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HomesciencePaleontologists identify strategies to combat illegal fossil trade in Brazil | ...

Paleontologists identify strategies to combat illegal fossil trade in Brazil | Sciences

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When the word fossil appears in the news, many people think of giant animals, such as a tyrannosaurus or a brontosaurus. No fossils of this size have been found on Brazilian soil, but our specimens are as incredible as the ones we see in the movies.

Our excavations, which were little known due to lack of publicity, gained prominence in newspapers and television in the country and abroad at the end of last year. On December 23, France returned nearly a thousand specimens to Brazil, including pterosaurs, fish, plants and insects.

The agreement to return these materials took a decade to become a reality and was the largest repatriation in terms of volume of cultural assets in Brazilian history. The vast majority of this batch that returned to their homeland at the end of 2023 left here through smuggling.

Some kidnapped specimens are of inestimable value. Others generate huge sums of money for criminals. The case of the recovery in 2006 by French customs of thirteen fossils of mesosaurs from the Brazilian Permian hidden inside the Bibles is well known in the world. At the time, the material's budget was $500,000.

Clearly this does not only happen in Brazil. American actor Nicolas Cage has been forced to return a Mongolian dinosaur skull purchased for US$276,000 to the Mongolian government because the fossil left the country illegally.

An illicit and lucrative market

We have no idea how much fossil material was secretly taken from Brazil or how long ago this happened. One reason is that under the current rules, if a fossil turns up before 1942, when the first sector law was published, the act cannot be classified as an offence.

Perhaps the most famous case is that of a tetrapod fossil, which was first described in 2015 in the journal Sciences As one of the first snakes to have four legs. Subsequent articles question this classification. But the truth is that this fossil was found in the Araripe Basin and stolen from the country. It was not returned on the grounds that it was obtained before 1942.

This loophole in the legislation means that some private museums abroad say their Brazilian specimens were acquired before that date. It turns out that the vast majority of these materials ended up in institutions and even public museums in other countries after 1942 in an unexplained manner.

Decree Law No. 4146 of 1942 determined that fossil deposits are the property of the nation and established the necessity of obtaining a license to extract them. But it was the 1988 Federal Constitution that considered the excavation sites as the country's cultural heritage. Since then, some laws have been created. The most recent, from 2016, formulates fossil extraction procedures.

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In general, paleontological research involving foreigners in the country is well regulated. According to our laws, a fossil can only leave Brazil if it is related to research. If the researcher is a foreigner, he/she must formalize comprehensive documentation with the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (MCTI). But this did not prevent the large influx of illegal fossils, i.e. their trade.

It is believed that the main route for most fossils taken secretly from Brazil is by sea. They are packed in containers and shipped on ships. In Brazilian ports, the cargo is classified as ornamental rocks.

Due to another flaw in the legislation, limestone rocks containing fossils can be classified as ornamental rocks, sold and removed from the country. They take with them thousands of fossils that are part of the Brazilian paleontological heritage. Their true fate? It's hard to say.

Much of the material smuggled from one of our largest fossil sites, the Araripe Basin, in the north-east of the country, follows this route. The fossils found in this sedimentary basin have an exceptional state of preservation, often allowing the soft parts of the animals and their colors to be preserved. To get an idea of ​​the scale of the problem, according to a study conducted by the British Royal Commission, 88% of Araribee fossils are found abroad.

Return of Ubiragara Gobatus

Not long ago, a fossil from the Araripe Basin attracted global attention. Little dinosaur Oberagara gobatus (Name nudum) was described on December 13, 2020 in the article “A crested theropod dinosaur from Gondwana with elaborate integumentary structures,” in the popular journal Cretaceous research.

Graphical representation of the Ubirajara jubatus fossil returned to Brazil by Germany – Image: Revista da Fapesp/Wikipedia Commons

Initially, the Ubirajara was received with great interest by the scientific community due to its unique characteristics, such as the feathers in the dorsal region, where they form a crest, and two pairs of larger quills or feathers emerging from the shoulders.

However, it has also come to our attention that the fossil from the Araripe Basin, in Brazil, should not be in a German museum, as the researchers who described it said it was. The institution was the Museum of Natural History Karlsruhe (SMNK).

Immediately, the Brazilian Society of Paleontology contacted the editor of the scientific journal to report its astonishment at the publication of Brazilian fossil materials without, apparently, the relevant documentation for the departure of the fossil materials from the country.

