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[SAO PAULO] The Brazilian government has launched a US$1 million project to gather its biodiversity knowledge into a single network of national databases. The project, which will involve the creation of new specimen collection centres, aims to give Brazil control over its own biodiversity as well as any commercial benefits that arise from its use.

Much of the scientific knowledge about Brazilian species rarely finds its way home to Brazil. It is generated by researchers from other countries and published in foreign language journals. "We want to reverse this flow of information," says Ione Egler, general coordinator of the biodiversity research and policy programme at the country’s Ministry of Science and Technology, which is responsible for the new project. "We are going to open our ark to see what we’ve got.”

The project, which involves ten research institutions in the Amazon region and 23 in the semi-arid north-east of the country, will catalogue Brazilian plants, animals and micro-organisms. This work will involve gathering information currently dispersed throughout several biological collections into a single network, comprising new and existing databanks.

New research centres will also be set up to collect biological specimens, describe species and study the way they interact within ecosystems. This part of the programme will increase research investments in regions such as the Amazon, which are very rich in biodiversity but have limited human research capacity. In these areas, the programme will bring research training, doctoral opportunities and new equipment.

The National Institute of Amazon Research (INPA) is already working with local research organisations to create the first centre, which will have trail systems and lodges for researchers, in the state of Roraima. The Emilio Goeldi Museum will work with INPA on the creation of other research units in the Amazon, and the National Semi-Arid Institute will coordinate the creation of research units in the semi-arid north-east.

Most of the information in the database network will be available to the general public. However, data that could have commercial value, such as that on molecular structures that could be exploited for drug development, will be available to national and international companies only under restrictive or paid conditions. The programme will encourage companies to create partnerships with participating Brazilian research organisations in order to access the data.

The project is, however, provoking criticism from states whose organisations were kept out of the process.

"It is not right to deliver our biological collections and not get anything in return, such as scientific qualifications and support to install laboratories," says Jose Maria da Silva, secretary of Science and Technology for Amapa. This state in the Amazon region prides itself on it successful conservation of more than 90 per cent of the forest within its boundaries.

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