was formed in 1949 and is made up exclusively of men, dressed with white tunics and turbans. Then, the stage was taken over by a restless dragon 15 meters long, with the face of a figurehead of the São Francisco riverboats, hair in the rastafari style, the leather hat of a cangaceiro (Robin Hood – style bandits who were common in the Brazilian Northeast in early 20th Century), Indian feathers, and a body and tail reminiscent of Chinese origins.

Created by Luiz Marfuz, a theater director and a professor at UFBa, it was manned by 14 dancers, and paid homage to the street spectacles that are traditional in Bahia, and to the local film-maker, Glauber Rocha (1939-1981), who directed The Dragon of Evil against the Holy Warrior (1969). “Historically, the dragon represents confusion, but reconstruction as well.” Marfuz commented.

Another original work was the symbol of this year’s meeting: a cement sphere, measuring some 5 meters in diameter, with images of men and animals made of potsherds. Occupying the entrance to UFBa, it was created by Bel Borba, an artist from Bahia who made the tile mosaics that portray iguanas and dinosaurs and adorn the streets of Salvador.

Toads and plants
Students, researchers and teachers witnessed the prospects for Brazilian scientific production in crowded presentations, like the one by Eliezer Barreiro, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), which dealt with the trends in the development of drugs. On the basis of molecular modeling, the new techniques of work make it possible to determine the distance between atoms, to replace stretches of chemical structure, or to construct cell membranes, to understand the speed with which medicaments are absorbed.

Beyond imagination
But Barreiro made point of saying: it is not a good idea to trust only in computers: “Nature builds molecules with highly original structures, which our imagination can barely conceive.” he commented. This is another reason why, in his opinion, it is important to study intensively Brazil’s biological resources. “Plants and animals provide the majority of substances that inspire medicaments.”

So it was with LassBio-294, a drug developed in Barreiro’s own laboratory. Capable of increasing the contraction of the muscles of the heart and, at the same time, acting as a vasodilator, it is derived from safrole, a compound extracted from sassafras oil, found in plants like the Ocotea odorifera. Patented in 1999 by UFRJ, jointly with the University of Maryland, United States, is has already passed the tests for toxicity in laboratory animals, and is ready for the next stage, with human beings.

The problem is that losses are building up, despite the effort being made in the country. Abbot, of the United States, recently patented an analgesic that has been known for centuries to the Indians of the Amazon: 200 times more potent than morphine, it is extracted from the mucus of the skin of the Epipadobates tricolor toad. “The scientific sovereignty of the Amazon rain forest is at stake.” warned Adalberto Luis Val, a researcher with the National Institute of Research in the Amazon (Inpa).

According to him, the shortage of researchers in the Amazon is dramatic – one of the reasons for strategic research to be done outside the country. In his own laboratory, which has equipment valued at US$ 2 million, there are just two researchers at work – and there is room for at least ten. At Inpa, where 266 specialists work, “two thousand would fit in with ease.” commented Warwick Kerr, the director of the institution.

On the lookout for a pest
There was also a demonstration of how, going to the other direction, research can be developed before the problems appear. This is the battle plan against the pink hibiscus mealybug (Maconellicoccus hirsutus), a devastating insect that may arrive in Brazil at any moment: it attacks 200 economically important plants, including beans and citrus fruit, and has already settled in 14 Caribbean islands and the United States.

“We have adopted a strategy of an intelligent country, doing as it should be done.” said Luiz Alexandre Nogueira de Sá, a researcher from the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), in Jaguariúna. Motivated, the inhabitants in the towns along the border are alerted to give warning, should they find the cochineal, described in posters and leaflets, in Brazil. At the same time, they have planted hibiscus (Hibiscus cisplatinus), one of the pink hibiscus mealybug’s favorite targets, at the airports. If the plant withers and the attack is confirmed, the distribution of a ladybird, the Cryptolemus montrouzieri, will start; it eats the young and adult forms of the invading pest, and, kept at Embrapa in Jaguariúna, it can be reproduced by the thousand in the affected states.

