Trials of a Primatologist

How did a renowned scientist who has done groundbreaking research in Brazil run afoul of authorities there?

(Cheryl Carlin)
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At seven o'clock in the morning on june 15, 2007, the bell rang at the front gate of Marc van Roosmalen's modest house on the outskirts of Manaus, Brazil. For van Roosmalen, a Dutch-born primatologist and Amazon adventurer who had been chosen one of Time magazine's "Heroes for the Planet" in 2000, that was a somewhat unusual event: visitors had lately become scarce. The 60-year-old scientist was dwelling in semi-isolation, having separated from his wife, become estranged from his two sons, lost his job at a Brazilian research institute and been charged with a raft of offenses, including misusing government property and violating Brazil's biopiracy laws. But things had begun to turn around for van Roosmalen: he had been exonerated in three successive trials and had even begun to talk optimistically about getting his old job back. In July, he was planning to travel on a research vessel up the Rio Negro, the Amazon's main tributary, with a group of biology students from the United States, his first such trip in years.

Van Roosmalen buzzed open the compound gate, he told me recently. Moments later, he said, five heavily armed federal police officers burst into the garden, bearing a warrant for his arrest. Then, as his 27-year-old Brazilian girlfriend, Vivi, looked on in horror, van Roosmalen says, police cuffed his hands behind his back and placed him in the back seat of a black Mitsubishi Pajero. Van Roosmalen asked where they were heading. It was only then, he says, that he learned that he had just been found guilty, in a criminal procedure conducted in his absence, of crimes ranging from keeping rare animals without a permit to illegal trafficking in Brazil's national patrimony, to the theft of government property. The sentence: 14 years and 3 months in prison.

Van Roosmalen's immediate destination was the Manaus public jail, a decrepit structure in the city center built at the height of the Amazon rubber boom a century ago. Regarded by human-rights groups as one of Brazil's most dangerous and overcrowded jails, it is filled with some of the Amazon's most violent criminals, including murderers, rapists, armed robbers and drug traffickers. According to van Roosmalen, he was tossed into a bare concrete cell with five other men considered likely to be killed by other inmates. His cellmates included two contract killers who spent their days in the windowless chamber smoking crack cocaine and sharing fantasies of rape and murder. Lying in his concrete bunk after dark, van Roosmalen would stare up at the swastika carved into the bunk above his, listen to the crack-fueled rants of his cellmates and wonder if he would survive the night. John Chalmers, a 64-year-old British expatriate who visited van Roosmalen in jail in July, says he found the naturalist "in terrible shape: drawn, haggard, depressed. He was telling me how he'd seen prisoners have their necks snapped in front of him. He was frightened for his life."

For van Roosmalen, the journey into the depths of the Brazilian prison system marked the low point of a terrible fall from grace. At the height of his career, just five years earlier, the scientist had been hailed as one of the world's most intrepid field naturalists and a passionate voice for rain forest preservation. In his native Holland, where he is a household name, he received the country's highest environmental honor, the Order of the Golden Ark, from the Netherlands' Prince Bernhard, consort to Queen Juliana, in 1997; the National Geographic documentary Species Hunter, filmed in 2003, celebrated his adventurous spirit as he trekked up remote Amazonian tributaries in search of rare flora and fauna. Van Roosmalen claimed to have identified seven never-before-seen species of primates—including a dwarf marmoset and a rare orange-bearded titi monkey—along with a collarless, piglike peccary and a variety of plant and tree species. He had used these discoveries to promote his bold ideas about the Amazon's unique evolutionary patterns and to give momentum to his quest to carve these genetically distinct zones into protected reserves, where only research and ecotourism would be allowed. "Time after time after time, [van Roosmalen has contributed to] this sense that we're still learning about life on earth," says Tom Lovejoy, who conceived the public television series Nature and today is president of the H. John Heinz III Center for Science, Economics and the Environment in Washington, D.C.

