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Emilio Moran: A world in change

The anthropologist Emilio Moran, from Indiana University, talks about the inevitable global environmental changes and the men adaptation to them

MIGUEL BOYAYANWhen he talks about global climatic changes, anthropologist Emilio Moran seems capable of catching the attention of even the most skeptical of the anti-environmentalists. Perhaps because, instead of only detaining himself on numbers – whether of animal and plant species in the process of extinction, or of more or less degrees Celsius of the Earth, or referring to certain gases of the atmosphere – he orders the words with sufficient mastery to lead the listener to glimpse, almost to touch, future worlds. They are sometimes frightening scenarios that allow themselves to be seen between his sentences, sometimes less so, but that always carry that something of discomfort inherent to inevitable changes, particularly to the great changes.

A Cuban, naturalized American, Moran was one of the first researchers to cast a social scientist’s eye on the debate on global warming, for a long time confined to the ambit of meteorology. A director of the Anthropological Center for Training and Research in Global Environmental Changes of the University of Indiana, in the United States, he suggests that the best way of sensibilizing people about the real danger of these changes and so to cause transformations in their traditional behavior is to study the human dimension of the phenomenon, making research in this field more and more interdisciplinary.

At a conference held in FAPESP’s auditorium, on June 8 last, Moran showed that the debate on the average increase in the temperature of the planet is not very productive. The important thing is not the average rise of 3 or 4 degrees in the next 90 years, but the extreme changes, in the form of floods, snowstorms and heat waves that should sweep the planet more frequently. Another example of his sharp eye: the idea that human occupation of the Amazon is the villain of deforestation does not sustain itself. That is because the population of the region is concentrated in the cities, and what is to be seen in the devastated fields is extensive cattle raising. Why does the forest burn? Because there is a vicious circle in force, in which small farmers devastate to get free land, launch themselves into cattle raising, and wait a few years until the land appreciates, to sell it then to large landowners.

A student of Brazil, Moran graduated in Brazilian Literature and did postgraduate studies in Anthropology, in the United States. In 1971, through a professor with a great knowledge of Latin America, Charles Wagley, he got to know that something important was happening in Brazil – the opening of a road that would tear through the largest tropical forest of the planet. Over a year and a half, he accompanied the birth of the human occupation on the Transamazonian highway. In the 1990’s, he gave his career a change of course. His current field of research combines methods of remote sensing with field work in the Amazon. The author of several works about the region, he is taking part in the Large-scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA), coordinated by the National Institute of Amazon Research (INPA). His interest for the country is more than academic. One of his dreams is, one day, to move to Brazil, in particular to Rio de Janeiro. “I dream in Portuguese”, says he, who left Cuba when he was 14 years old. The main passages from the interview that he granted to Pesquisa FAPESP follow:

I would begin by asking you the following: how to present to the public the problems connected with global climatic changes without the subject seeming irremediably boring , of interest only to specialists? How to put into the debate a more clearly human, social dimension, capable of sensibilizing society to this theme?
I think that the starting point has to be talking about how the climate affects and always has affected people’s lives. When someone goes out in the morning, when he reaches the door he already has to face the climate. It may be raining or not, it may be hot or cold. And straight away this influences the way how people dress, the choice of whether to go out or not to go out on that day. Today, there is a lot of talk about global warming, but in terms of global climate change this is not, in actual fact, the most important fact. Because this global warming has a very low average, an increase in the temperature of a few degrees, 3, 4 or 5, is expected in the next 90 years. And that is in the worst scenarios of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – IPCC.

So what then is the most important thing?
It is the extreme changes of climate, which we are certainly going to have and which are going to result in different experiences for people. In some place in the world, in a specific area, the alteration may be 10 or 15 degrees, up or down. The changes are already under way. We know, for example, that El Niño now occurs more frequently. Before, it would appear every 20 years, something like that, now this interval has almost come down to five years, and some people are talking about the phenomenon shortly showing itself at intervals of from three to four years. In different parts of the world, like the Amazon and other tropical areas, there is going be more frequent drought, more uncontrolled fire. In other areas, like Rio Grande do Sul, there is going to be more devastating rain… So the averages do not translate the problem. I remember a discussion with a climatologist in Belém do Pará. I reported that the settlers said that it was already possible to see, after 20 years of deforestation, a fall in the precipitation. And she replied to me: “It’s not true?. So we went to look for this information in the archives, and it could be seen that, taking the average of the years, the rainfall had even increased, but from the daily data it was clear that a great change had occurred – before, there was not one month with less than 100 millimeters of rain, and now, frequently, for two, three or four months also zero rainfall would be observed. In the year, there was almost 100 millimeters more, except that there was more rain than before in the rainy season and hardly any in the dry season.

