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Trials of a Primatologist

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

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(Continued from page 3)

The next morning, our last on the Rio Negro, the crew anchored the boat at the base of a cliff, and van Roosmalen, Vivi and I climbed a steep wooden staircase to a nature camp at the edge of the jungle. With a local guide and his two mangy dogs leading the way, we followed a sinuous trail through terre firma vegetation: primary rain forest that, unlike the igapó we'd been exploring, sits high enough above the river to avoid submersion during the rainy season. Van Roosmalen pointed out lianas as thick as large anacondas, and explained how these and other epiphytes (flora, in this setting, that live on other plants in the forest canopy) function as giant vessels for capturing carbon dioxide, and thus play a vital role in reducing global warming. "The total surface of leaves in a rain forest is a thousand, maybe even a million times bigger than the monoculture they want to convert the Amazon into," he told me. Farther down the jungle trail, he showed me a dwarf species of palm tree that captures falling leaves in its basketlike fronds; the decomposing material scatters around the base of the tree and fortifies the nutrient-poor soil, allowing the palm to thrive. "Every creature in the rain forest develops its survival strategy," he said.

Van Roosmalen's own survival strategy had proved disastrously unreliable up to now; but he said he was confident that everything was going to work out. As we walked back through the forest toward the Rio Negro, he told me that if the high court in Brasilia found him innocent, he would sue INPA to get his old job back and try to pick up his old life. If the high court upheld all or part of the sentence, there was "no way" that he would return to jail. Although the Brazilian police had frozen his bank account and seized his Brazilian passport to prevent him from fleeing the country, van Roosmalen assured me, without going into detail, that he had a contingency escape plan. He had job offers waiting for him at academic institutions in the United States, he said. Perhaps he would go to Peru to search for the next Machu Picchu. "I've seen the Landsat pictures, and I know it's out there," he told me. "I'll be the one to find it." We reached the river and climbed aboard the Alyson. Van Roosmalen stood at the railing as the boat puttered downstream, carrying him away from his brief jungle idyll, back toward an uncertain future.

Writer Joshua Hammer is based in Berlin.
Freelance photographer Claudio Edinger works out of São Paulo.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

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

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