But van Roosmalen's passions ultimately proved his undoing. Observers say he became trapped in a web of regulations meant to protect Brazil against "biopiracy," loosely defined as the stealing of a country's genetic material or live flora and fauna. Brazil's determination to guard its natural resources dates back to the 19th century, when Sir Henry Wickham, a British botanist and explorer, smuggled out rubber-tree seeds to British Malaya and Ceylon and, as a result, precipitated the collapse of Brazil's rubber industry. Critics say the thicket of anti-piracy rules set up by the government has created frustration and fear in the scientific community. At a biologists' conference in Mexico this past July, 287 scientists from 30 countries signed a petition saying that van Roosmalen's jailing was "indicative of the trend of governmental repression in Brazil," and "will...have a deterrent effect on international collaborations between Brazilian scientists and their bio-partners worldwide." The petitioners called the sentence excessive and argued that "for a man of Dr. van Roosmalen's age, temperament and condition [it] is tantamount to a death sentence." One of the scientists told the New York Times: "If they can get him on trumped-up charges, they can get any of us." The Times ran a report on van Roosmalen's incarceration last August, three weeks after he was released from jail on a habeas corpus ruling pending an appeal of his conviction.

"Amazonas is the Wild West, and van Roosmalen was one of the loudest voices against deforestation," says one American biopiracy expert who has followed the case closely. "He became a thorn in the side of local authorities." For their part, Brazilian officials insist that the punishment fit the crime. "Van Roosmalen had so many problems, so it was not possible to make the sentence soft," says Adilson Coelho Cordeiro, chief inspector in Manaus for IBAMA, Brazil's equivalent of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "Brazil followed the letter of the law."

Indeed, according to colleagues and family members, van Roosmalen's wounds were at least partially self-inflicted. They paint a portrait of a man whose pursuit of the wonders of nature led, as it did with zoologist Dian Fossey of Gorillas in the Mist, to an unraveling of his human relationships. Van Roosmalen, they say, repeatedly bent the rules and alienated politicians, peers and underlings. Then, as his life became engulfed in a nightmare of police raids, prosecutions and vilifications in the press, the scientist turned against loved ones as well. In the end, he found himself friendless, isolated and unable to defend himself—the lonely martyr that he has often made himself out to be. "These fantasies that everybody is out to destroy him, these things are only in his head," says Betty Blijenberg, his wife of 30 years whom he's now divorcing. "I would tell him to keep quiet, but he would never listen. And this created big problems for him."

I met Marc van Roosmalen for the first time on a sultry November morning in the lobby of Manaus' Tropical Business Hotel, three months after his release from jail. The scientist had been keeping a low profile while waiting for his appeal to be heard by Brazil's high court, turning down interviews, but he had grown impatient and decided to break his silence. He even suggested that we spend several days on a friend's riverboat heading up the Rio Negro, to talk in privacy while immersed in the environment he loves.

Van Roosmalen walked into the hotel, an 18-story tower overlooking the wide Rio Negro, wearing a tattered T-shirt, jeans and hiking boots. He reminded me of an aging rock star venturing tentatively back on tour: his blond hair hung in a shag cut; a goatee and droopy blond mustache framed his drawn face; and a fine pattern of wrinkles was etched around his pale blue eyes. The trauma of his recent incarceration had not worn off. There was still a wounded-animal quality to the man; he approached me cautiously, holding the hand of Vivi, Antonia Vivian Silva Garcia, whose robust beauty only made her companion seem more hangdog. Van Roosmalen had begun seeing her in 2003, shortly after they met in a Manaus beauty salon owned by her brother; the relationship, revealed to van Roosmalen's wife by their 25-year-old son, Tomas, precipitated the breakup of his marriage and the disintegration of his personal life just as his career was falling apart. Van Roosmalen now clung to Vivi as his one unwavering source of support. He told me that she had brought him food in jail, found new lawyers for him and kept his spirits up when he was feeling low. "I owe her my life," he says.

As we sat in the hotel coffee shop sipping Guarána, a soft drink made from the seed of an Amazonian fruit, van Roosmalen spoke ruefully about what he repeatedly called "my downfall." The Brazilian press, he said, "is calling me the ëbiggest biopirate of the Amazon.'" He reached into a briefcase and extracted a photocopy of a letter he'd prepared for the press during his incarceration but hadn't made public until now. The handwritten screed called the cases against him, begun in 2002, a politically motivated "frame" job and lashed out at the Brazilian government led by populist president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. "The best way to unite Brazil's masses is to create a common enemy that is easy to distinguish," van Roosmalen had written. "Who better to pick as a target, as a symbol of the biopiracy evil, than the Dutch gringo?" In the letter he questioned "whether I will get out of [jail] tell the world the truth." It was, I thought, exactly the kind of inflammatory document that would likely infuriate the very people he needed most—and undermine his efforts at exoneration.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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