Also ready, according to Sá, is a videotape to be show at the airports, warning of the risks and the possibilities of transmitting the pink hibiscus mealybug, which can migrate hidden in passengers’ hair on international flights or in the innards of fruit. There is a permanent alert in this area. “At every moment, there are shipments of agricultural commodities coming in, like corn and rice, which may be bringing new pests, despite being examined.” he commented.

The polemics over the waters
One of the liveliest presentations dealt with the polemical project of the transposition of the waters of the São Franscisco river, which attracted an audience of some 700 students and teachers. Luiz Carlos Molion, of the Federal University of Alagoas (Ufal), is in favor of the idea. “If there is no alternative source of water, it will be impossible to take the people who live in the backlands out of their misery.” he commented. “Over the next few years, the rainfall is likely to be smaller and drought will become more intense.”

“I find it difficult to understand how this project is going to solve the problems of my region.” was the comment, with a touch of irony, made by Edmilson Lacerda Evangelista, an inhabitant of the back country who lives in Patos, Paraíba. With a shoe on one foot and a slipper on the other, he voiced his fear that the transposition of the waters will only benefit the large landowners. In open opposition to the project, João Suassuna, of the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation (FJN) in Recife, recalled that the semi-arid region is environmentally fragile, and the disappearance of the springs is already having an irremediable effect on the rate of flow of the main river in the northeast, now 2,850 m³ per second.

“In my reckoning, there is no more water to take out.” he said. According to him, Pernambuco is the state with the lowest supply of water (1,320 m³ per inhabitant/year): the people who live in Caruaru only have water once a month, and in Recife they have recently been living nine days without water and one day with. “We have to make better use of water, which is still wasted in the reservoirs and in irrigation.” he warned. Before settling on conclusions, advised Aziz Ab’Saber, of the University of São Paulo (USP), it is essential to know and to understand the region, in particular the impacts on the environment. “Agrarian reform also must be called for in the regions that may receive the waters of the São Francisco.” he stressed.

Social change
Miguel Trefaut Rodrigues, the director of USP’s Zoology Museum, shares this wide-ranging vision: the project for the waters of the São Francisco has to be tied up to “an obligatory change in Brazilian social and cultural structure.” It is only worthwhile bringing water, if the social injustices are corrected, if the poor population of the northeast starts becoming part of the social fabric, and if the teachers in the hinterland start to receive at least R$ 40 a month.”Rodrigues showed that taking water from one river basin to another, as is being thought of, implies profound alterations to the structures of animal populations – if the fish from the São Francisco river mix with those from the Jaguaribe, for example, it will be more complicated to find out the history of the evolution of each community. “We have to find our own solutions, without any intellectual inertia, and to flee from the commonplace and immediate solutions.” he emphasized. “They brought the mango, an Asiatic fruit, to the northeast. But will it be good for the region in the long term? Are there no more creative alternatives, in a country so rich in diversity?”

The roots of violence
While the scientific debates were taking place on the campus – interspersed by shows of capoeira, threesomes of Kings, and typical groups of the backlands -, Salvador was living through moments of tension, occupied by the Army, with rifles and tanks, in response to the strike by the civil and military police. It was an opportunity to examine the explosion of violence, which took the form of gangs of thieves and the looting of stores.

In one of the conferences, Wander Melo Miranda, of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), recalled that oppression, misery and exclusion from society were not merely the deepest causes of the battles waged on the streets of Salvador. They also stand for the theme, in his opinion, contemporary, of the writer Graciliano Ramos from the State of Alagoas (1892-1953), especially in Barren Lives –Vidas Secas, taken to the cinema screen in 1963 by the film-maker from São Paulo, Nelson Pereira dos Santos. “Graciliano disrupts the image of the motherland and shows the step-motherland, evil-mouthed and evil-eyed”, comments Miranda. In one of the scenes, one of the children of Fabiano, the central personage, asks his mother what hell is like. In reply, he gets a blow on the head from her knuckles.