That is, there was a much greater irregularity in the distribution of the rains.
Precisely. Which affects agriculture seriously. And these divergences in  pluviometric precipitation are going to increase. All over the world. And in different parts of the country in a different way.

But which are actually the great villains of these global changes that are being seen?
Well, a series of gases that are emitted, heat the atmosphere and create this warming. Carbon dioxide is the main one, but there is also methanol, which comes from fertilizers, for example, and others – but these are the main ones. There is the problem of the ozone layer more or less stabilized.

And which human activities are most linked to the emissions that cause these al climatic changes?
The main one, at a global level, is the use of fossil fuels, without any doubt. There is, of course, a variation from country to country. In Brazil, the contribution from deforestation is enormous, I don’t know exactly the proportion but it is equal to or more than the emission from fossil fuels. This whole story, though, with its villains, began back in the Middle Ages, with agriculture in Europe, with the monasteries and the priests in the monasteries deforesting areas for agriculture. The whole of Europe was deforested.

And soon the destruction of the European forests would be reached.
In a thousand years, they did away with forests of Europe. Only a few original patches of them were left. Afterwards, it was the stage of the destruction of the forests of the United States, in the 19th century. In Indiana, where I live, it used to be 94% forest, and in one century that went down to 6%. It was the same thing in Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York… People , settled, deforested everything, left only a few patches where access was most difficult. That kept going ahead. At the end of the 19th century, there was a certain economic halt in agriculture, a transition to the industrial activity, the cities to absorb people released from the crops, and the farms that were not very well managed, not very economical, with good production, began to go bankrupt. In the 1930’s, the great economic depression came onto the scene, doing away with these farms. People abandoned them, and the governments began to grab them to create forest reserves.

That is, at that moment there was a certain reforestation.
Yes. At the end of the 19th century, the area of forests went down to as little as 6% of what there was originally, and at the moment, it’s 24% in Indiana, and there are other states where there is now 40% of the original, in the region of New York.

Following on with this historical perspective, deforestation intensifies in South America and in Central America, now in the second half of the 20th century, isn’t that so?
Precisely. It all begins with the worldwide economic expansion promoted by economies like that of the United States, when industrialization is intensified, the standards of agriculture change, it is always getting more mechanized, and starts using fossil fuel in the production of energy. The entire world went into a stage of rapid economic growth, but a growth that favored some and disfavored others.

The problems of deforestation in Brazil in actual fact began by the Atlantic Rain Forest…
Which has now almost finished already, hasn’t it? It’s in the 6%, 5% range?

MIGUEL BOYAYANThe deforestation of the Amazon Forest is a more recent problem. Before it, how does the question of the African tropical forests and the question of the forests of Asia fit in to this more global line of thought?
– Well, the African forests and those in Asia have also almost finished. And the great concern of many people that have worked in that area and know it well, like a colleague of mine who worked for almost 20 years in Sarawak, Indonesia, and has now moved to the Amazon, is that the companies from Malaysia, which are the big timbermen who did away with the forest there, are going to the Amazon. And if they go in without government control, without limits, well protected environmental protection areas, the same thing can happen in Brazil as in Asia, because these companies are devastators. They did away with the forest, in Sarawak, even in areas of difficult access. That is worrying.

And what can be done to prevent their damaging action?
There is a theory, much used now in some circles, according to which, if a place that has a lot of forest becomes accessible, the human population will go after it to use this forest resource. The government is the main player on this stage. It encourages access to a previously inaccessible area of forest to incorporate its wealth with the natural wealth. In the case of Brazil, roads are created with the intention of integrating the the Amazon with the rest of the country, and this movement was followed by the timbermen, by companies from the mining area, in short, there was a front of settlement, afterwards accompanied by other economic waves. But the main objective was to provide access and to create conditions for people to penetrate into that forest.

When we are talking of the Amazon, we are locating ourselves from the 1970’s to now. In the case of the Atlantic Rain Forest, it’s very different: there are centuries.
Yes, in this one, deforestation began in 1500, but it speeded up a lot in the same era, in the 1960’s, the beginning of the military era. There was a program of the government dedicated to economic growth, with a strategy of incorporation, whose motto was “Integrate so as not to surrender”, do you remember? There was a mentality at that moment in Latin America that without a policy of occupying these areas, they would be surrendered to others. Not only in Brazil. The governments of Peru and Bolivia had identical national integration programs.

