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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(Continued from page 2)

The skiff docked beside a riverside café, and we climbed out and followed the proprietor, a stout, middle-aged woman, into a trinket shop in back. Tied up by a rope was one of the oddest creatures I'd ever seen: a small, black monkey with a black mane that framed a peach-colored face shaped like a heart, with a sliver of a white mustache. Van Roosmalen beckoned to the saki monkey, which obligingly leapt onto his shoulder. The naturalist gazed into its face and stroked its mane; the saki responded with squeaks and grunts. "If you come onto these monkeys in the forest they freeze, and they don't come to life again until you leave the area," he said, studying the saki admiringly. Van Roosmalen paused. "It's an orphan monkey that somebody brought here," he said. "It's not like Africa. They don't put the baby in the pot with the mother, they sell it." The saki grabbed van Roosmalen's necklace made of palm-seeds and used its sharp canines to try to break open the rock-hard nuggets, gnawing away for several minutes without success.

Van Roosmalen was disappointed: "This saki should be distinct, because it's such a huge river, but it looks superficially like the male population on the other side of the Rio Negro," he said. Perhaps local Indians had introduced the Manaus saki monkeys to this side of the Rio Negro long ago, and the animals had escaped and carved out a new habitat. He conferred with the monkey's owner, who rummaged through the monkey's box filled with shredded paper and came up with a handful of dried brown fecal pellets. Van Roosmalen stuffed the pellets into the pocket of his cargo pants. "I'll run a DNA sampling when we get home," he said, as we climbed back into the skiff and sped back toward the Alyson.

It was on an excursion not so different from this one that van Roosmalen's career began to self-combust. On July 14, 2002, van Roosmalen told me, he was returning from a jungle expedition aboard his research vessel, the Callibella, when a team of Amazonas state agents boarded the boat. (Van Roosmalen said he believes they were tipped off by a jealous colleague.) The authorities seized four baby orphaned monkeys that van Roosmalen was transporting back to his Manaus rehabilitation center; the scientist lacked the necessary paperwork for bringing the monkeys out of the jungle but believed he had properly registered the research project years earlier. Van Roosmalen was accused of biopiracy, and interrogated during a congressional investigation. At first, recalls son Vasco, 31, INPA's director rushed to his defense: then, "Marc started criticizing his INPA colleagues in the press, saying 'everybody is jealous of me'—and INPA's defense faltered." Van Roosmalen's bosses at INPA convened a three-man internal commission to investigate a host of alleged infractions. These included illegal trafficking in animals and genetic material, improperly auctioning off the names of monkey species to fund his NGO and failing to do the mandatory paperwork in advance of his field research.

In December 2002, Cohn-Haft circulated among his colleagues a letter he had written in support of van Roosmalen, accusing the press and the INPA administration of exaggerating his offenses. "I thought there would be a wave of solidarity, and instead I saw very little response," Cohn-Haft told me. "People said, 'Don't put your hand in the fire for this guy. It's more complicated than you think.'" Months later, two dozen IBAMA agents raided van Roosmalen's house, seizing 23 monkeys and five tropical birds. Van Roosmalen was charged with keeping endangered animals without a license—despite the fact, he argued, that he had applied for such a permit four times in six years without ever receiving a response. Cohn-Haft calls IBAMA's treatment of him unfair. "Marc really cares about these creatures," he says. "If you are receiving monkeys from the same agency that is giving out permits, you figure that these people aren't going to stab you in the back." Four months later, on April 7, 2003, van Roosmalen was fired from his INPA job.

Abandoned by the research institute that had supported him for years, van Roosmalen told me that he then found himself especially vulnerable to Brazilian politicians and prosecutors. He was accused of theft and fraud in a 1999 arrangement with a British documentary production company, Survival Anglia, to import five tons of aluminum scaffolding for use on a jungle film project. To qualify for a waiver on import duties, the company had registered the scaffolding as the property of INPA; but then, the authorities charged, van Roosmalen illegally used it after the films were shot to make monkey cages for his breeding center. Russell Mittermeier and other influential U.S. scientists urged van Roosmalen to accept a deal they heard the Brazilian authorities were proffering. Recalls Vasco: "INPA would receive the [confiscated] monkeys and my father would cede the cages that were made of parts of the scaffolding. But he ignored that deal, he continued to criticize IBAMA, and everybody else."

