The invisible Lagoa da Turfeira, an environmental disaster foretold…

Originally written by Luciano Moreira Lima, published in Portuguese at Caapora.

One of the last major wetlands in the southern region of Rio de Janeiro state is in serious risk of disappearing

Of the thousands who cross daily the 299 km milestone of Presidente Dutra Highway (BR-116), very few would realize that, outlined on the west by a sharp bend in the river Paraíba do Sul is one of the last great natural wetlands of southern Rio de Janeiro, the Trufeira lagoon (sometimes known as Kodak lagoon). This situation, however, causes little surprise, since the large pond appears to be invisible not only for the drivers concentrating on the road. It’s no use looking for its approximately 700 thousand square meters on the detailed hydrographic map of the city of Resende (produced in partnership with the municipal authorities, available here). You will not see an indication of even a single drop of water on the site. Which is at least odd, since other bodies of water up to 10 times smaller are correctly displayed on the map and that Lagoa da Trufeira can easily be spotted more than 10 kilometers above the surface, through Google Earth.

Panoramic view of Lagoa da Trufeira, where it is possible to see Paraíba do Sul river on the right. Resende, RJ. Source: GoogleEarth

If an area equivalent to more than 70 football fields can go unnoticed, one can only wonder about those who inhabit it, like the tiny Crested Doradito (Pseudocolopteryx sclateri) with its unruly crest and a measly 9 and a half centimeters. As if its size wasn’t enough, this beautiful bird lives only among dense thickets of a southern cattail (Typha domingensis), one of the most typical plants of Brazilian flooded areas. Ornithologists and bird watchers know that, in order to observe it, willingness is not enough; one needs to be absorbed into the taboas, often sinking in water up to the thighs while keeping ones ears sharp to its discreet singing – listen to it here -.

The tiny and handsome Crested Doradito (Pseudocolopteryx sclateri). Picture: Bruno Rennó.

Over 11 years of regular visits to the Turfeira Lagoon and its immediate surroundings in partnership with my friend and fellow ornithologist Bruno Rennó resulted in the record not only of the discrete tricolino but of at least 169 other species of wild birds on site. Representing about 20% of the birds of the State of Rio de Janeiro, some of them are noted as endangered species statewide. There are also various migratory birds to which the lagoon is an important refuge.

The results of this study – partially presented at the XVI Brazilian Congress of Ornithology – made clear the importance of the Trufeira Lagoon for the conservation of biodiversity in Rio de Janeiro and helped raise awareness of the municipal government for actions to be taken about its preservation. Thus, in 2010 the Environment Agency of the city of Resende formulated the document “Preliminary Technical Study for Establishment of Protected Kodak Wetland Area” [in Portuguese], and among the main findings were:

“The creation and implementation of conservation unit Banhado da Kodak is in line with Brazil’s international commitments to protect the environment, according to targets set by the UN, in accordance with the International Year of Biodiversity.

“A criação e implantação de unidade de conservação no Banhado da Kodak alinha-se aos compromissos internacionais do Brasil de proteger o ambiente, conforme metas estabelecidas pela ONU, em se tratando do Ano Internacional da Biodiversidade.

The creation and establishment of the unit will cause an increase in the GST of the municipality, as required by Law.

It follows, therefore, that the unit will have great benefits to the city […]”

Two years went by since the completion of this document and the lagoon was gradually being forgotten again by the governmental agencies, until last week. On the 19th of April, alerted by friends, I found out that the City of Resende had proudly posted an image of the invisible Lagoon on its Facebook page accompanied by a few news paragraphs. However, instead of the title mentioning any action aimed at the conservation of the area, there it was: “the Nissan building site”. In a haze of confusion and not wanting to believe what I had just read I realized that not only nothing was going to be done to save the lagoon but also they were proudly announcing what could become one of the greatest environmental tragedies of recent southern Rio de Janeiro history. I waited for the weekend, then went home in Resende to see with my own eyes the situation of the area.

Lagoa da Turfeira on the Resende Municipality Facebook page.

It was around 2 o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday, the 21st. From Dutra Highway was already possible to see a huge area of exposed land through mists of dust raised by the movement of a literal fleet of bulldozers, diggers and trucks. I follow the dirt road parallel to the lagoon and under the apprehensive stare of the workers, I made my way through the machines. The constant noise of the engines plus the dust were contributing to make that scene of destruction even more desolate and I soon realized that I was not the only one lost there; a Great Egret (Ardea alba) and two Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula) flew aimlessly between two already muddy puddles, being repeatedly scared off by the machines.

I searched in vain for the area at which, in 2001, I had made the first documented record of Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) in the State of Rio de Janeiro and where we often watched the threatened Rusty-collared Seedeater (Sporophila collaris). Too late, the colony had simply turned into bare earth. A little further ahead, in an area that still had some vegetation, there was an impressive concentration of birds, where the colorful Yellow-rumped Marshbird (Pseudoleistes guirahuro) and the White-browed Blackbird (Leistes superciliaris) stood out, resembling refugees crowding by the hundreds and fleeing a massacre.

Rusty-collared Seedeater (Sporophila collaris), snapped at Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Ciro Albano.

White-browed Blackbird (Sturnella superciliaris), captured at Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Luiz Ribenboim

I drove further up the road to the top of a hill and from there I could better assess the damage. The extension of the groudned area was impressive and even though at that moment the main water body had been spared, several flooded areas around it had been completely grounded. From there I could also see once again something that always felt like a special omen; an old channel located in the northeast corner connecting the water with the Paraiba do Sul river, that, although partially silted today, has worked as a spillway for the water and could again be used to drain it. On my way back, I drove on a road that had just been opened and that strangely lead to the pool and that made me even more worried, asking myself the purpose of that passage.

Destruction scene by the Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Luciano Lima

Destruction scene by the Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Luciano Moreira Lima

Destruction scene by the Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Luciano Moreira Lima

Because of my Masters degree I have to live in São Paulo and I gradually get used to traffic jams, pollution and urban violence. So, I have nothing against the car manufacturer, nor against the said progress that says that the population of Resende will increase about 50,000 people over the next five years. But, it is worth remembering that lagoons are characterized as areas of permanent preservation, so they are untouchable.