That is clear in relation to Amazonia, but as far as the Atlantic rain forest is concerned, what do the policies of occupying virgin territories of those years have to do with the speeding up of deforestation? After all, it was there on the coast, well integrated with the oldest areas of occupation of the Brazilian territory.
There it is now a question of the effects of economic, industrial development. With the significant increase of wealth in the country, many people came to have the conditions for owning a second house in the countryside or on the beach, and land previously covered by the Atlantic Rain Forest were offered for this.

The discourse of the Brazilian government today is that there is no longer any kind of official incentive for the occupation of the Amazon. And in fact, as a government policy, nothing is like what there used to be in the days of the military regime. However, the deforestation is continuing, sometimes at a swift pace, sometimes a bit more slowly, but what is said is that there is there a movement of economic expansion that works naturally, without any kind of incentive, and you can’t manage to hold it back. Does it seem to you like that, there’s no way of checking it?
I think that in this question there is still the influence of that ideology of the military government. Look, it makes an appeal to nationality, to the notion that this great area of belonged and had to continue to belong to the country. And there is a commitment to ensuring that this whole area of the Amazon is guaranteed for the Brazilians. On this point, the ideology continues as a factor that influences the policy of all the rulers of Brazil and of all its social and political sectors. Now, it is true that there are players with power and money to act independently of the government even. The timber companies are interested in that area, and they have connections and money to influence the policy that affects them. Likewise, the businessmen from São Paulo can influence the credit policy for the Amazon. It is said that the majority of the investment there is for agriculture, but that it is going to livestock. Then that now has a life of its own, the deforestation continues, and the presence of the government.  Unfortunately, it continues to be an absence. It only has a presence when a disaster occurs, like the assassination of Sister Dorothy Stang. Then, 20 thousand soldiers arrive, stay for a month or two, then they go away. Things are going to carry on like that until civil society is more aware that the wealth of the Amazon would be put to better use in the future than in the present, for example, with the pharmacological exploitation of its biodiversity, with its value in terms of climatic protection, protection of the waters’ water is the probable object of a major future crisis, and that is a possibility for Brazil and the Amazon. That is one thing that has to be studied better, for it to be possible to manage it better and earn more money with the resources of the Amazon. With devastations, the major part of its resources is wasted.

There is today a limited comprehension of the true potential of these resources.
Of course, and how can this change? Through policies that value a long-term view. Except that governments change every four, five, six years, the politician’s view is short-term, perhaps more so than the big businessmen fixed only on now.

How to maintain, in the light of the problems announced, a non-apocalyptic view of the future in relation to the global climatic changes on the planet and here in Brazil in particular?
I’m not a pessimist, because I think you can see changes in the way how we deal with the problems. In relation to property, for example, I have already shown in my works that the settler learns in 20 years to protect the forest, to leave a good patch of the forest in each property, and even to let the forest return in less productive areas. The problem is that the opening up of roads continues. The “Advance, Brazil” program [of the second Fernando Henrique Cardoso  term] was one example of a proposal very similar to the one of the 1970’s. In those days, they talked about the Northern Perimetral (a highway running along the Brazilian frontier to facilitate military movement and to protect Brazil from the invasions of neighboring countries), which was abandoned because of the 1973 oil crisis. In “Advance, Brazil” I saw the Northern Perimetral again, except that more extensive. That is why I think that the same ideology continues, that is, the idea that to protect Amazon, this highway has to be made. But, by doing this, an opening is created for the population that has no resources, no land, and for the speculators as well. And the highway’s biggest problem is not letting people in, but letting the resources out. Resources that do not stay with the people there, but go away and are lost. So, who benefits from this investment of the government? That is one of the big questions. It is not the people that benefits: throughout the years that we have been researching into the Amazon, we have never observed, neither on the ground nor from space, via satellite, more than 4% of the area given over to agriculture for food in the Amazon. The major part of the area is with pastures with less than one cow per hectare. Sometimes, even less. Is that putting it to good use, taking 1 hectare of land, which had 280 plant species – an unimaginable quantity of pharmaceutical resources and food resources for people -, destroying everything and putting one cow there. A thin cow, by the way, because they are thin in the Amazon, with meat that is not of good quality. That is what is being achieved in the major part of the Amazon.

