“Brazilian Paranoia Over Biopiracy Breeds Conspiracy Theories”

Roosmalen the monkey man, controversially accused misappropriator of public funds and smuggling facilitator (r.). His son (not shown) is president of ACT.

LARRY ROHTER, who has just completed eight and a half years as chief of the Rio de Janeiro bureau of The Times, is on leave, writing a book about Brazil.

Actually, if Rohter’s farewell interview with the Estado de S. Paulo is any indication — “You won’t have Rohter to kick around any more” — the book will be about Larry Rohter. As a journalistic hooker with a heart of gold, scoping out fat Czech tourists on Copacabana beach, lunching with Claudio Humberto, and knocking a few back in front of Brazilian trash TV.

Larry Rohter of the New York Times filed a series of stories — the same story, really, filed over and over again, with different headlinees — in July and August on the case of the Monkeyman, Dr. Mark van Roosmalen, down here in Brazil.

It plays heavily on the (not entirely undeserved) reputation of Brazil for bureaucracy that is onerous to the point of being Kafkaesque. (On the other hand, as someone who has gone through the immigration bureaucracy in both countries now, I think you could probably also argue that it is getting measurably better in that department. “Debureaucratization” is actually visibly working in some areas, I think. I have not, of course, dug up any hard numbers on that yet. But what the hell. Larry hasn’t either. And I don’t charge good money for these gabblings, I would point out.

The day I went to go and get my CPF so I can have the privilege of paying the IPTU tax on a home and office I own here was not so nightmarish after all, for example. Getting baggage-checked by the federal police a couple of times — understandable, given how much I go back and forth — gave me a sense of reasonable efficiency and professionalism. Especially considering the working conditions of the stressed-out airport feds you are dealing with.

Tip: Avoiding Ugly American behavior in favor of a politely cooperative attitude can make things go more smoothly. It’s perfectly okay to think disrespectful thoughts. We all have those. Just try not to express them openly.

Which I would emphatically not say was the impression I had in my last encounter with our TSA back there at home.)

Regarding which case I have been reading the final report of the congressional inquiry on biopiracy and translating some of the testimony bearing on the actual conduct of foreign firms and NGOs about which Larry wants us to believe the Brazilians are “paranoid.” See

The following headline ran in the International Herald Tribune on July 28, for example.

Conspiracy theories dog Amazon reserves; Environmental work seen as colonialism.

The implication, I gather, being that the response to the problem is driven by gabbling ideologues.

But honest reporting on the subject would inform you, I think, first of all, that the charges against van Roosmalen had little to do with the bureaucracy of scientific research.

The alleged conduct that got him borked had much more to do (14 years of jail time, versus 18 months for illegal monkey and orchid storage and transport) with deals he did with a wildlife TV production team to import and resell equipment without paying taxes and duties on it, it seems.

On charges of misuse of public funds, Roosmalen was sentenced to 14 years and 3 months. In 2003, he was the target of an internal disciplinary proceeding at INPA (the National Institute of Amazon Research), where he had worked since 1986. The agency fired him for sending genetic material abroad without authorization. In 2002, Roosmalen was also at the center of a controversial incident in which he attempted to “sell,” over the Internet, the right to determine the scientific names of newly discovered monkey species to anyone willing to page between $500,000 and $ 1 million. The promise was to donate the money to environmental conservation projects.

The notion that the Internet monkey auction was the proximate cause of the borking of the Monkeyman, however, is journalistic sleight-of-hand, misdirection. The point being that it was Van Roosmalen’s alleged business dealings on the side that got him into hot water, not his scientific work. Wrote Rohter:

Brazil’s government officials say they have no vendetta against the scientists and are merely trying to protect the nation’s natural and genetic patrimony; they also declined to talk about the van Roosmalen case.

Which government officials did you ask? Do they have names? Where they willing to give them? Why or why not? From what agency or agencies? Did they give a reason for not commenting? Did you talk to the prosecutor in his case, for example? Did he decline to comment because an appeal is pending? If nobody who actually knows something will take your calls or talk to you on the record, why should we be interested in what you have to report?

Fears of biopiracy, loosely defined as any unauthorized acquisition or transport of genetic material or live flora and fauna, are deep and longstanding in Brazil. Nearly a century ago, for example, the Amazon rubber boom collapsed after Sir Henry Wickham, a British botanist and explorer, spirited rubber seeds out of Brazil and sent them to colonies in Ceylon and Malaya (now Sri Lanka and Malaysia), which quickly dominated the international market.

And what is the strict definition?

If I want things loosely defined and dumbed down to the point of gabbling uselessness, I will read the New York Post.