Moreover, surely an environmental impact study must have been produced for a project of this magnitude, which certainly should have identified that any activity that affects the lagoon could result in an irreversible tragedy for the region’s biodiversity. Therefore, I would have liked the opportunity to participate in a public hearing where the fate of Lagoa da Turfeira could be seriously debated.

Although its surroundings have already been greatly impacted, there is still time to save what remained of the last great natural wetland area of the southern valley of the Paraíba do Sul river. The implementation of a conservation unit – be it by the municipality or by the state, would be not just a way to ensure long-term existence of the Lagoon and its rich biodiversity, but also an opportunity to create a space where, through interpretative hiking trails and a visitor center, the population of Resende would find a new leisure option that fits perfectly with the environmental vocation of the city. There is also the great potential for the practice of one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the country, bird watching. Not coincidentally, the Lagoa da Turfeira takes three pages of the book “Birdwatching guide to South-East Brazil”, which provides detailed information about some of the best places for birdwatching in the Brazillian Southeast. Not to mention the numerous photos taken there and available on WikiAves – see here – that show that the environments of the lagoon are often sought after by birders.

Around 4:30pm the cloudy sky evolves into a light rain that helped to hide watery eyes. Indeed, ignorance is the best way to happiness. My greatest sorrow was not for being an eyewitness to such aggression against nature, but mainly for realizing the importance of that place to life and knowing first and last names all those doomed to seek in vain for a new home. I went back home heartbroken but willing to do everything I possibly could to show that the colors and sounds of the thousands of lives that depend on the Lagoa da Trufeira make it anything but invisible. Aware that the tragedy has been announced, it is up to us to let it, or not, happen.

Abortions and Cesareans

Originally written by Karl, published in Portuguese at Ecce Medicus.

Cesareans delivery

– You popped?! How nice! Was it natural?

– Natural, yeah…. For the doctor, right?

Dialogue between a postpartum woman and the author of this article.

It made last week’s headlines the information from the Health Department showing that for the first time, Brazil reported more cesareans than vaginal births in a year: 52% overall. According to an article in Folha de S. Paulo, rate of cesareans in the private sector has been stable since 2004 and is around 80%. In the Public Health System (SUS in Portuguese), that number is increasing and went from 24% to 37% in the last decade.

The term cesarean section does not seem to have anything to do with Julius Caesar, supposedly born of this procedure, as I was taught in college. As Professor Joffre [in Portuguese] emphasizes; “the word cesarean and the expressions cesarean section and cesarean delivery are linked to the Latin verb caedo, caesum, caedere, which is equivalent to the Greek témno, to cut.
From it, derive caesus/a/um, “that which has been cut”; caeso/onis, to slipt or separate; caesura, a cut or cuts; and caesar/aris, the same as decaeso/onis, i.e., one that is taken from the mother’s womb, or “qui caeso matris utero nascitur”.

It is a known fact that Brazil is the world champion in caesareans, and it has been roundly criticized for it (a small collection of links: unnecesarean, guttmacher with a Brazilian reference, another reference in PDF, another Lancet study [subscribers-only], among many others). But as the post title suggests, I would like to make a parallel between abortions and cesarean sections.

Let me first disclaim my conflict of interests; I do not believe in abortion as a contraceptive method in public health because it does not work well as one. But, regardless of what sectors of the Church, the Brazilian Theocratic State, sociologists, doctors, etc want, it is a woman’s prerogative. Abortions should be “accessible, safe and extremely rare,” as it has been said. It is one of the symbols of the gap between Brazilian social classes the way its practice permeates the various segments of the female population of the country: from knitting needles, outlawed abortive pills and pray-for-the-best, to highly-equipped clinics with all the comfort and care of large hospitals. (I won’t even discuss the issues of malformed fetuses and the mother’s risk of death, because it would be too much for this post. See my views on the subject [in Portuguese] here, here and here).

Back to cesareans and the bewilderment caused by it. The cesarean delivery follows the same reasoning as with abortions: it is a woman’s prerogative if she wants to have her baby vaginally or surgically. The problem is that this decision is never fully explained and here enters the role of the physician. I did five natural deliveries during my medical training. In some, I spent the whole night with girls writhing in pain without any relief. If there was no alternative, fine, the gift of motherhood will always compensate for anything, at least that’s what they say. But if there is a different approach in which the risk/benefit ratio is acceptable, why not try it out? Who decides? The MD and the mother, and no one else.

The doctor, however, should play the same as when is presented with someone wanting to have removed an unwanted fetus. Expose, with the highest possible moral exemption, the risks of the procedures and take a position. These are not decisions that are up to patient alone. Saying that one does not do nor prescribe abortive procedures is completely legitimate. The patient should know that this is against Brazilian law and that the doctor who does it is in risk of being sued. With C-sections, the situation is more bland, but similar. There is no law against it, but there are clinical indications more or less needed. If a pregnant woman wants a cesarean section, the physician should explain the risks and take a stand. The problem is that there is a doctor’s bias favoring the procedure. Now we’re putting the fox in the hen house. And with that, I can not agree.

