25 August 2004
Similar events have occurred in the past, leading to growing concern among Brazilian researchers that such actions will make it more difficult to borrow biological samples from foreign scientists and their institutions.
The specimens were rare African rays belonging to the Spanish Institute of Oceanography that had been borrowed by Marcelo Carvalho, an evolutionary biologist from the São Paulo University (USP). Three belonged to uncatalogued species.
Carvalho had been attending a workshop in Spain sponsored by the Spanish government and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, at which more than 50 specialists had gathered to put together a guide of marine fauna in the African west coast.
Inspectors seized the fish on Carvalho’s re-entry into Brazil, claiming that they lacked the required paperwork from Brazil’s Sanitary Department. Carvalho and friends from State University of Rio de Janeiro (UERJ) went to the Ministry of Agriculture seeking an agreement that the specimens would not be destroyed until they had gathered the appropriate documents. But when they got back to the airport, it was too late.
“Those specimens were very unique and rare,” says Carvalho. “Of the ten specimens, at least three were completely unknown by science and now will remain so. It’s distressing not only for Brazil, but for the whole science community.”
Similar incidents have occurred in the past, generating concern among Brazilian researchers that international research centres may become reluctant to loan or give them biological samples.
For several years, the US Smithsonian Institute had placed a temporary moratorium on shipping specimens back and forth between its research centres and Brazil. Leonard Hirsch, senior policy advisor for the Smithsonian, explains that Brazilian regulations were uncertain for a long time. However, he believes they have recently “been moving forward in a very positive way”.
“We have been working very hard with the Brazilians, and believe we can now move specimens back and forth again,” he says.
Hirsch was critical of the destruction of Carvalho’s rays. “From the report, I find it totally unacceptable that they destroyed specimens not of Brazilian origin rather than holding them or having them taken out of the country, ” he told SciDev.Net.
In 2002, 200 samples of blood from a Brazilian bird, the Ramphocelus bresilius, belonging to Denise Nogueira of UERJ were destroyed. Nogueira had gone to the United Kingdom for part of her doctoral studies, taking the blood specimens with her accompanied by full documentation from the Brazilian Institute of Environment (IBAMA).
“I had no problems leaving the country or entering England,” she says. “But when I came back, nine months later, an employee from the Agriculture Ministry said that I had left Brazil illegally, as I didn’t have a license from the ministry to carry material from an animal source.”
The IBAMA employee who released the material didn’t know Nogueira would need another license from the Agriculture Ministry. The blood specimens were confiscated and stored at the airport. They were burned a few days later, before she was able to obtain documents for their release.
In an open letter to the government, Ennio Candotti, president of the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC), points out that the destruction of the marine samples has taken place at a time when the Brazilian government has indicated a commitment to reducing bureaucratic controls on science in order to stimulate its development
In June, for example, the country announced an easing of important restrictions on scientific equipment in response to demands from researchers to cut the amount of bureaucracy involved in bringing such equipment into Brazil (see Brazil eases rules on scientific imports).
“It’s absurd to have two different institutions regulating the same thing when they don’t communicate with each other. They burn material without any information on its importance and don’t let us even try to comply with their bureaucracy. The government pays us to research, collect and store; the same government is paying people to burn these materials,” says Denise.
Suêldo Vita, executive-secretary from the Support Foundation of Development at the Federal University of Pernambuco, deals with these problems every day, and says current regulations “really don’t ease the procedures of science and research”. He manages donations from foreign universities and the researchers’ requests for imports. “The current Brazilian legislation really doesn’t help much and it’s quite difficult for a foreign institution to understand why our researchers have to follow so many bureaucratic steps,” he says.
He suggests that current laws should be revised to ease the process for everyone involved and to improve Brazil’s scientific progress.
So far, the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture has not issued a statement regarding the destruction of Carvalho’s rays.