In your talk at FAPESP, you addressed some myths connected with the environmental question. One of them was that “population growth results in agricultural intensification”, something that in reality, according to your analysis, you belie. I would like you to talk a bit about this.
At a global level, the correlation is possible, but not at the local level. Because there are other factors that have more influence on agricultural intensification. Which? For example, government policies with credit that facilitates intensification being granted. Nobody intensifies agriculture unless he is obliged by hunger or encouraged to replace manual cultivation by cultivation with technology. It’s that that is missing for the Amazon, where the credit goes to the cattle raiser. Almost all the rural credit for the small producer in Amazon goes for deforestation, something that I have already shown in various areas of study. There has been no way, up until now, for providing technology that facilitates the most intensive use of the land to reduce deforestation. It’s easier to deforest a large area, put cattle in it, wait for the price of the land to rise because the problem is that land is free on the frontier, and it only gains value with time. The small producer invests in the crop and 10, 20 years on, he sells his property to the large producer, because he has already put pasture there, which is what the latter wants.

But insisting on the myths…
Look, on the question of population, you have to consider the following: when the population increases in a rural area, if there’s no other option, the only way out is technology for intensifying agriculture to produce the necessary food. But in many cases what happens is something else. That is, if the option exists for migrating from the rural area to the urban area because there is employment in the city, the countryside is left empty, and then there are two paths: intensification with extension, or intensification with technology, which is what is happening much more in the world. It happened in the United States, it’s happening in Brazil as well. The countryside is being left empty, people sell the land, capital goes in, and there is a possibility of producing soybeans, rice, for the world market. The question is up to what point there is employment in the urban area. Often, people from the rural area go to a small town nearby. These towns grow and a process of urban concentration occurs. Industrial development is lacking in the small town, and even in the large ones.

There are influential factors for the global changes under way that that are far from the forests and have to do with the production of aerosols, gases etc. in the cities, in the areas of accentuated density. I would like to take advantage to ask the following: how to research these changes without staying tied to the data on the climate, the extinction of species, to boring forecasts full of numbers and to introduce there with force and clarity questions relating to population changes, and social changes? In short, how to turn this research into the global changes into a legitimate theme for anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, philosophers etc., which in fact it is?
Look, we have to create integrated questions, that have to do with the interaction between population and climatic factors. For example: how does society act in terms of using energy? Let’s take the case of the hotels, in Brazil and in other parts of the world, that have now installed movement sensors in all the corridors. The lights remain switched off, and when a person leaves a room, just one spot of light appears right above the place where he is. Or, if the person walks to the right, the lights begin to be lit up on the right hand side and then are switched off. Well, no study has been made about whether it makes a profit or not to install these sensors, about the cost-benefit of this technology? In short, there I am talking of behavior, of cultural changes, of economy. In this case, behavior in relation to light, to energy, an extremely important factoring the emissions of heating gases, because where does this energy come from? From the use of fossil fuels.

MIGUEL BOYAYANHere in Brazil, the matrix is rather different.
I know. Half of the energy comes from hydroelectricity. But it’s the same thing. Think about the cost of a hydroelectric power plant, of the investment, of the enormous cost to biodiversity, on the immense areas lost. Something has to get this system working: then fossil fuels are burnt. The issue is always to conserve energy as much as possible. Let’s look at the use of the car: you have to think of an urban design in which people once again can go on foot to do their shopping, instead of going with an enormous car to the supermarket. That also changes the pattern of employment. The small store near to the district creates more employment than that enormous store.

Actually, you are talking about a whole change of mentality.
And of behavior.

But I insist on the following: how to have, in practical terms, in the scientific studies on global changes, an integrated approach of these questions connected with mentality etc., with those bound up with physics, chemistry and biology that environment and climate researches always involve?
I think that already today, in Europe, in the United States, for example, there is an acceptance in the ambit of the environmental sciences that you have to include the socioeconomic part, the human part, in research on climate and global change. There are programs supported by the NSF (the National Science Foundation, of the United States) will have been following this orientation for ten years now. We, for example, in a specific project, would choose three ecosystems, in 12 countries, to compare this relationship of population and forest. It was a project that was given a lot of resources for research. This research with integrated accompaniment is going ahead, and the programs have increased.

You could talk a bit about your participation in these pioneer studies that integrate exact, biological and social sciences.
In actual fact, it was the climate scientists who came to the social sciences, in 1988, within an international movement based on Stockholm. The invitation came from them because they realized that the global climate models were very fine, except that you couldn’t find out how to change the behavior that was behind this climatic change. They know that the change was anthropogenic, anthropic, as is more usual in Brazil.

In institutional terms, who did the initiative come from in 1988?
It was from the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program, a scientific coordination committee of which Carlos Nobre [a Brazilian researcher] is now the chairman. The social scientists invited came from an organization based in Paris. They suggested to other groups that they should move themselves to take advantage of the opportunity of interacting with climatologists, geologists etc. They began programs in several countries, and the International Human Dimensions Program was created. Which was based in Switzerland, in Geneva, and afterwards moved to Bonn, Germany.