Let’s put some data in this discussion. Obstetricians and the World Health Organization estimates that approximately 15% of deliveries should be cesarean due to complications related to them. If private hospitals in São Paulo City, the rate is around 80%, according to the Folha, there is an excess of 65% in favor of cesarean sections that needs explaining. There is a group called Caesarean Delivery on Maternal Request (CDMR). There are strong indications, according to the Lancet study cited above, that this “movement” has begun in Brazil and spread to other nations. It is estimated that this type of “indication” may account for up to 20% of cases of surgical deliveries. Zhang’s study (below) checked 1.1 millions of non-twin births over 13 years in southeastern China and showed a significant increase in the number of caesarean sections in large part due to CDMR. In some places, the indications at the request of mothers reached 50% of C-sections. In Brazil, Osis and colleagues (below) set out to try to understand why so many cesareans. They studied 656 women in São Paulo and Pernambuco, users of public health services, and divided them into two groups. The first consisted of women who had previously experienced vaginal delivery and then had a cesarean. The other, consisting of women that had gone through only cesarean deliveries. 90.4% of women who had at least one vaginal delivery considered it best, against 75.9% among those who had only cesarean sections (the number of those who had only vaginal deliveries in the study was too small which constitutes an important bias). If those who had cesareans entered into labor, the result would have been similar (45.5% and 42.8%). 47.1% of those who had vaginal delivery said it had no downsides, compared to 30.3% of those who did not. On the other hand, 56.7% of women who only had cesareans reported that having no contractions was the main advantage of the method against 41.7% of the others. The conclusion of the article is that the pain is important, but women classify it as secondary. First comes the child’s health and the recovery from the operation. In addition, in Brazil is very important to be able to perform a tubal ligation (“tying the tubes”) for sterilization and this weighed in choosing the route for delivery. This constitutes a serious flaw of public health policies of those two states with regard to birth control, according to another article. We can not replace one mistake for another.

To conclude this long blog post, I’d say:

1. It is legitimate for a mother to want a cesarean (CDMR), as much as it is legitimate for a mother to not want to carry out an unwanted pregnancy – her prerogatives, exclusively – since she is fully informed of the consequences that such procedures actually involve. (Some people argue about what is “fully informed” saying it is impossible for a layperson to be clarified about procedures with such complex consequences, which creates implications for the informed consent, the instrument without which NO clinical research is done, just so we get a glimpse of the size of the problem we are dealing with).

2. Physicians have a key role in the choice of the delivery route and must rid themselves of their individual preferences to advise the pregnant woman. Given the enormous difficulty in doing this (since a physician trusts their skills for both procedures) is not totally unreasonable to seek a second opinion on the subject. This reduces, without a doubt, any bias. But increases insecurity, another difficult choice.

3. The excess cesareans is an example of the medicalization of Medicine. Like baldness, shyness and restless children [in Portuguese], it shows us how to turn arbitrary “deviations” of normality into technically manageable pathologies.

Photo taken from the blog Parir é Nascer.

ResearchBlogging.orgZhang, J., Liu, Y., Meikle, S., Zheng, J., Sun, W., & Li, Z. (2008). Cesarean Delivery on Maternal Request in Southeast China Obstetrics & Gynecology, 111 (5), 1077-1082 DOI: 10.1097/AOG.0b013e31816e349e

ResearchBlogging.orgOsis MJ, Pádua KS, Duarte GA, Souza TR, & Faúndes A (2001). The opinion of Brazilian women regarding vaginal labor and cesarean section. International journal of gynaecology and obstetrics: the official organ of the International Federation of Gynaecology and Obstetrics, 75 Suppl 1 PMID: 11742644

For a world without mass destruction

Originally written by Maria Guimarães, published in portuguese at ciência e ideias.
Thumbnail image for 0912180220.JPGBecause of its importance, I decided to publish in this blog a subject quite different from the usual: an official side of the search for nuclear disarmament.
Below is the speech made by the Brazilian Ambassador Luiz Filipe de Macedo Soares at the United Nations Disarmament Comission, a couple of weeks ago. The diplomat heads the Brazilian mission in that Commission, housed in Geneva, Switzerland, and he calls attention to the urgency of taking measures to eliminate the capacity that some countries have of destroying the planet.
According to the Ambassador, little of concrete is said in the meetings of this multilateral negotiation organ – probably because of the fear imposed by powerful States on the unarmed ones.
His intention is to plant the seed of a real discussion, both in politics and in society. I clearly remember, from when I was a kid, the slogans “Hiroshima never more” and “Nuclear power? No thanks” (this latter came in buttons with a red Sun on it). The subject has since disappeared from the headlines, while countries are are daily bombarded.
I found, thus, interesting and timely to bring a bit of the formal voice in this discussion.
(The photo above is one of the murals, painted by the Catalan José Maria Sert, which decorate the Councils Room, where the meetings of the Disarmament Comission are held; below, a session presided by the Brazilian Ambassador and photographed by Marie-Christine Macedo Soares)


