Project typifies crime of biopiracy and provides for punishment of up to 12 years in prison


O Globo, 17/04/2005

The federal government is preparing a bill designed to curb the fate of biopirates who act almost unpunished in Brazilian forests. One of the main objectives is to classify the crime of biopiracy, which currently does not exist in the country's laws. Because of the legal vacuum, the practice has been punished only based on the law on environmental crimes, whose penalties are milder. Result: there are rare cases of imprisoned biopirates, which acts as an incentive to activity.

The lack of a law that defines biopiracy as a crime makes it difficult for the authorities charged with combating it. The environmental crimes law provides for sentences ranging from six months to one and a half years in prison only, which almost always gives the accused the right to respond to the process in freedom. In the case of foreign biopirates, most of the time they just sign a detailed term and are free to leave the country.

? Does this hinder our action? says Chief of Police Paulo de Tarso Teixeira, head of the Federal Police's Division to Combat Crimes Against the Environment.

Spiders sold for R $ 11 in Europe

In addition to the legal vacuum, there is a lack of infrastructure to deal with biopiracy. In all the states of the Amazon, the PF has less than 20 police officers stationed in the environmental police stations, responsible for investigating this type of activity.

GLOBO had access to the copy of a reserved report, prepared by the government's intelligence area, which reveals a festival of biopiracy tricks to circumvent the already fragile control scheme. An emblematic case is that of the German Marc Baumgarten. In February 2001, he was arrested in Curitiba carrying crab spiders and then released, including with the approval of the Public Ministry, on the grounds that spiders do not fit the definition of wild animals.

Soon Baumgarten would return to giving the authorities work, this time in the Amazon. In 2003, in the municipality of Presidente Figueiredo, 110 kilometers from Manaus, he enlisted children to collect spiders in exchange for some change. He paid R $ 3 for the copy. His strategy caused several of these children to be stung. In a more detailed investigation, it was discovered that he had entered the country ten times since 1994. In 2001 alone, he sent 20 different species of spiders to Germany. He sold the specimens for values ​​that amounted to 3.250 euros (about R $ 11 thousand).

Another German, Hans-Joachim Thiem, pretended to be an employee of a foreign tourism company interested in selling travel packages to the Amazon and managed, with the help of Indians, to collect 21 seeds.

The stratagems include the cooptation of natives and students from universities in the region, as did Irina Yokoyama, a woman of oriental traits who said she was interested in the medicinal potential of the seeds of coumaru and saracura mirá.

? We are drawing a line of action, but will the results still take a while to appear? admits Eduardo Vélez, executive secretary of the Genetic Heritage Management Council of the Ministry of the Environment.

Laboratory lobby by flexible rules

Despite the need to create more severe punishments, the bill to be sent to the National Congress continues at a slow pace. The basic text was sent by the Ministry of the Environment to the Presidency's Civil House at the end of 2003, so that the last adjustments could be made. So far, however, the project continues without an end.

The reason for the slowness is related to the tangle of interests that the subject involves. In addition to punishing offenders, the project provides for the sharing of profits obtained from trade in products made from genetic material collected in the country. Private laboratories have been lobbying for less strict rules, including for obtaining research authorization.

But it is not just external interference that delays sending the bill to Congress. Within the government itself there are differences. One of them is exactly the fixation of the feathers. The preliminary project that came out of the Environment provided for a fine of up to 12 years' imprisonment for more serious cases, such as illegal exploitation of genetic material for the purposes of bioterrorism.

Accessing genetic material without authorization would be a case of imprisonment for one to three years, plus a fine. Illegal sending of samples abroad could yield two to four years of imprisonment. And pirating at risk of causing damage to the environment would give jail time of up to six years. These penalties were coupled with fines of up to R $ 50. But the Ministry of Justice argues that the punishment is too strict and incompatible with penalties for other crimes of greater offensive potential.

The project creates strict rules for access to the Brazilian genetic heritage. It even covers the traditional knowledge of native populations. It also brings a new procedure, which may finance public actions in the sector: benefits resulting from the economic exploitation of the product obtained with the researched material will have to be shared equally among all those involved in the process, including the government itself.