Brazil accuses Amazon scientists of theft

Intelligence agency claims that environmentalists are committing biopiracy by selling indigenous knowledge to pharmaceutical firms, while one religious group is said to be endangering the ethnic identity of Indians.

BRAZIL'S intelligence service has accused non-governmental organisations (NGOs) operating in the Amazon rainforest of biopiracy – the theft of yet-to-be catalogued species for commercial profit.

The Brazilian Intelligence Agency monitored 25 NGOs during the last six months of 2007 and said it had found evidence that they had transferred indigenous people's knowledge of plants and animals to pharmaceutical companies.

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It also said there was evidence of groups affiliated to NGOs being involved in the illegal extraction of diamonds on indigenous land, and it accused religious groups of activities that endanger the ethnic identity of Indian communities.

"We believe we have enough information to justify an investigation into the activities of several NGOs in the Amazon," said a spokesman for the agency.

Brazil has long been concerned about protecting intellectual property rights over the Amazon forest. But the jailing last year of a Dutch scientist renowned for his discoveries of Amazon species has highlighted a growing conflict between research and efforts to protect the Amazon with some of the toughest environmental laws.

A list of the groups investigated was not available, but among those being monitored is the Amazon Conservation Team (ACT), of the United States. ACT allegedly transferred knowledge of rainforest plants and animals to foreign pharmaceutical companies, the intelligence spokesman said.

But Vasco Van Roosmalen, ACT's programme director in Brazil, said: "The allegations are completely groundless and have been made several times before without any evidence of wrongdoing."

He noted that a previous investigation of ACT by a congressional biopiracy committee found no evidence against it.

His father, Marc Van Roosmalen, was sentenced last year to 15 years and nine months for trying to illegally auction off the names of monkey species and keeping rare monkeys at his house without authorisation. He was released last August and has appealed the conviction.

NGOs in Brazil have often been accused of being fronts for groups that take samples of flora and fauna to be turned into medicines for which Brazilians will later have to pay royalties.

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"There's this idea, that dates back to the military regime, that researchers come here to steal knowledge," said Alexandre Barros, an analyst with the Brasilia-based political risk consultancy Early Warning. "But when the government tries to control this research, it creates a bureaucratic barrier that could delay it."

The Intelligence Agency also said further investigation was warranted of the Brazilian branch of an evangelical group, Youth With a Mission, whose international offices are based in Hawaii. It allegedly threatens the ethnic identity of the indigenous group it works with, the agency's spokesman said.

A representative for Youth With a Mission dismissed the accusations as baseless. "Our evangelical work is focused on health and education, and is always carried out with the full consent and active participation of the indigenous communities," said Braulia Ribeiro, of the group's Brazilian office.

Authorities also recommended the investigation of a Brazilian NGO, Co-ordination of Indian Nations, which they say is partly funded by the World Wildlife Fund and is allegedly involved in the illegal extraction of diamonds in the Cinta-Larga Indian reservation in the state of Rondonia.

The World Wildlife Fund said it was "surprised and indignant" at the allegations, because it has not had any involvement with the group since 2003.

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