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The rule of the closed field

A national law obstructs the collection of biological samples and paralyzes research

eduardo cesarInaccessible nature: the legal authorization for sample collecting can take monthseduardo cesar

On the 30th of April last, Massuo Jorge Kato was stopped and questioned by officers from the Brazilian Environmental and Renewable Natural Resources Institute (Ibama) at the  Belém airport shortly before embarking for Sao Paulo. The researcher from the Chemistry Institute of the University of São Paulo (USP) was carrying a cardboard box, one of those used to transport computer monitors, containing around 30 semi-processed samples of leaves and fine branches of various species of piperaceous plants, of the family of aromatic plants that include the famous black pepper. Although the species had been collected in a legal manner at the National Forest of Caxiuanã by researchers from the Federal University of Pará (UFPA), who had collaborated with the scientist, Kato did not have on him an authorization to transport the forest material to São Paulo. In the light of the law, for the Ibama officials, the specialist in plants had fallen into a practice that bordered on biopiracy. For this reason the material was confiscated and the scientist notified to give an explanation of his conduct. “I know the rules, there’re lots of demands, some unviable”, said the specialist from USP. “We’re in a conflict situation between Ibama and researchers, who only want to make their contribution to the knowledge of biodiversity.”

Kato is a respected scientist, with a known address and line of research, who may have made a bureaucratic mistake, but not by a long shot would he promote the illegal trafficking of species. The episode experienced by him is only one more that illustrates the situation of paralysis and semi-marginality into which biological field research on national territory has been plunged since the publishing, in August 2001, of the Provisional Law Nº 2.186-16. Formulated to preserve national biodiversity, this legal landmark, issued by the federal government, regulates access to the country’s genetic patrimony and attempts to create a regime for a partition of eventual economic earnings coming from the commercial exploration of the so-called traditional indigenous knowledge concerning the therapeutic properties of plants or of obtaining extracts or derived compounds and species from the Brazilian flora and fauna. Looking towards biopiracy, the legislation has touched upon the work of Brazilian biologists, who have gone on to confront bureaucracy, at times irrational, according to them, with the objective of obtaining authorization from the Genetic Patrimony Management Board (CGEN in the Portuguese acronym), the organ created by the very Provisional Law itself, in order to collect samples.

For at least three years the researchers have pleaded, in vain, for a revision of the law. “We’d hoped that the federal government would announce flexibility within the norms in March, during the COP 8 (the Eighth Conference of the Convention Parties concerning Biological Diversity, sponsored by the United Nations Organization)”, says Carlos Alfredo Joly, a biologist from the State University of Campinas (Unicamp) and the ex-coordinator of the Biota-FAPESP program. The good news did not come, but Ibama and the CGEN are talking about reforms in the Provisional Law for the coming months. This is because, after clashes between scientists and federal government environmentalists, they finally appear to have reached a consensus of opinion that the current provisional law inhibits, instead of encouraging, research into national biodiversity. “In fact, the legislation is inadequate and places researchers in an illegal situation”, admits Eduardo Velez, the CGEN’s executive secretary, who concedes authorizations for the collection of field samples with economic ends (bio-prospecting studies or those based on traditional knowledge). “We want to simplify all of this process.”

Illegal collecting
The concession of a license of this type can be a torment for whoever works in the academic world. “We’ve been more than a year attempting to get authorization”, complains Vanderlan da Silva Bolzani, from the Chemistry Institute of the São Paulo State University (Unesp), in Araraquara, one of the coordinators of the BIOpropescTA Program, the Biota Network for Prospecting and Trial, who is researching plants from the Atlantic Rainforest and the Cerrado  in São Paulo in order to search for vegetables with the potential to generate products in the medical area. While the green light from Brasilia does not come, the journeys to parks and reserves, in order to obtain samples for study, are under suspension. In the opinion of Vanderlan, only the laboratories and companies working in the pharmaceutical area, who have lawyers that can get around the bureaucracy and advisors working on the requests of authorization to collect biological samples, have managed the green light from CGEN. “This is not our case, but, faced with these difficulties, there are researchers who prefer to work in an illegal situation”, commented the scientist. Up until now the CGEN has conceded less than 20 authorizations for collecting with an economic finality.

Even obtaining samples of the fauna and flora for studies of an academic nature, which are looking to basically generate more scientific knowledge about species without any commercial implications, are getting caught up in the current legislation. Authorization for this type of collection is given by Ibama itself. Researchers are complaining about the slowness and the lack of criteria for expediting licenses, although they recognize that today Ibama is showing itself to be more attentive to requests from the academic community. “An authorization takes around six months to come out”, comments the biologist Carlos Roberto Brandão, from USP’s Zoology Museum. “And if, by chance, we were to collect a species other than that related in our requisition submitted to Ibama, we could be accused of biopiracy.”

Rômulo Melo, Ibama’s director of fauna and fishing resources, admits that the provisional law is not stimulating research and also promises urgent changes, for the end of July or August, in order to disentangle the current legislation. “The researchers must be responsible to society for his work, but they must be seen as a partner in the environmental area, and not as a potential biopirate”, explains Melo. Among the more flexible measures proposed for the federal environmental area is the concession of permanent collecting permits (and not case by case) for scientists working at academic institutions by means of an agile on-line system. “Only the more delicate cases, such as a request for the removal of a species threatened with extinction within a conservation unit, would demand a more detailed analysis”, says Melo.