Madam President,
The very first resolution adopted by the United Nations General Assembly, on its seventeenth plenary meeting, on 24 January 1946, dealt with disarmament. We all know that, for it is often mentioned in order to highlight the importance of the matter and the sense of priority recognized by member States since the beginning of the Organization. The title of Resolution 1(I) is the following: “Establishment of a Commission to deal with the problems raised by the discovery of atomic energy” (end of quotation). The Commission was mandated to make specific proposals, among other purposes and I quote: “for the elimination from national armaments of atomic weapons and of all other major weapons adaptable to mass destruction”.
The Commission’s title, apparently a result of careful negotiations, showed the difficulty to situate in time and fact the origin of the “problems” it was supposed to deal with. The “discovery of atomic energy” was more neutral as a historical landmark than the making, the testing or the actual use of the bomb.
At that point in time, only one country[1] possessed atomic bombs. That fact explains the reluctance to identify a precise point of departure for the “problems” while not tying them to a single specific country.
Soon proliferation would start and continue in the following six decades. It is anyway meaningful that the existence of “problems” and the need for “elimination” of atomic weapons was acknowledged from the beginning of the United Nations.
Since that moment a number of additional countries acquired nuclear weapons, each of them for different reasons, but with the underlying common factor of enhancing security and ascertaining power for every one of them[2].
Given that early conscience of the unacceptability of nuclear weapons it is always useful to remind that the first possessor and the subsequent four proliferators are not more legitimate than others that later followed the same path. There are no legitimate nuclear weapons. Legitimate indeed are the international community’s expectations that those States which possess nuclear weapons do live up to their commitments on nuclear disarmament, an objective they have agreed to pursue either on the basis of the NPT[3] or by means of political declarations and UN Resolutions, the most important of which is the final document of the First Special Session on Disarmament (SSOD-I)[4]. In addition, the International Court of Justice has made abundantly clear there exists an obligation to pursue in good faith and bring to a conclusion negotiations leading to nuclear disarmament in all its aspects[5].
After two thirds of a century, the international community has not reached the goal set by the first UNGA Resolution. What we can do here, as I am doing now, is to work to avoid the sad commemoration, not so far away in time, of the first centennial in the company of nuclear weapons. The achievement of that aim would not happen in my lifetime but I would like to spare my children and grand-children from witnessing that sad commemoration.
We cannot ignore efforts made in the course of these past decades. The two main possessors have established treaties on the reduction of their arsenals. Important as these may be, they correspond nonetheless to exercises of bilateral mutual calibration of destructive power[6]. Unilateral reductions have also been carried out and are always good news. It is however not very comfortable to celebrate measures, positive as they may be, but that preserve to a few nations the power to destroy the planet.
In a multilateral global format the main achievement remains the Non-Proliferation Treaty, although its article on nuclear disarmament, besides lacking a minimum of precision in terms of time and other aspects, has not been implemented[7]. In order to improve the perspectives of nuclear disarmament a strategy of suffocation has been devised with a view to avoid the recurrence of growth in the arsenals, even to enhance possible reductions.
The Comprehensive Test-Ban Treaty, not yet in force[8], is the main example of that strategy. The next step in that same direction would be a treaty concerning fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices. Indeed, there is a widespread understanding that the conclusion of such a treaty is possible since the major nuclear weapon powers seem well disposed to start its negotiation. This does not mean that the question of fissile material is necessarily the most urgent matter in the disarmament agenda. For Brazil and many other States, legally binding assurances against the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons against non-nuclear weapon States would be a more immediately significant step in the direction of dismantling strategies based on nuclear weapons. I should add the constant claim of the Group of 21[9] in favour of a treaty banning nuclear weapons as it was done in relation to other weapons of mass destruction.
The main obstacle in the path of the negotiation of a treaty on fissile material lies in the determination of its scope. Should it be limited to the prohibition of production of new fissile material or should it include clauses on material already in existence prior to the entry into force? The first option would simply freeze the current situation. It would lack any dynamism in the direction of real disarmament. It would not add any obligation to non-nuclear-weapon States like Brazil, already bound by the Non-Proliferation Treaty[10]. For nuclear-weapon States, such treaty confined to the ban on production would certainly impose limitations concerning growth of their stockpiles but would not necessarily entail any measure of control, not to say of reduction, still less their elimination.
A really significant treaty would have to deal not only with production but also include fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices already in existence before its entry into force.
It is usually argued that the mandate contained in document CD/1299[11], of 1995, known as the Shannon mandate, does not preclude a comprehensive scope for the negotiations. Document CD/1864, of 29 May 2009, containing a program of work that received unanimous support at that moment, limited itself, as far the issue of fissile material is concerned, to the reference to the Shannon mandate.
Since that program of work could not be implemented[12], two further attempts were made: the proposals by Belarus in document CD/WP.599 and by Brazil in document CD/1889. This last one tried to bring more clarity to the consideration of fissile material already in existence at the moment of entry into force.
It has been said that the Shannon mandate does not necessarily exclude the question of stocks. It cannot be denied, however, that the fierce resistance by some member States to even a broad mention of pre-existing fissile material could be assumed as announcing a denial to treat that question in the negotiations.
A mandate cannot be a blueprint for a treaty but it should provide an idea of the playing field and, in that respect, a picture of the intended scope as clear as possible would seem necessary for some States to embark in the negotiation. There is no doubt that the treaty would have to contain definitions, establish a verification system and other matters. But since the same certitude is not found as regards scope, some indication should be contained in the mandate.
A different matter is to block any decision on the opening of negotiations on the basis of perceptions of security, especially when there is an overwhelming support for negotiations on the part of non-nuclear-weapon States, moreover if the objection comes from State possessing nuclear weapons. This is tantamount to opposing any negotiation on any disarmament issue. A member State that freely joined the Conference on Disarmament, the purpose of which is to negotiate legal instruments on disarmament and arms control, cannot invoke its security situation in order to prevent a negotiation that is deemed appropriate by a great majority of member States if not by all.
I would like to insist on this point. Every State has the duty to provide security for its citizens. However, this security cannot be based on arms of mass destruction.
It is high time to understand that concerns on national security are not of exclusive interest of nuclear-weapon States. This would imply that nuclear weapons are a necessary feature for the security of a State. In fact there are States, besides those possessing nuclear weapons that objectively accept that position placing themselves under the protection of the nuclear arsenals of other States[13].
To sum up: the negotiation of a treaty on fissile material for nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices should start promptly on the basis of a mandate with a minimum of clarity concerning the scope of the envisaged instrument.
Madam President,
The work to be undertaken by the Conference on Disarmament for a treaty on fissile material is first and foremost of a political nature. It obviously will require a great amount of technical expertise. But let’s not presume that problems will be solved in technical meetings. In this sense, the negotiation on fissile material is similar to many processes in other areas where the technical component is essential to support political decisions. This is not an unusual situation for diplomats.
Questions concerning definitions and verification, among others, are essentially complex and admit diverse solutions. Allow me to remind that a political diplomatic negotiation is not a scientific experiment and our assertions, though preferably technically sound and based on solid logic, derive first and foremost from the interests and aims of the States we represent.
In order to show that a mandate for a negotiation can be both encompassing and flexible, Brazil proposed last year document CD/1888, containing an outline structure for the drafting of a treaty on fissile material. This initiative is an evidence of Brazil’s commitment and openness to this Endeavour.
If we succeed in starting the negotiation of a really comprehensive instrument on fissile material we will be truly making an important and concrete progress in the direction of disarmament. It will not be a mere a confidence building measure or a political initiative. The essential condition for that requires that the negotiation encompasses the matter in its entirety. It is also indispensable that all nuclear weapons possessors are included in the negotiation. However we may admit that the result should not be a non plus ultra, completely closed to future evolution.
The proper venue is this Conference on Disarmament on which a negotiating mandate is vested. A parallel expeditious process cannot ensure the participation of all States necessary for an instrument on nuclear disarmament. For us it is not sufficient a political gesture showing good will by like-minded countries. It cannot be an exercise of what has been called aristocratic multilateralism.
A long, complex negotiation will require an institutional structure, the assistance of a technical and necessarily impartial secretariat and dedicated delegations among other needs. This cannot be assured by a group of well-intended like-minded people meeting on the margin of the General Assembly or other organ unless the real intention be a make-believe devoid of substantive contents[14].
Madam President,
As I mentioned before, you are assuming the direction of this forum in a especially relevant moment.
By the end of July, the UN General Assembly will hold a meeting on the Conference on Disarmament. There will be a debate and one cannot exclude, I suppose, the adoption of one or more resolutions.
Since the High Level meeting held in New York last September, we have been hearing many interventions dealing with the state of the CD and its future. It is not easy to extract from these manifestations a clear trend of opinion. There is some oscillation between a clear support for continuing to make efforts in this forum and to seek a different institutional path. On that side of the spectrum, the convening of a fourth Special Session of the General Assembly has been defended by many[15]. Others seem to prefer ad hoc spontaneous and nebulous solutions.
It is not my intention to enter now in this debate. However, it is important to be clear that our goal must remain true disarmament and a world free of nuclear weapons. This cannot fall from heaven. This will be reached by means of comprehensive treaties negotiated in a truly multilateral fashion and solid institutional ground.
Just a few days after the UNGA meeting, there is scheduled to happen a meeting of the five nuclear-weapon States that are envisaged in the NPT[16]. It is to be hoped that the General Assembly will send a strong message to those five States in order to help that meeting to reach meaningful results including on the compliance by them with the NPT.
Before those upcoming events, during the Colombian presidency[17], it is important that the Conference on Disarmament discuss their possible and desirable outcomes. These discussions and the pending adoption of a Program of Work should occupy our attention during the forthcoming weeks under your able guidance.
Madam President,
We do not need to increase the disillusion of world public opinion and the disengagement of young people of which a clear indication is the present low interest of civil society in nuclear disarmament as compared to the ample movements in previous decades or to current manifestations concerning, for example, climate change or international financial regulations. We cannot afford to damage the political structure created to channel the political process of disarmament. If we are discontent with its performance, we should remind ourselves that it is incumbent upon us to strive to reach results.
To build is always more difficult than to destroy.
Thank you.

