"Alternative fuel helps us tide over oil crises"

LUIS FERNANDES, Brazil's deputy minister for science and technology, talks to T V JAYAN about his government's biodiesel project and its other science and technology programmes

 
Published: Tuesday 30 November 2004

Tell us about the science and technology priorities of your government
Our resources are meagre, so we consider it prudent to concentrate on a few critical areas: microelectronics, capital goods, biotechnology, biodiesel and pharmaceuticals. Currently, we spend less than 1 per cent of our gross domestic product (gdp) on science and technology. But there are plans to increase this expenditure to 2 per cent of the gdp in the near future. Initially, we had aimed to attain this target by the end of this year. But that seems unlikely. Brazil borrowed heavily during the earlier regime and debt servicing has left us with very little funds for fresh investments in science and technology. But unlike most other developing countries, about 40 per cent funds required in research are put in by the industry -- including public sector firms. That is a very healthy trend.

In addition to the immediate priorities, we have long-term goals such as using nuclear science for medical and strategic applications, and protection and sustainable utilisation of the rich biodiversity of the Amazon region. In space science, there is an ongoing programme with China to launch five earth observation satellites; two of these have already been put into space. We also encourage small farmers in the Amazon to grow vegetables and plants that yield biodiesel. It's a major income generation activity for them.

While most countries merely talked about developing alternatives to oil, Brazil went ahead with the move on a large scale
At the height of the oil crisis of the early 1970s, Brazil drew up a national fuel programme based on alcohol. We were then the largest producer of sugarcane and there was often a surfeit of the crop in the market. We decided to tap it for alcohol, that was finally used to make diesel. The programme was a success. In the late 1980s and the early 1990s, half the vehicles in Brazil ran on alcohol. The subsequent dip in international oil prices to about us $20 a barrel market made some farmers go back to sugar production. But by then, we had struck oil on the offshore.

Using alcohol to make fuel must have been a wise decision, considering oil prices are now well over us $55
Yes, alternative fuel helps us tide over oil crises. Our biodiesel programme is the logical culmination of the earlier government's alternative fuel programme. Today, we mix 18 per cent alcohol and 2 per cent of biodiesel in gasoline. This biodiesel is produced by using plants grown by small farmers all across the country.

Tell us about Brazil's plans to shift to the open source software platform
One major decision of the present government was to move over to the inexpensive open source platform from proprietary technologies and software supplied by global information technology firms. Currently, we are in a transition stage in that programme. We are also working on expanding our software and hardware capabilities. We intend to develop hardware akin to the Simputer, developed by Indian scientists.

What are the major constraints you face?
About 80 per cent of the Brazilian population lives in cities, which are concentrated in the south and southeast of the country. So, regional inequalities are alarmingly high. Moreover, Brazil has not had any land reforms, so there are farmers who hold ridiculously large tracts of arable land. We believe that science and technology should play a major role in improving regional inequality. We are encouraging young PhD scholars from the southern parts of the country to move north. They have been given liberal grants to set up research institutions in the underdeveloped regions. They are also given broadband access to digital libraries of research institutions located in large cities such as Sao Paulo and Brasilia.

Besides, we have a major programme to impart vocational technology training to local inhabitants in the northern and other remote areas so that they can be absorbed in institutions and industries that demand skilled humanpower. For instance, we are setting up a satellite launching facility in the north at Sao Luis. The majority of the people employed there, except those in critical positions, are from the local population.

Recently Brazil decided to allow genetically modified (gm) crops
Our Senate has passed this legislation. It has to go back to the lower house, the Chamber of Deputies. The legislation is meant to authorise the National Technical Bio-Safety Council to oversee research into gm organisms. We at the science and technology ministry are for research into gm crops. But we are not for Monsanto's gm soybean. Many Brazilian scientists are working on gm varieties, suitable for Brazilian agriculture. The legislation will help them to work more proactively.

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