The authors of the work had in their hands documents referring to an “authorisation” from the National Directorate of Mineral Production (DNPM, currently the National Agency for Mining/ANM) dated 1995. However, there was a notable descriptive defect in the authorized material which, on paper, was noted Simply called “Two Boxes”. Two boxes?

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Even if researchers obtain a permit from the DNPM, the export of the Brazilian fossil will still be illegal if it is not also supported by a license from the CNPq (National Council for Scientific and Technological Development). This is what was defined in Decree No. 55, dated March 14, 1990, of MCTI.

The same legislation stipulates that all fossil specimens, such as Ubirajara jubatus (SMNK PAL 29241), must remain in the country. Understanding the illegality of the fossil in its publications for the magazine Cretaceous researchH- He stopped printing the manuscript and considered withdrawing it from publication. Science Direct.

Initially, the process was hampered by the inability of foreign researchers to acknowledge the legal error associated with publishing the fossil.

In 2022, action by the Federal Public Ministry (MPF) led to the return of this more than 100 million-year-old Brazilian fossil, dating back to the Cretaceous period. The item was sold illegally on an auction site in Italy – Photography: Renato Pirani Gilardi

These measures, along with several actions by researchers and paleontology enthusiasts who flooded the Internet with the hashtag #ubirajarabelongstobrasil, prompted the German museum to try to make a fool of itself by returning the specimen to Brazil.

After much negotiation, the copy returned to Brazil on June 4, 2023 in an exchange ceremony between the two governments. It is now preserved in the Placido Cidade Novines Museum of Paleontology, in the Carere district, in Ceará, where it was collected.

Despite the debates arising from this return, with specialists believing that research paths with aliens would be closed, many fossils were repatriated. In particular, arthropods such as spiders Cretabalbus vitariwhich were returned by the University of Kansas in the United States in October 2021, and fish from the European collections.

Oberagara was not the first fossil to be returned to its home. In 2016, the Museum of Natural History and Science in Cincinnati, in the United States, returned a complete collection of fossil marine macroinvertebrates, called the Caster Collection, along with about a ton of material, to the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro. Janeiro. This was the first return after negotiations by professional paleontologists.

An organized response to scientific colonialism

We scientists know that science has no borders, but we have to protect ourselves from what we call scientific colonialism – the way scientists from developed countries generate knowledge by exploiting natural resources in developing countries.

It is not uncommon for some foreigners to believe that there are no laws in our countries dealing with the departure of fossils, or even to consider that there are no scientific conditions for fossils to remain in our countries.

In opposition to this, the Latin American paleontological societies (Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Mexico, Peru and Ecuador) came together to prove that there is too much cutting-edge science being done in our countries and that they must respect the laws that protect our natural and cultural heritage.

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The idea is for our associations to participate in conferences and events to disseminate and change people's thinking about the science we do. Another intervention is to work with scientific publications to revise standards and expand the use of fossil materials.

Another important initiative is the creation of Brazil's Red List in 2023. The list, prepared by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), lists fossils, maps, books and ethnographic objects among the cultural assets most at risk of being trafficked. It is distributed to police and customs authorities around the world and is available on the Internet. Its goal is to prevent these goods from leaving the country and entering illegal international circulation.

The participation of Brazilian paleontologists in the Catalog of Life, a database of the world's species, maintained by international taxonomists, is another measure that contributes to the promotion of new public policies to protect the most sensitive or rare fossil materials.

Another area where we need progress is in regulating the profession of paleontologists. A bill (791/2019) is slowly being processed in Congress that would provide security to the specialist who protects the paleontological heritage and the history it tells us. The proposal was redistributed to the committees last year.

In practical terms, the range of actions taken by the Brazilian Paleontological Society and the challenges that must be faced to protect and preserve our natural and cultural heritage need to be better disseminated and made known to Brazilians.

In January of this year, a group of researchers, of which I was part, published an article in the journal Nature ecology and evolution On the role of communities. In the text “Scientific societies have a role to play in returning fossils to their original habitatwe show that repatriation of fossils is a central issue for paleontology and an essential stance to confront scientific colonialism.

In recovery Oberagara gobatusFor example, there was a joint operation between the Brazilian and French police forces and important cooperation between MCTI, the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the International Council of Museums, paleontology museums, and federal and state universities. This integration of forces is what we need to meet our challenges.

*Renato Pirani Gilardi is Vice President of the Brazilian Paleontological Society and Professor at the Universidad Estadual Paulista (Unesp). This text was originally published on the site Conversation.

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