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[CUIABA] Eduardo Campos, Brazil's minister of science and technology, has told the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) that research on the Amazon forest is a priority for the country's government.

"The Amazon forest is our priority, not only due to its strategic importance in the international, continental and national context, but also due to the patrimony of its biodiversity, part of which is still unknown," declared Campos at the SBPC's 56th annual meeting in Cuiaba last week.

According to Campos, there are two main challenges for the Amazon: sustainable exploitation of the region's resources and better integration of the region with the rest of Brazil.

To meet these challenges, members of the science and technology ministry staff, led by geographer Bertha Becker of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, will design new strategies for developing the Amazon region, for implementation in 2005. The team is expected to identify areas of work that deserve the support of the government and actions needing promotion. 

"An urgent issue that concerns our ministry is the reduced number of researchers working in the Amazon," said Campos. "There are currently only about a thousand."

He said an additional US$5 million has been made available to fund masters and doctoral research focusing on the Amazon. These fellowships are provided by the so-called 'sectoral funds' — a scheme introduced by the previous government under which funding for research is raised through a tax on companies working in sectors such as energy (see Brazil revises its sectoral approach to research funding).

"Not only do we need to be vigilant in order to control deforestation, but we must also develop alternatives for using the Amazon forest in a sustainable way," said Campos.

Ennio Candotti, SBPC president, also focused on conservation of the Amazon forest in a speech delivered during the meeting's opening session. Candotti suggested that a meeting should be convened with soya and cattle producers to negotiate a moratorium on deforestation.

Both cattle farming and cultivation of soybeans have contributed to the destruction of the Amazon rainforest (see Demand for Brazilian beef threatens rainforest).

"We knocked down a dictatorship to write the present constitution," said Candotti, reminding the audience that protection of the environment is part of Brazilian law. "But twenty-five thousand square kilometres of rainforest are being cut down every year, and one-fifth of the forest has already disappeared."

The Cuiaba meeting, held from 18 to 23 July, was attended by 12,000 people, many of whom were members of the public.