A pioneering biologist named a "hero for the planet" by Time magazine in 2000 for his work to save the Amazon rainforest has been jailed in Brazil, amid claims that he has been framed.
Marc van Roosmalen, 60, of Dutch background, was jailed last week in Manaus, Amazonas state capital, accused of stealing 28 monkeys found in his home.
Supporters say van Roosmalen is the victim of a witch-hunt because of his stance against illegal loggers. They say he ran an animal hospital and that he has been framed because of his fight to defend the world's largest rainforest from cattle ranchers and soy companies.
"It's a vendetta," said John Chalmers, an English businessman who runs a jungle expedition company in Manaus and has worked with the scientist for four years, accompanying him on fact-finding missions in the jungle.
"The only way to protect the Amazon is to make people aware of all these species. Marco tried to preserve the species and their natural habitat. This does not suit politicians who own large tracts of land full of logs that they want to sell," Chalmers said.
Chalmers said he believed local politicians had jumped on the "bio-piracy bandwagon", stirring xenophobic fears that the scientist was stealing wildlife from the Amazon. "For 95 percent of the population here the biggest assets are timber and land. They want to bulldoze the forest at every possible opportunity. Anything Marco does is contrary to their interests," he said.
Marc van Roosmalen first came to Brazil in the late 1980s, working in Manaus for the Brazilian government. He discovered several unknown species of primate and received numerous awards, including the Order of the Golden Ark from Prince Bernhard of the Netherlands, in 1997. In 2000 he traveled to San Francisco to receive Time magazine's Heroes for the Planet environmental award. He also worked for the Institute of Amazonian Research, a scientific research unit in Manaus.
In 1997 the influential Brazil-ian magazine Veja wrote a special report on van Roosmalen, known by colleagues in the Amazon simply as "Mr Marco". "He loves to travel through the rivers and forests of the Amazon," the report said. "He doesn't use repellent [and he] hangs his hammock in any tree he comes across."
"The work of researchers like Roosmalen ... isn't just about the pleasure of giving their names to newly discovered animals," the report said.
"The biggest role is to try to prevent animals and plants from disappearing before they are known scientifically," it concluded.
Yesterday supporters said van Roosmalen planned to appeal but they now fear for his life. "He was almost crying," said Chalmers, who visited the biologist in Manaus' public jail this week.
"He's likely to be attacked there because he looks like a foreigner," he said; van Roosmalen had told him that there was somebody killed inside the prison every night.
According to the website of the Algemeen Dagblad newspaper in Rotterdam, the Dutch government could do nothing to help van Roosmalen since he had taken Brazilian nationality in 1996.