Still in this ambit of social changes versus climatic changes, in your talk, you spoke of future adaptations, changes of crops, for example, that will certainly have to occur all around the world. Is it a question of convincing businessmen, farmers to replace their plantations because of climatic change?

Yes, it’s something inevitable. If a given crop doesn’t grow under given conditions of rainfall and temperature, it cannot be planted. And, if you want to plant it, you are going to have to go further south, to buy the other person’s land. But you arrive at a point when you have now reached the frontier, there’s Uruguay to the south of Brazil, so then what? There’s an economic problem and a very serious political problem.

And you see this occurring on a worldwide scale.
Yes, there is a climatic model in the United States that is now showing the frontier for corn is going to have to move some 3 degrees of latitude in a northerly direction.

And science should help with some models  that provide support for the policy planners. But you were saying that here we have problems with the models for the tropical areas.
In part, more for the Amazon. In São Paulo, the information on the climate is excellent. But in the Amazon, there’s not one meteorological station in hundreds of kilometers. But science can help much more. It can suggest that in a given regime of rainfall, of temperature, the best agronomic option is x or y. And then Embrapa comes in. Now, does that have a market? Then the economist comes in. Actually, the greater part of food is still very restricted in terms of species, and there a heaps of other things already researched, good foodstuffs for the future of humanity that are still only in the science books.

Do you see that the world is actually in a process of change: of climate, of geopolitics, of behavior, of diet?
Logically. Because if it doesn’t change with this climatic change, when is this behavior going to change? I think that anyone who doesn’t change, doesn’t adapt to the changes, disappears. There are many radical ecologists, who say “I’m not worried, because the world is going to continue?. Sometimes they add “without humanity?. Because if it doesn’t adapt to the changes, if it doesn’t recognize this situation in good time, it’s not going to survive. Well, we have an interest, as a species of this planet, in surviving, don’t we? So we have to think creatively of how to change, where to change. We have a characteristic of not changing more than is necessary. We have already made such a great investment in culture, in economy, in infrastructure, that we don’t want to change beyond what is necessary. What one wants to know with some certainty is what change is necessary. There’s the problem, at the moment. There are still divergences in research. But we have to act.

How do you see the question proposed by Carlos Nobre, during his talk at FAPESP, that the future of humanity is incompatible with the habit of eating meat, of traveling by car? doesn’t that sound like an exaggeration?
Perhaps, but I think that it is an important point to be made. We lived well without the car before – why is the car so essential now? Because we have created systems of urban settlement that make transport difficult. We can create favor using the feet as well. Or bicycles. In Denmark, Sweden, everyone uses them, even old folks of 80 years old. And this mode of transport has preference in the cities. Many things are possible.

How to be optimistic in this direction when the country that most produces harmful emission keeps itself in an extremely conservative position, without admitting in any way entering into global emission reduction protocols? And we are talking about the country that holds the leadership of the world economy.
I am a great critic of this position of the United States. This is connected to a government. It would be different if the president were Al Gore. And everything can change two or three years from now. There is a strong conservationist movement in the United States as well.

Let’s go back to the economic model, social model, change in the contemporary culture that you see.
Look, the present-day behavior is not sustainable and is going to do away with the planet, for sure. So, we have to create options. For example, India is at fundamental moment. It will be the most populous country in the world 30 years from now. It is going to pass China. India has traditional cultures, not consumptive, very conservative. But there is also a very rapid movement, nowadays, of mad, uncontrolled consumption. So this is a moment of cultural struggle in India between the traditional cultures, which many we call backward, and the new middle class, which wants to consume everything that it has not had until now. If India goes for the American model, and China as well, then the planet has ended. Nobody knows what is going occur with three times the CO2 we have today. We have models for twice, which is certainly going to occur. Three times is probable, for the lack of attention of the major countries, like Japan and the United States to changing behavior.

What scenario does this forecast?
If we do nothing, a large part of Antarctica is going to melt. The sea level is going to rise, half of Florida is going to remain under the water, which, in economic terms, is something enormous. London, forget it. Manhattan is going to be inundated as well. It would be an economic disaster, because the greater part of the wealth of the world, in all the countries, is on the coast. If behavior does not change, this will be the future. If in 40 years we do not change anything, there is a great a possibility that the pattern of the mixture of warm and cold water in the oceans, that maintain the world temperature, will be broken, as has already happened thousands of years ago, cooling some parts of the world and heating others. This kind of change can happen again. We have to begin to change now. We ought to have begun already.