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Archive for Sunday, July 29, 2007

Rock star’ scientist’s imprisonment causes shock waves

July 29, 2007

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— Biologist Marc van Roosmalen built his legend in the Amazon jungles by breaking the rules.

The enigmatic scientist with the long blond locks roamed the landscape in bare feet, oblivious to the snakes, ants and spiders below.

He became a research rock star for discovering unknown species of primates, earning him royal honors from his native Netherlands and the title of "Hero for the Planet" from Time magazine.

He often said that the urgent needs of his science took priority over Brazil's cumbersome bureaucracy.

But his adopted nation of Brazil says Van Roosmalen took his maverick spirit too far, accusing him of keeping monkeys without permits and attempting to illegally profit from his discoveries by selling the naming rights to his new species.

Van Roosmalen, 60, has just started serving a 14-year prison sentence in this sweltering industrial city, the harshest punishment handed down under tough new Brazilian environmental laws, officials say. The biologist's attorneys are appealing.

The sentence has sent shock waves among foreign and Brazilian scientists who see the Amazon as the ultimate laboratory.

Some of them say Van Roosmalen's violations are no worse than the casual approach taken by most researchers. They say he is being punished because he is a foreigner and because he has taken on powerful business interests in Brazil's interior.

A top official with one of the agencies that prosecuted Van Roosmalen said his conviction was by the book. But he acknowledged that officials also believe it was important to send a signal to other scientists who consider environmental regulations to be optional.

The conviction "is an example that the regulations must be enforced," said Mario Lucio da Silva, acting regional superintendent for the Institute for the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, a government agency known by its Portuguese initials, IBAMA. Van Roosmalen's adventures started in neighboring Suriname, where he arrived two decades ago to study spider monkeys, often surviving on fruit discarded by his primate subjects.

From there, Van Roosmalen landed a job in the late 1980s in Manaus with INPA, the government-run National Institute of Amazon Research. He immersed himself in the jungle, hanging his hammock from trees during expeditions and turning his sparse home into a zoo for monkeys and other animals.

Van Roosmalen embarked on a nine-month odyssey into the jungle to confirm new species of the Pygmy Marmoset, Titi monkeys and other primates. Now a Brazilian citizen, he received the Order of the Golden Ark from the Dutch monarchy.

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