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The Brazilian government has introduced new rules exempting scientific researchers from tough conditions imposed by current legislation on collecting genetic material from plants, animals and microorganisms.

The move follows complaints from researchers that the rules for collecting such material, which is vital for research into biodiversity, are too restrictive, and have practically frozen scientific activity in this field (Brazil's biopiracy laws are stifling research).

The new rules were approved last month by Brazil's Council for the Management of Genetic Patrimony (CGEN), which is attached to the Ministry of Environment.

They specify that "the advancement of knowledge and scientific research supporting the conservation and the sustainable use of national biodiversity are activities of strategic interest to the country". However they also specify that the research must not be carried out for commercial purposes.

"Anyone who has organised or taken part in a expedition to collect biological samples will be aware that it would be impossible to obtain authorisation from the owners of all the properties from which samples are taken before starting the expedition," says biologist Carlos Joly from the University of Campinas, in the state of São Paulo.

Joly coordinates a biodiversity research programme that involves 36 different projects and more than 300 scientists. "In most cases it is not even possible to identify the owners [of the property], not to mention the fact that the route taken by an expedition is usually decided during the field work", he says.

Even with the new rules, the impact of the current legislation on research remains controversial. A draft law being prepared by the Ministry of Environment promises to loosen restrictions on Brazilian scientists carrying out biodiversity research ever further.

Under the proposed law, biodiversity research projects carried out by scientists linked to Brazilian universities and research centres would no longer require approval by the CGEN. The only requirement would be that the institution is registered with the council, and submits research reports on a regular basis.

"The new rules are likely to stimulate biodiversity research which, under the new law, will fall into a specific category for non-commercial scientific investigation", says Marcelo Varela, a lawyer linked to the University Centre in Brasilia who represented the Brazilian Society for the Advancement of Science (SBPC) in a group that has been discussing the proposed law for several months.

"The Brazilian scientific community agrees that there is a need for effective legislation to protect Brazil's biodiversity," says Glaci Zancan from the Federal University of Paraná. "However, [genuine] research activities must not be obstructed."

The draft law defines three types of biodiversity studies: scientific research, bioprospecting and technological development. Research in the first category would be exempt from authorisation, and restrictions on bioprospecting would also be reduced, providing that it is carried out by an institution registered with the CGEN.

In contrast, projects falling into the third category will still require specific authorisation, and perhaps even the signing of a contract.

Link to the text of the rules (in Portuguese)