[1] The United States of America.
[2] The Soviet Union, in 1949, the United Kingdom, in 1952, France, in 1960, China, in 1964, Israel (unknown data), India and Pakistan, in 1998 and the DPRK, in 2006. South Africa developed a nuclear program later dismantled.
[3] The Non-Proliferation Treaty was signed in 1967 and entered into force in 1970. All member States of the United Nations are Parties to the NPT with the exception of the DPRK, India, Israel and Pakistan.
[4] Held in 1978, it adopted a Final Document which, among other measures, created the Conference on Disarmament, of limited membership (currently 64 States) with a negotiating mandate, and the United Nations Disarmament Commission – UNDC, with all member States of the UN and a deliberative mandate.
[5] Advisory Opinion issued in 1996.
[6] The latest agreement is the known as START II entered into force in 2010.
[7] Article VI of the Treaty is the undertaking of the five nuclear powers at the moment of the negotiation of the Treaty (USA, USSR, UK, France and China – which are also the Permanent Members of the UN Security Council) to pursue their nuclear disarmament.
[8] Signed in 1996, it is not yet in force because it has not been ratified by a number of States on a list contained in the Treaty, among them, the USA.
[9] Traditionally, the Conference on Disarmament recognizes 3 regional groups: the Western European and Others group, the Eastern European group and the Group of 21, that has more than 21 members. China stands apart.
[10] And by the Treaty on the Denuclearization of Latin America and the Caribbean, of 1967, to which all States of the region are parties.
[11] Documents of the CD can be accessed on the site of the Conference
[12] Pakistan withdrew its support – the CD needs consensus to take decisions.
[13] The so-called “nuclear umbrella”; agreements between the US and remaining members of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and other countries, like Japan, South Korea and Australia, that guarantee their defense, with nuclear weapons, from attacks using nuclear weapons. These agreements come from the Cold War era but remain in place today.
[14] A number of States are currently advocating to conduct negotiations outside the CD.
[15] Most States consider that to review the decisions of the First Special Session of 1978, it would be necessary to convene a new one. Some States, like the USA are opposed to it.
[16] The five permanent members of the Security Council are scheduled to meet in Paris, on 30 July.
[17] The presidency of the CD rotates among its members on a monthly basis. After Colombia, it will be the turn of the DPRK and Cuba, the last two of the 2011 Session.

Broken heart syndrome and the flagellated heart

This is another one of those unlikely situations that insist on existing. Could a very strong emotion cause a cardiac alteration so severe capable of causing someone’s death?
I’m not talking about arrhythmia. Electric alterations in the heart could make it lose its regular rhythm and, possibly, create a situation where there is, in fact, a cardiac arrest. Arrhythmias may be caused by a number of factors, including electrolytic disorders, traumas, drugs, as well as emotions.
What I am talking about are anatomical alterations, detectable by examination, like echocardiogram or ventriculography done during catheterization. Is it possible for a strong emotion to cause a heart failure?
Yes, it is possible. And this clinical situation is called cardiomyopathy of takotsubo, also known as transient apical ballooning syndrome, apical ballooning cardiomyopathy, stress-induced cardiomyopathy, broken-hearted syndrome or simply stress cardiomyopathy. Takotsubo is a cage for catching octopus in Japan. Due to its balloon-like shape, it was compared to the shape of the heart of someone who suffered a very strong emotion and got seriously compromised (see pictures below).

Left. Ventriculography showing large anterior dilation of the heart. Right. Takotsubo jar.