In the 1970s, the Squibb pharmaceutical company used venom from the Brazilian arrowhead viper to help develop captopril, used to treat hypertension and congestive heart failure, without payment of the royalties Brazilians think are due them. And more recently, Brazilian Indian tribes have complained that samples of their blood, taken under circumstances they say were unethical, were being used in genetic research around the world.

Yes, the latter case figured prominently in the CPI of Biopiracy.

It is my understanding that those complaints were confirmed. Samples of their blood were extracted and later used in commercial biomedical product development. Which does seem sort of grotesquely similar to the ethics of selling somebody else’s organs, I have to say.

Look, just have a read of those testimony synopses.

You get a pretty balanced view of the contending points of view in the case in question, I think. In their own words.

Brazil has in recent years passed legislation to curb such practices. National sentiment favors the laws, but scientists complain that they go too far, are too vague, confer too much power on the authorities who have no scientific knowledge and have created a presumption that every researcher is engaged in biopiracy.

If news organizations that disinform their readers end up sullying the reputation of journalists generally among their readers, whose problem is it? The reader’s? Or the journalist’s?

“We wanted to protect the environment and traditional knowledge, but the legislation is so restrictive that it has given rise to abuses and a lack of common sense,” Candotti said. “The result is paranoia and a disaster for science.”

The story is basically a one-source handing of the megaphone to Dr. Enio Candotti of the Brazilian Society for the Progress of Science, which Rohter describes as “the country’s leading scientific body.”

That’s how the group’s (self-authored) Wikipedia entry describes it as well, but in what sense is it “leading”? Does it have more membership than other such groups? Such as, say, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences? The wording reminds me of the Associated Press’s habit of referring to the Veja newsweekly as “the most influential in Brazil.”

Is there unanimity on this point among Society members, or is there debate?

Given that scientific associations tend to be debating societies more or less by definition, you would tend to think there would be. Let me see what I can dig up.

(I actually found a good report on an event in which Candotti elaborates on his pitch — which is not at all unreasonable, on the face of it, mind you — in the context of various takes on the question, from various interested parties. Will translate that for you when I get a chance.)

Pretty typical Larry Rohter journalism, then: the loosest possible sourcing, glittering generalities, loaded language and editorializing in the news hole, and above all, ignoratio elenchi — “feigning ignorance of the existence of a counterargument.”

Intentionally failing to use information suspected of being relevant and significant is committing the fallacy of suppressed evidence. This fallacy usually occurs when the information counts against one’s own conclusion. Perhaps the arguer is not mentioning that experts have recently objected to one of his premises. The fallacy is a kind of fallacy of Selective Attention.

See also Fear, Uncertainty, Doubt: An Essential Bibliography.

I just think that the CPI of Biopiracy makes a perfectly good starting point for trying to decide whether the Brazilians are paranoid on this point or not.

If I were going to report on this story, I would follow up with the principal persons and firms involved in the inquiry that led to the drafting and successful passage of the law Larry is apparently out to mock and bork here.

I bet you I could get you maybe ten sources to comment, and provide you with a decent capsule legislative history of the law in question.

Because I can honestly say that I do not regularly lunch with Claudio Humberto or the boys from the embassy. Or pop over to Paraguay on the weekend to hang with the Bush Ranger appointed as the special attaché for banana-republican press relations. I really am a free agent in this regard. Is Larry Rohter? Who knows?

I bet you I could get you enough hard information for you to decide for yourself whether or not Brazilian officials are paranoid on this point or not. And after all, as an old professor of mine liked to joke, “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean They are not out to get you.”

All of which, of course, may be something of a red herring in the case of the Monkeyman.

The charges against him having a great deal more to do with official corruption — misuse of public assets in funky research-funding schemes funneled through murky public-private partnerships — than with scientific research per se.

As far as I can see. And I have read extracts some of the court filings in the case that convicted him, according to standards of proof that are not, in theory, at least, that different from ours, of stealing public money and using it for private ends.

Of course, I await news of the Monkeyman’s appeal with interest.

But I am not as absolutely certain at this point, as Rohter apparently, is that the Monkeyman, specifically, makes the best poster child for this issue.

And I bet you anything I could find you someone with a similar beef who has not been convicted (appeal pending) on charges of official corruption not directly related to scientific research work.

You would think that proponents of that point of view would prefer to have someone less reputationally challenged, ahem, carrying the ball for it. And hey, maybe Dr. Candotti is that guy. He actually seems to more interesting things to say than Larry quotes him as saying, I am finding from my quick googling.


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