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Beyond geography

Hilgard Sternberg dedicated his life to understanding the relationship between man and nature

PEG SKORPINSKI / UC BERKELEYIndian headdress and the geographer: passionate about the Amazon RegionPEG SKORPINSKI / UC BERKELEY

Despite a foreign-sounding name and a career built, after 1964, at the University of California at Berkeley, in the United States, Hilgard O’Reilly Sternberg was and never ceased to be a Brazilian geographer. He died on March 2, at the age of 93, leaving us a body of work in which he investigated the geography, the ecology and the anthropology of the region with the world’s largest rainforest and greatest river basin.

Ever since he fell in love with the vast world of the Amazon waters, in the 1940s, Sternberg never stopped traveling along these meandering rivers. His thesis A água and o homem na várzea do Careiro [Water and man in the Careiro lowlands], finished in 1956 but published only in 1998 by Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi [Emilio Goeldi Museum of Pará], was a pioneering effort in terms of calling attention to the dependence between riverside populations and water courses. He also researched the effects of this relationship upon the rivers, which become serious when deforestation increases the water flow and reduces the riverbed depth, due to the accumulation of sediments, causing floods that can be lethal for the communities that live along the riverbanks.

It was a fundamental piece of work, in the view of the geographer Carlos Augusto de Figueiredo Monteiro, from the University of São Paulo (USP). In addition, he highlights a study on the flooding of the Vale do Paraiba valley, in inner-state São Paulo. “Sternberg conducted a meteorological analysis, examined how populated the area was, and the disorderly use of the soil,” he tells us. “It’s a very dynamic approach while also evoking the historical past.” This integrated view highlights Sternberg’s work on Brazilian geography.

The son of immigrants (German father and Irish mother), Sternberg was born in 1917 in Rio de Janeiro, where he chaired the Geography Society of Brazil from 1944 to 1964. He also founded the Center for Brazilian Geographic Research. In 1956, he was one of the people responsible for holding the International Geography Congress here, the first ever in a tropical country. He taught at the University of Brazil (now the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro). “He was young, talented, and engaged in very dynamic geography. He was also a demanding professor and a great motivator,” recalls Monteiro. Additionally, he terrified a generation of diplomats in training with his strict discipline at the Rio Branco Institute: to his mind, Brazil’s representatives abroad also had to be geographers.

At his home in the hills of Berkeley, where he lived with his wife Carolina, Sternberg built a labyrinth of books and maps, in which, however, he was far from getting lost. “Carolina kept all of that organized,” Monteiro tells us, “and still made a feijoada [black bean stew] for the students on the courses on Brazil that he taught at Berkeley.”

Even away from the reality of the Amazon, as when he would park his car at the university parking lot in Berkeley with spots reserved for Nobel Prize laureates, to have lunch at the faculty club, until his last few years, he never stopped studying and talking passionately about the problems generated by making poor use of the soil and of biodiversity. Sternberg’s heritage among the generations of geographers that he trained and influenced is still up to date, given the increasingly strained relation between nature and humans.