Sociologists, anthropologists, economists, geographers and all those seldom at ease behind a microscope or facing Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc2, are now welcome in the second phase of the largest research program in the Amazon region. During the first 10 years of the LBA – Large Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Project in the Amazon Region, most participants were natural science experts who essentially studied physical and biological phenomena such as the dispersion of gases in the atmosphere and the formation of rain. As more humanities experts join the team (who were previously rare and dispersed in the crowd of physicists, biologists and agronomists), the Amazon region will cease to be seen merely as a forest; it will now be possible to analyze it better as a human society subject to political, economic and social conflicts.
In addition to deforestation and the transformation of the forest into pastures or farmland, something LBA has already investigated, other phenomena can be studied further. One of them is urban planning, whose consequences are becoming visible. “We have traffic jams everyday,” says taxi driver Edmilton Castelo Branco Feitosa, born in the State of Acre and living for the past 15 years amidst the Manaus traffic. In late April, rains stronger than usual for this time of the year flooded the outskirts of this city of 1.6 million inhabitants. Much like the region’s other cities, the capital of the State of Amazonas is growing, becoming more densely inhabited and is transforming itself. From a broader perspective, however, demographic emptiness still rules: in an area ten times the size of France, the nine States of the Legal Amazon region are home to 23 million people – just slightly less than one third of the French population and a little over the population of the São Paulo metropolitan area.
Another change under way is the nationalization of LBA. Nasa and other North American institutions paid for about half of the US$ 100 million (R$ 300 million, considering the exchange rate fluctuation) spent in the first 10 years, Brazil paid for 40% and Europe for the rest. Since Nasa announced that it would not take part in the program’s second phase, to begin next year, the main source of financing now is the Pluriannual Plan (PPA) of the Ministry of Science and Technology (MST), which provides for the annual release of R$ 3.8 million, enough to cover the fixed costs of facilities, equipment and personnel. Complementary support has gradually appeared. Antonio Manzi, the LBA executive manager, mentioned the sectorial funds as an example: leaders of both groups managed to raise R$ 7 million. According to Manzi, the need to restructure the budget, though it might lead to uncertainties, may benefit the development of researchers in Brazil: “Teams and institutions from other countries may take part and help, but research is not much use if it doesn’t achieve local critical mass.”
The relocation of LBA headquarters – from Inpe, the National Space Research Center in São José dos Campos, State of São Paulo to Inpa, the National Amazon Research Institute) in Manaus in 2004 – seems to have worked in terms of broadening the interests of institutions in the North of Brazil in the largest research program on the Amazon region: in 10 years, LBA led to the publication of almost 1,500 articles in scientific journals and the creation of undergraduate and graduate courses in areas such as atmospheric sciences and anthropology in the States of Amazonas, Acre, Mato Grosso, Pará and Rondônia. Now the second phase is starting, employing at least a part of the researchers and students that have developed along with LBA. José Aldemir de Oliveira said that soon the Bureau of Science and Technology, which he coordinates, will release a public notice for the grant of R$ 1.2 million in financing for projects in the State of Amazonas.
Mateus Batistella, Embrapa researcher in Campinas, took over the LBA international scientific committee chairmanship in May 2007, with the task of looking for funds and attracting geographers, economists, sociologists and anthropologists who know the history and the peoples of the Amazon, but who were merely LBA observers. Adalberto Val, Inpa director, is optimistic as to the possibility of greater interaction between experts from different areas. “We have already gone through harder times,” he says. He believes, however, that it will be difficult dealing with a local society underscored by a rich and often conflicting cultural diversity – from cattle raisers to ‘quilombolas’ [members of the communities of escaped former slaves], from migrants to more than one hundred different ethnicities of natives. Each social group seems now more convinced that it can express and advocate its interests. In early April, for instance, representatives of native peoples in 11 Latin American countries met in Manaus to stress that they want to know exactly what is going on in their forests. They also want to be heard and to take part in the negotiations about the possibility of reducing impact on climate change.
“We have already tried to carry out integrated studies, whenever possible,” said Flávio Luizão, who did not think it was difficult to deal with those who, unlike him, are not biologists. Some areas are obviously more permeable than others: economists and sociologists will possibly feel more useful in studies about the use of land rather than in those dealing with soil geochemistry. Everyone, however, will have to overcome their mutual mistrust, partially due to the fact that they have different work methodologies that do not always converge. – Unlike natural scientists, it is common to find social scientists that don’t even consider the possibility of the existence of universal laws,” says Diógenes Alves, an Inpe researcher and atypical case of a mathematician who in the last few years has delved more deeply into the philosophy and sociology of science. LBA seems gradually more open to multidisciplinary thinkers willing to reflect on the future of the Amazon region from a broader perspective. Batistella is another example: he has two bachelor’s degrees, one in biology and the other in philosophy, and did his PhD in environmental sciences in the United States, which required reading a lot of sociology and anthropology.