It was about this time, according to van Roosmalen, that his younger son, Tomas, told his mother about the photographs of Vivi. Shortly after, van Roosmalen moved out of the house. At almost the same time, the board of van Roosmalen's NGO, which included the three members of his immediate family and four native-born Brazilians, voted to remove him as president, citing such administrative irregularities as his failure to submit financial reports. The board seized the NGO's bank account, research vessel and Toyota Land Cruiser. "We went by the book," says one board member.

Ricardo Augusto de Sales, the federal judge in Manaus who handed down the June 8 verdict against van Roosmalen, imposed, says van Roosmalen, the harshest possible punishment: two years for holding protected species without a permit, and 12 years and 3 months for "appropriating" Brazil's "scientific patrimony" (the scaffolding) and using it for "commercial gain." According to Vasco, his father's lawyer had not been paid in years and thus provided no defense. "All [the judge] had was the prosecutor's version." (Van Roosmalen's attorney declined to comment.)

After van Roosmalen went to jail, says Vasco, his wife and Marc's eldest brother, who had come from Holland to help, rushed to Manaus to hire new lawyers and try to get him freed pending an appeal; Vivi also brought lawyers, who, according to Vasco, submitted "a hastily written, one-page appeal" to the high court in Brasilia, the capital. At the same time, Betty Blijenberg, who had done social work for five years at the jail and knew the staff, begged the director to move her husband to a solitary cell. "I knew he was in danger, they were going to kill him, he couldn't defend himself. I asked him, 'Why is he there? Why is he not in a separate cell?' The director said, 'There's nowhere else to put him.'" Van Roosmalen believed he was in grave peril: he says he was told that inmates had purchased crack cocaine from the jailhouse "sheriff," a convicted murderer, paying for it by "billing" van Roosmalen's prison "account." He was also told that he needed to come up with about $1,000 to pay off the debt or he would be killed; van Roosmalen's attorneys ultimately lent him the cash. After one month, his attorneys managed to get him moved to a military garrison while Judge de Sales was on holiday; but after five days, the judge returned and ordered him back to the public jail, arguing that van Roosmalen was not entitled to privileged treatment. Fifty-seven days into his ordeal, with the Brazilian government under pressure from the Dutch Foreign Ministry, the scientific establishment and the international media, a federal court in Brasilia set van Roosmalen free.

Vasco traces his father's downfall to "a number of disconnected actions by individuals, rather than a big conspiracy." Cohn-Haft agrees. "It's not The Pelican Brief," he says. "It's about a bunch of crappy people finding someone they can pick on and picking on him. We're talking hubris on his side. He really thinks that he's some kind of savior. And on the other side, he's being made out to be an enormous villain. And both versions are exaggerated."

But in Marc van Roosmalen's eyes, a vast array of enemies, including his immediate family, are all out to get him. On our final evening on the Rio Negro, the scientist sat at the dinner table on the boat's main deck, his haggard face illuminated by fluorescent lights, and laid out how his foes sought to "get me out of the way" because "I know too much" about corruption and the efforts of big Brazilian interests to destroy the Amazon rain forest. Eyes widening, he singled out his son Vasco as a prime perpetrator. Driven by an "Oedipus complex" and his desire to ingratiate himself with the Brazilian government, van Roosmalen claimed, Vasco had engineered his removal from the NGO, stolen his boat and car and tried to force him to hire a criminal attorney who would deliberately lose the case. "He wanted me to die in prison," van Roosmalen said. He accused his wife, Betty, of conspiring with IBAMA to have him arrested in revenge for his extramarital affair; he lashed out at his former colleagues at INPA as "scavengers." Fellow scientists such as Russell Mittermeier had "turned their backs on me" to protect their own ventures in the rain forest. "They have lots of money at stake," he said. As van Roosmalen ranted on into the night, I had the feeling that I was sitting in some Brazilian version of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Isolated in the middle of the Amazon jungle and under continuous attack for years, it seemed to me quite possible that the scientist had been infected by a touch of madness. His two months of hell in the Manaus jail, I thought, must have confirmed all of his suspicions about plots and vendettas. Who among us, I wondered, thrown into the same nightmare, could resist finding a common thread of conspiracy winding through our troubles?

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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