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Article: "Ancient piracy" makes foreigners dominate Brazilian excavations - 01/03/2022 - Science

Article: “Ancient piracy” makes foreigners dominate Brazilian excavations – 01/03/2022 – Science

An international team of researchers has identified part of the impact of the smuggling of Brazilian fossils abroad. Approximately 60% of scientific publications on materials from the Ararib Basin – between Ceará, Pernambuco and Piauí – are led by foreign authors not associated with Brazilian institutions.

Although Brazilian legislation specifically prohibits the departure of the fossils used as a reference to describe new species (so-called complete types) from the national territory, 88% of the specimens described by foreigners are outside Brazil.

The findings are part of a research paper just published in the specialist journal Royal Society Open Science, which analyzed academic work published between 1990 and 2021.

In the article—which also looks at the state of fossils in Mexico—the scholars point to the frequent presence of colonial practices in palaeontological research, with rich nations expropriating materials and species collected in poor nations, ignoring national heritage protection legislation. Science developed in these places.

In addition to providing quantitative data on ancient piracy, the new work details that international institutions turn a blind eye to fossil smuggling and that major scientific journals do not require documentation proving the legitimate origin of the material studied.

In some cases, the same groups of European researchers are responsible for the irregular exploration of fossils in both Brazil and Mexico.

The firm stance chosen by Brazilian and Mexican researchers now represents a deepening strategy of public disclosure of ethical and legal disputes related to the illegal exploitation of fossil heritage.

says paleontologist Juan Cisneros, a professor at the Federal University of Piauí and one of the authors of the article.

Cisneros points out that powerful research institutions in developed countries, as well as their scientists, use a vast arsenal of retaliation to terrorize and silence paleontologists from Brazil and other Latin American countries.

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“They are strong people. We know the weight of those we are dealing with. I have calculated the stakes a lot and I know I may suffer academic consequences, but this is something that needs to be done. We have to also fight within the academic realm. The topic of conferences, in the discussion of science,” he says. .

One of the researchers’ main concerns is the possibility of restricting access to Araripe fossils deposited in offshore collections. It is common knowledge that in order to study the main species of Brazilian prehistory, paleontologists have to travel through museums and universities in Europe, Japan, and the United States.

In addition to geographical distance and the high costs associated with the unfavorable exchange rate for Latin America, paleontologists also rely directly on licenses granted by foreign institutions.

In the survey conducted by the Brazilians, several publications were identified in which foreign researchers explained in detail that the fossils were purchased by their museums and institutions: something that is completely prohibited by Brazilian legislation.

“This made me very uncomfortable. Admitting that a Brazilian fossil was bought means no shame, no fear of punishment. It is as if this person knows they can go to a country, loot it and still talk about it openly.” Cisneros says.

Co-author of the work, professor at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte, Alain Gilardi, noted that foreign universities and museums have little incentive to examine the ethical and legal issues of excavations.

“Institutions are turning a blind eye to the fossil status because they benefit. They get more scientific articles in high-impact journals and have beautiful fossils that attract more visitors to museums. Nobody wants to lose the benefit. Nothing will change,” says the paleontologist, who advocates About exposing entities publicly.

Gilardi was one of the most active voices in Brazilian science against the international trade in fossils, and was one of the organizers of the Dinosaur Repatriation Campaign. ubirajara jubatuswhich Germany refuses to return.

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The mobilization, which has bypassed Brazilian social networks and reached the international press and scientific conferences abroad, is a turning point in the positioning of scientists.

The fossil of an exotic animal, which lived about 110 million years ago in the Aribe region, was illegally transported to Europe, where the species was described in a work without the participation of any Brazilian.

Immediately after the article was published, in December 2020, Brazilian researchers began mobilizing on social media with the #UbirajaraBelongstoBR campaign (Ubirajara belongs to Brazil).

The controversy spread through the international community and the journal Cretaceous Research ended up being unpublished. The magazine also announced a revision of its guidelines, stating that it will no longer accept fossils suspected of being illegally collected and exported from their countries of origin.

Despite the pressure, the Natural History Museum in Karlsruhe said it would not return the fossil to Brazil. The Foundation’s trustee, paleontologist Eberhard “Dino” Frey is specifically one of the authors of the article on ubirajara jubatus.

“A lot of people criticized it at first, saying that the hashtag protests didn’t work, but we managed to bring people together in different places in the world and bypass social networks. Discussion [sobre colonialismo na ciência] Stop whispering in the aisles and in coffee breaks, and become part of the main conference space,” explains Gilardi.

One of the great achievements of the campaign was the voluntary return of a prehistoric spider to Brazil Cretabalbos Vittari. named in honor of Pablo VitarThese and 35 other fossils were amicably returned to Brazil by the University of Kansas, in the United States, in October 2021.

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Although he notes a greater openness to the topic on the part of foreign paleontologists, Gilardi recognizes that there is still a long way to go. Therefore, the group proposes a series of good practice metrics for research institutions and scholarly journals.

One of the main suggestions is the requirement that there be ample documentary evidence that the material has a legal origin in their country, as well as the rejection of publications whose fossils contain questionable origin.

The authors also appeal to researchers and international bodies to engage in constructive partnerships with countries that supply fossils, and to abandon the purely exploratory paradigm.

According to the survey, the academic quality of articles produced from infrequently obtained fossils is also compromised, since basic information about the environment in which the material was collected is often not included.

The inclusion of middlemen, smugglers and artifact collectors in the equation encourages deliberate tampering with excavations in order to increase the sale value.

Due to the large number of articles signed by foreigners about the heritage of Araripe, the team did not include invertebrate animals and unfamiliar patterns in the analysis.

“We are only showing the tip of the iceberg,” explains Juan Cisneros. “The problem is certainly much larger.”

The group’s goal is to further explore issues related to the irregular trade in fossils.

On the Brazilian side, the article was also signed by: Felipe Pinheiro, Professor at Unipampa (Federal University of Pampa), Marcos Sills, from the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of Ceará, Renan Bantem, from the Provincial University of Carrere and Flaviana Lima from the Federal University of Pernambuco.