Cardiomyopathy means, literally, “heart muscle disease”. In this case, always a kind of weakness. Because with this disease the weakening follows a strong emotional reaction -loss of children or spouse, for example- it was named “broken heart syndrome”. It is a known cause of lethal arrhythmias and even ventricular rupture, such is the thinning of its wall. The good news is that, after the acute, more dangerous phase, the recovery is complete (ad integrum) without sequellae.
Recently, an article drew attention to the fact that these patients may present themselves in a state of cardiogenic shock that prevent organs from functioning properly because of inadequate blood flow and arterial pressure, such is the heart failure, requiring intensive care resources. In the article, the authors show clinical, laboratorial and echocardiographic differences in patients.
Reading the article I had a brilliant idea!
I could not help remembering my pathology classes where I saw several hearts infected with Chagas disease, a true Brazilian plague.

Many of those hearts present what pathologists call “aneurisma de ponta” (tip aneurysm) (see image on the left, from the excellent article by Eduardo Nogueira from UNICAMP).
This aneurysm of the left ventricular apex is very similar to that produced by the dilation of takotsubo cardiomyopathy.
According to the late professor Köberle, from USP – Ribeirão Preto, the explanation for the tip aneurysm in Chagas disease is an imbalance between the sympathetic and the parasympathetic autonomic nervous systems. Parasympathetic nerve endings disappear from myocardial tissue and there is a sympathetic hyperactivity, “sufficient enough to cause myocardial lesions”. Köberle managed to reproduce the same kind of injury in mice by injecting adrenaline, the hormone of the sympathetic system.
My brilliant idea was to imagine that the explanation for the takotsubo cardiomyopathy was the same! Strong emotions cause an overload of sympathetic stimulation on the heart and could -why not?- cause an anatomic alteration similar to the tip aneurysm of Chagas cardiomyopathy.
I was feeling pretty smart and thought of sending an article to an international cientific journal.
But, as with almost all of my brilliant ideas, someone else got there first.
And, to keep my readers from posting that reference before I do, here it is (also down there at the bottom).
Medal I shall not receive for deserve I do not.
Was gonna write a paper, wrote a blog post instead. Meno male.
Ventriculography: Nature Medicine; Takotsubo jar: Canadian Journal General Internal Medicine.
Wittstein IS, Thiemann DR, Lima JA, Baughman KL, Schulman SP, Gerstenblith G, Wu KC, Rade JJ, Bivalacqua TJ, & Champion HC (2005). Neurohumoral features of myocardial stunning due to sudden emotional stress. The New England journal of medicine, 352 (6), 539-48 PMID: 15703419
Originally written by Karl, published in portuguese at Ecce Medicus

Whatever she wants – sexual selection

This post was translated by Igor Santos from the original published by Atila at the Brazilian blog Rainha Vermelha.


Sexual selection is not the freshest of news. Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus had already commented on it. [1]
But a very pertinent question is why it occurs, or at least, what is selected. After all, why does a female finds a male sexy?

Two hypotheses could explain that. Fisher proposed the sexy gene hypothesis. He argues that, whatever the characteristic chosen by females, if it comes from a gene, that gene must become common within a population just because it has been picked up. A female that chooses a male with the sexy gene will have offsprings with that very gene, which in turn will be chosen by other females, spreading it.
The other hypothesis is the good genes one. According to it, when females prefer a certain trace, they are actually opting for a male’s good health, reflected on that given trace. For instance, a male with bright red feathers that uses carotene to increase the redness. Only a very healthy male has enough carotene to “waste” on plumage, so whoever gets the redder male will have healthier offspring and will have been favored by sexual selection.

Whatever the reason, good genes or sexy genes, the selected characteristics in the Birds of Paradise make them amazing. Scenes from BBC’s Planet Earth.

Both hypotheses seem to be correct. It all depends on the cost involved in the choice. When its not too cost-intensive for the females to choose (e.g. birds that gather for “exhibition parades” with heaps of males, sexy gene might prevail, like in peacock’s tails). In other scenarios, where choice uses resoures, be it looking around for males or exposing their presence to predators for the exhibition, the selected characteristic must have added value, a good gene.

But neither hypothesis explain how a characteristic begins to be selected. Why do females prefer a certain color, a song or any other thing? Where does the preference come from?

Look at the Physalaemus pustulosus frog for instance: males have a longer call (sounding a bit like “wiiiinnnnn”) followed by a screech at the end. Kinda hard to put in words. Check out this video and enjoy the singing:

Like with most frogs, the song is used to attract partners. But in closer-related species, males don’t do the second part, they only chant the “win” bit. Now a bizarre fact.

When the P. pustulosus melody was played through loudspeakers to females of other close-related species, they like it better than their own species’ call! They prefered the screeching end, albeit they had never heard it before, since their own kind does not do it. Therefore, they already have the nervous circuit that make them like that kind of song better, but only the P. pustulosus males use them.

There is a bias preference amongst the females, who hear and prefer that frequency, but males of the other more than 40 species of the same genus can’t use it. [2]


Platy (left) and Green Swordtail (right). Same genus, but only one has a sword-shaped tail.

Other species follow the same path. In Xiphophorus fish, only the swordfish has its anal fin elongated. The longer the tail, more successful the owner. In close-related species, like platy, on which that long fin inexists, the same bias repeats itself. If artificial tails are attached to the males, thay become more popular. Again, females still prefer something they have never seen before. Probably because they prefer bigger males.

In more and more species, from birds with more intricate melodies to mite with specialized appendages on their pedipalps, we find characteristics in one species that are not present in others of the same genus, but are quite successful among them. It is about those who manage to explore a tendency already present.

The implication is that preference for a trait is inherent to females according to the more utilized senses. It could be the “eyes” on the pattern of a peacock’s tail, since they are vision-oriented birds and need to be in constant lookout for predators. And that crest is sure to attract attention. Senses and nervous circuits that are already in constant use for, say, searching food – like a spider’s sense of touch – are co-utilized or re-routed for sexual function. Which is expected, for our senses resources are limited. [3]

Nothing more fitting for evolution. Females preference is already there and males born with tiny variations. The one with a novelty-colored fin or a more refined song will be chosen and have more descendents rather than their rivals without those characteristics. With time, that gene becomes so ordinary as to level the success rate of all males, until one displays another interesting change, and the cycle starts over.