Social scientists, though fewer than their natural science colleagues, also have a lot to say. In 2004, Alves was one of the coordinators of a workshop in which economists, anthropologists and geographers looked for gaps in the knowledge about the Amazon region, and mapped interests that guide regional occupation. They selected certain issues, such as urban planning, demography and land use, related to climate changes, that the LBA had already studied. This meeting resulted in the first volume of the collection Dimensões Humanas da biosfera-atmosfera na Amazônia [Human dimensions in the Amazon biosphere-atmosphere]; the second volume will probably be published this year, with studies on demography, territorial organization and regional economy.
Much like the native populations, social scientists have circulated in the area that covers half of Brazil for quite a while. An example is Emílio Moran, a Cuban and naturalized American anthropologist, who arrived in the Amazon region 30 years ago to study the changes caused by the building of the Transamazonian highway. Even after he was hired as a professor at the University of Indiana, United States, he did not cease to follow the economic and social transformations of small farmers in the State of Pará – and was one of the first to propose a broader view of global warming effects, usually examined only from the perspective of the physical and biological sciences. He went back to fieldwork again, this time with his colleague Eduardo Brondizio, a Brazilian anthropologist and current head of the anthropology department at Indiana, to see how small farmers in Pará react to climate changes. They concluded that families in rural areas are extremely vulnerable and underprivileged, with no information on how to act or where to seek help. They also observed that strong climate changes such as the 1997-1998 El Niño can ruin plantations and force migration into cities. Results are not purely academic. In addition to an article published in an issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B dedicated to the Amazon region, this work inspired a manual for the farmers to predict – and protect themselves against – extreme weather changes followed by changes in rainfall frequency and strength.
“We not only need more investment, but also more allies,” says Odenildo Sena, director-president of Fapeam, the Amazonas State Research Support Foundation. One of the experts who pays attention to these alliances – established or potential – is US sociologist Timmons Roberts, who currently teaches at the College of William and Mary, one of the oldest institutions of higher education in the US, established in 1693. In 1989 and 1990, Roberts lived in Parauapebas, State of Pará, to study the means of survival of the outsourced staff of Companhia Vale do Rio Doce, hired to extract iron ore mineral from Carajás.
“Vale was a pioneer in workforce outsourcing. The result was a great lack of balance between the company’s employees and those that formed this peripheral workforce,” he says. “I showed that Vale had more responsibility for the social and environmental impact in the area beyond its gates, as it had already created all those problems and benefited from cheap labor.” In 2007, as one of the organizers of a conference in England on the Amazon region, he was impressed by the interest of biologists and physicists in political and social issues. “We were disconnected at first, but after one year we started working together and further understanding each other’s issues.” In another Philosophical Transactions article, Roberts and Brazilian economist Maria Carmen Lemos advocated the notion that environmental NGO networks have become relevant players in stopping economic development policies, usually with the support of international financial organizations, which policies result in the destruction of the world’s largest tropical forest, increasingly pressured by deforestation, agricultural commodities such as soy, and urban growth (the May 27, 2008 issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B has 25 open access articles on environmental changes and the outlook for integration of the natural and social sciences in the Amazon region). The role of the largest Brazilian forest in regulating global climate has emerged in the past years as an extra argument for alertness and the involvement of foreign organizations; this is also a source of tension between the government and NGOs from abroad. “These are crucial times for the future of the Amazon and for global climate,” says Roberts.
In the book entitled A climate of injustice – Global inequality, North-South politics, and climate policy, released in 2007, Roberts and Bradley Parks offer conciliatory alternatives to the opposing viewpoints that guide the debates on climate change, and analyze the possibilities for action in developing countries such as Brazil. Now, their newly released book Greening aid – Understanding the environmental impact of development assistance, Roberts, Parks and two other co-authors assess the impact of projects financed every year by international donors as a means of helping poor countries to solve their environmental issues.
Nobody knows for sure how to motivate social scientists to join LBA – possibly through public calls for the submission of research proposals for grants – nor if they will accept the invitation. Another challenged faced by Batistella – and whoever replaces him as the head of LBA’s scientific committee – is to find out how to convert into public policies the studies that will possibly reach the pages of scientific journals. In one of the assessments of the first phase, Carlos Nobre, one of the program’s creators and coordinators, noted that they had failed to transform the discoveries on the Amazon region into concrete action benefiting those who live in the area. Perhaps the new LBA team will be able to bring together the science world and the world of public policies as experts from different areas start to collectively formulate and study environmental changes and their effects upon society.
Carlos Fioravanti was in Manaus as a guest of Fapeam, the Amazonas Research Aid FoundationRepublish