After all, the ladies like surprises.


[1] Smith, C. U. M. “Erasmus Darwin saw sexual selection before his grandson.” Nature 459, no. 7245 (Maio 21, 2009): 321. DOI:10.1038/459321d

[2] Ryan, M., Fox, J., Wilczynski, W., & Rand, A. (1990). Sexual selection for sensory exploitation in the frog Physalaemus
pustulosus Nature, 343 (6253), 66-67 DOI: 10.1038/343066a0

[3] Ryan, M. (1998). Sexual Selection, Receiver Biases, and the Evolution of Sex Differences Science, 281 (5385), 1999-2003 DOI: 10.1126/science.281.5385.1999


Although it is not as large as one brazillion (which is 1 followed by as many zeros as it needs), one billion is still pretty huge.
It’s such a large number that our mammal brains have a great deal of difficulty trying to grasp the concept of 1 followed by nine zeros (for all you long-scalers out there, please note that I’m talking about a milliard — a thousand million –, not a million million, which we normal people would call a trillion).
At first glance, it may seem a bit useless or even unnecessary to understand such large amounts of zeros, but how are we suppose to comprehend the Avogadro constant, geological eras, the formation of galaxies and even Evolution otherwise?
I could tell you that 55g of iron has 600 times a million billion billion atoms until my feet hurt and that wouldn’t mean much to most people, because a number that large is exceptionally hard to visualize.
I would have the same problem if I was to discourse about the 4-billion-and-a-bit years the Earth has been around, or say that there are a billion billion planets in each galaxy (which, in turn, exist in even large numbers).
Can you imagine how long it took us to go from randomly floating chemicals to our current form as email-checking beings? I certainly cannot.
We are pretty good at understanding “ten of something”, but we lack intellectual capacity to perceive millions and billions.
That’s why we use analogies. For instance:
If you take five minutes to count to one thousand, keeping a steady pace, it will take you one hour to get to 12 thousand and you’ll reach 288 thousand at the end of 24 hours.
In one year, keeping the same rhythm, without ever stopping, you will arrive at 105 million: 365 days couting without rest or pause for breath would get you to a little bit over 10% of one billion, which would only be reached at the end of nine and a half years of incessant counting, at the pace of ten numbers every three seconds.
Or you could choose to go a number a second, if you have over 31 years to spare.
One billion minutes ago, around 100 C.E., Greek mathematician Ptolemy was being born, the wheelbarrow had just been invented in China, the last lions in the Balkan Peninsula were dying off, the Kama Sutra was starting to have its first pages written in India, bricks were the new trend in Roman housing development and, again in China, paper was though of being a pretty neat new idea.
One billion hours ago Australia was not inhabitated by humans and there was no agriculture and no domesticated animals. We were all basically living in Africa, chipping stones to slice meat off bones and fashion animal hide into early-days togas for our northbound walks into cold places. We would answer to erectus rather than sapiens and were just starting to develop language and music.
A strip of sand 10 meters long, one meter wide and 100 milimeters deep contains aproximately 800 thousand million grains of sand. 80% of a billion.
Due the curvature of Earth, It is impossible to see one billion people at the same time. That is so many people that even on the flattest land they would extend past the horizon.
The only way to fit one billion people into one’s field of view is to go up a few hundred kilometers above the surface of the planet 30-meter tree (thanks for the correction, Pierce!), from where they would look like a big blobby mass rather than separate individuals, much like what happens with our skin, which is formed by billions of individual cells.
By the way, one billion cells is equivalent to 350cm², or the skin of an adult human torso.
It is not necessary to repeat “one billion” billions of times like I did here in his article. One could also refer to it as: a thousand million, 10^9, one giga, bill, or a goddamn bucket-full.

By Igor Santos, original written here.

About horned beetles

This is a translated version of this post, written originally in Portuguese by Atila Iamarino at Rainha Vermelha and translated by Igor Santos.


Or “What don’t we do for women”..

Hard battle
Horns in beetles are a special feature. Not satisfied being male-only they are also unique among the insect species. And they are not made of mouth parts, nor antennae or even modified legs. They are horns. Horns that came to the attention of this Charles Darwin guy, who had a love affair with insects since his childhood and used the horned ones to explain sexual selection.
[Translator’s note: the terms “love affair with insects” and “sexual” were not meant to be related in that way].

Male beetles use those horns to battle for the females. They joust in restrictive environments, like tunnels dug by them for the egg-laying business of their lady counterparts. And, pretty much always, the longer the horn, the greater the number of victories, which translate into more fertilized females and more descendants

Like any structure subject to sexual selection (even though the choice is not up to the female, winning battles ensure reproduction), they are an impressive diversifying force. Horned beetles are extremely numerous and varied. Responsible for one of the greatest events in speciation, the diversity in shapes of horns are an example of the power of an evolutionary dispute.
Did anyone mention Red Queen?

Continue lendo…

Swine flu: guns, germs and steel


It is quite hard to think of anything other than the aporkalypse (get it?) these days (even more if you are working in real-time journalism… *sigh*). So, let’s put the hysteria to use in favor of a very important archaeological lesson: how the domestication of pigs and other animals transformed health in human societies? In many cases, to worse… Much worse.
Summarizing and simplifying things, it is almost certain that our species has to deal with rapidly spreading -and potentially deadly- infectious diseases only because it learned to breed other animals in large numbers. Flu (of course!), smallpox, whooping cough, measles, cholera, diphtheria, typhus, TB – imagine how many people died from something on that list before the development of antibiotics and modern medicine.
It just so happens that all those diseases started their “career” as zoonoses, judging by their pathogens genetic likeness with viruses or microorganisms carried by domestic animals. This hypothesis is one of the main elements of the – already classic – book “Guns, Germs and Steel”, by the american biogeographer Jared Diamond, from UCLA (hence the title of this post). You just have to look at the process the transformed wild boars (like the cute fella from the photo above) into little domestic piglets to realize that the epidemiological dynamic turned inside-out because of the domestication.
Densities, densities
First, one can hardly compare human and animal populations densities before and after domestication events. It’s true that big wild mammals such as horses, boars, sheep and cattle lived in big herds before turning into farm creatures, but rarely so many of them were confined in small space like they are now, thanks to us.
And, of course, a positive feedback happened between human and animal populations; the amount of animal protein (meats and milk), fuel (feces), fertilizer (feces once more), source material (bones) and clothes (hide) available to breeders of large mammals is exponentially superior to the amount that could be gotten by even the best hunters/gatherers. Include agriculture and you have, of course, the possibility of sustain lots more people in the same land space. Luckily, this excess people, also thanks to the animals, gets more mobile, being able to move and colonize more land on oxen, buffalo, donkeys and horseback.
Think, for a moment, how unnatural (from the point of view of 6 million years of human evolution) the situation of the last ten millennia is: the chance the hunters/gatherers had of close contact with large mammals or even flocks of birds was negligible. Oog would thank the gods if he killed one bison a month. But now you have a lot of people and a lot of animals jammed in the same settlement; people messing with manure, meat, blood, lard and who-knows-what-else from cows, pigs and goats. (The “who-knows-what-else” is not just for dramatic effect. In Papua-New Guinea, women of certain tribes breastfeed pigs. Yep, breastfeed pigs.)
This unprecedented scenario not only made disease transmission easier between humans and animals, but also helped epidemic infectious diseases to become self-sustainable for first time in our history. If you are a hunter/gatherer who is unpleasantly infected by a killer pathogen from, say, monkeys, you can rest assure in the knowledge that your whole tribe of 50 will either died completely or be totally immune, very quickly. And the disease will very likely stay there, since those 50 poor bastards rarely contact other groups.
The whole thing goes haywire when we have dense populations of breeders e growers interconnected by commercial routes and constant extra-tribal interaction. Now even killer pathogens can benefit from the population critical mass to spread from one or more entire continents and do lots and lots of damage. Something very unlikely to happen in pre-domestication times.
Winners and losers
Diamond extracts an interesting conclusion from this whole line of reason: when invading Europeans set foot in America, Polynesia and Australia for the first time, who died from smallpox, flu, measles and other Euro-asian ailments were the natives. There is not one case of a native disease killing an European settler.

None of these people domesticated animals in large scales, with the exception of Incan llamas (which are the only American big mammal [1] domesticated).
Diamond notes that, together with lower population density, lack of domestic animals is the key. The Europeans were the descendants of those who acquired immunity and survived a vast quantity of microorganisms transferred by animals that wiped out truckloads of people in Eurasia. The natives were not.
One cannot deny the conclusion taken from this is quite gloomy. Modern hygiene measures and continuous follow-up can help, but if History serves as guide, the intensive breeding of animals and intensive human contact with them will produce many more epidemic scares in the future.
[1] It has been noted – in a comment – that Andes people also domesticated guinea pigs. Besides, almost all American tribes had dogs, like many Polynesians. Nothing, however, comparable, in scale or variety, to mammals domesticated in Eurasia.
This is a translated version of this post, written originally in Portuguese by Reinaldo José Lopes at Chapéu, Chicote e Carbono-14 and translated by Igor Santos.

The ghost of Samuel Cartwright

Samuel A. Cartwright was a very creative physician who worked in Lousiana, south of the United States, in the mid-nineteen century and contributed with both Cholera and Yellow Fever treatments. Often called by landowners to examine sick slaves, he coined some medical terms that, as many others in medicine, ran into oblivion. Who would know, today, what could be drapetomania? And dysaethesia aethiopica?

He learnt in important medicine schools and worked with other famous physicians. But, albeit his humanistic formation, he was a slavery supporter. It’s important to notice, however, that slavery was no crime back then. Having a position for slavery was more about defending a production method than a humanist cause, unbelievable as it may seem today. Draptomania (from the greek drapetes, slave) was a word created to name a strange psychiatric disorder that afflicted slaves at the time: an unresistable and unexplainable drive to flee from their masters! Dysaethesia aethiopica (from dysaesthesia = alteration of sensitivity, and aethiop = negroid), a syndrome “described” in 1851, was also a mental disorder, proposed to explain the laziness and lack of will to work, very common among slaves and with clearly contagious characteristics! Found exclusively in blacks, was a type of skin insensitivity that compromised the mental faculties. Given its “physiopathology”, it was “cured” with ointments on the skin, followed by whipping as to stimulate cutaneous sensitivity. Pretty much the same treatment was applied to drapetomania. Apparentely with certain success.

There are at least two sides to this story: first, realise there is some blame on the doctor’s part. A certain mix of malevolence with incomprehension, still seen frequently nowadays, that would justify its actions to himself and to his peers. Here we are facing another human imprudence and the discussion ends. There is, however, a much more cruel and perverse way of understanding the story. What if we abstract our current world view and transport ourselves to the south of North America in the XIX century? Whilst trying to understand the world and Cartwright’s evidences, we could think he, in fact, didn’t do any of this for any particular hate or despise to black people. We could understand that he did so just by following the current logical and scientific presets, characteristical of the style of thinking of his time and place. Today his findings belong to the worst pseudoscience and “scientific” racism. But, back then, his diagnoses were discussed in clinical meetings!

The ghost os Samuel Cartweight should haunt doctors and medicine today. It would be useful remembering doctors that the medical practice remains and will remain, notwithstanding the evolution of scientific knowledge. That we of now may be regarded as ridiculous for someone in the future trying to understand our doubts. That we are not different of the society in which we work, and that this provokes immense black holes when we need to think about our own acts. That science is a partner and not master of our actions. I would indeed like question this ghost. I would ask the ghost of Samuel Cartwright — which is transcendent in time and space, how burlesque and pathetic are my current good intentions? Which of my attitudes will pass to history as examples of grotesque and irrational?

I sincerely hope that the ghost of Samuel Cartwright will not appear suddenly, in an afternoon, after several and extenuating consultations, in the mirror of my office.

This is a translated version of this post, written originally in Portuguese by Karl at Ecce Medicus. Translated by João Carlos and Igor Santos.

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