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Eduardo S. Brondizio

Eduardo S. Brondizio: Urban Amazonia is invisible

Anthropologist proposes dialog to bring the environmental debate closer to discussions on social and economic development

léo ramos chavesSince the early 1990s, the anthropologist Eduardo S. Brondizio has lived in the United States; originally from São Paulo, he has made a career as a professor at Indiana University–Bloomington. His research interests, however, have never left Brazil. They remain firmly rooted in areas of the Amazon like the municipalities in the Marajó Island region of Pará State, or on the edges of the Cuiabá-Santarém and Transamazon highways, which he visits regularly. There, Brondizio and his students (many of whom are Brazilian) compare statistical and census data and interview families of river dwellers and newly arrived migrants to understand how they make decisions on migration and land use, which in turn affects transformation in the social and regional landscape.

Some of these families have been followed for nearly 30 years. Many no longer live in rural areas; they are found on the outskirts of cities where they moved in search of opportunity, as part of a process of transformation in the Amazon which has accelerated exponentially since the 1970s. Close to 80% of the population in the region lives in cities and suffers from classic problems like lack of sanitation, unemployment, and crime. These questions, Brondizio observes, are pushed aside in discussions about the future of the Amazon, which is valued internationally as a large-scale carbon storage site and a sanctuary for biodiversity.

Brondizio was born in São José dos Campos, São Paulo, 54 years ago, and studied agronomy at the University of Taubaté, where he became interested in the change in land-use patterns in rural communities. He worked at the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE), and through the SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation he coordinated the first atlas of the Atlantic Forest, which was developed in collaboration with INPE. In 1991, he moved to Indiana University to complete a doctorate in environmental anthropology under the guidance of anthropologist Emilio Moran, but he was unable to return to Brazil as he had planned: his interdisciplinary training as an agronomist, an expert in remote sensing, and anthropologist did not fit into any of the university subject areas. After a year at the University of Arizona, in 1998 he was hired by Indiana University, where he is a professor and for seven years headed the Department of Anthropology, one of the most traditional in the country. Since 2015 he has directed the interdisciplinary Center for the Analysis of Social-Ecological Landscapes (CASEL).

Environmental anthropology
Degree in agronomy from the University of Taubaté (1987); doctorate in environmental anthropology from Indiana University (1996)
Indiana University
Produção científica
190 articles and book chapters, 7 books and specialist periodicals; advisor or co-advisor for 12 doctoral candidates and 4 master’s candidates, supervisor of 7 post-doctoral students

On a visit to Brazil, before heading to work in the field in Pará and Maranhão, Brondizio granted Pesquisa FAPESP the following interview, in which he speaks of his career and his most recent mission: alongside Sandra Diaz (Argentina) and Josef Settele (Germany), he is one of the coordinators of a panel that is producing the most comprehensive assessment to date of biodiversity and its contributions to society for the Intergovernmental Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), which is linked to the United Nations.

How is the work going among the panel of experts who are preparing the Global Assessment on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services?
It is an ambitious project, which seeks to summarize what has happened over the last 50 years from an environmental point of view and equip the new phase of the global agenda for biodiversity and sustainable development for 2020–2030. We are finishing the first version, and there are two more years of work ahead. There are 150 authors from more than 60 countries. The analysis has an innovative agenda to include knowledge and practices from indigenous and local communities, as well as the problems faced by these populations. This is the first time that a survey of this scale will present social and natural sciences on a more or less equivalent scale.

What are the difficulties of producing a project like this?
There was a major effort to assemble a team which was diverse with regard to geography, discipline, and gender. This is an important part of the project: bringing in people who are recognized in their areas, who can talk about issues that transcend their disciplines. We use a conceptual model that specifies mechanisms for the inter-relationship between nature and society and their implications for the well-being of people and for biodiversity. We had a good start, lining up topics that bind together environmental problems in a way that they correspond with social demands. For example, the implications of the current trajectories of urban development for the next 20 years, or reconciling anti-poverty policies with conservation policies, or even the challenges of sustainably governing shared global resources. These are major issues of interest for public policies, which serve to guide a relevant and useful summary for different regions and sectors of society.

And the goal is to indicate approaches for the next 20 years…
Besides an analysis of the changes over the past 50 years, one of the goals is to broaden the discussion on climate change, not as an end in itself, but as part of a process of larger social and environmental changes with different visions of development and of the future. Promoting renewable energy or carbon sequestration policies on their own will not necessarily lead to solutions for the environmental vulnerabilities and development of different regions. We hope to help bring the environmental and climate discussion closer to the debates on social issues and socioeconomic development.

The gap between the discussion of climate change and development policies was one of the key issues that led the United States to leave the Paris Agreement. Is this included in the project?
The issue in the United States is very complex. Some studies show that the majority of the population is concerned with climate change and support changes in society. But there are divisions along party lines and ideologies that manipulate issues in order to polarize political agendas which are aligned with the interests of certain economic sectors. This polarization creates a debate which is to some extent false, between opportunities and threats to the American way of life. This partially reflects how the climate issue has been addressed, separately from people’s social and environmental reality. In the United States or in Brazil, we need to move away from simplistic debates and confront the complexity of the collective dilemmas that climate change requires us to consider.

What concrete outcomes can be expected from the survey?
In addition to presenting an up-to-date portrait of the planet, we will evaluate the global biodiversity agenda put into practice between 2011 and 2020. Part of the survey is more reflective, thinking about desirable goals and futures. How can we preserve the forest and maintain necessary food production in a more inclusive manner? How can we solve urban problems in a way that is socially just and environmentally appropriate? How can global resources be governed, like the oceans, biodiversity, and all the “invisible” benefits we get from nature? Perhaps one of the most innovative parts would be reflection on alternative ways to reach desired goals. The time is right, because there are several discussions which are at a standstill, partly due to a lack of dialog among the sciences and between the sciences and different sectors of society. A study like this one allows questions to be asked which force us to consider different points of view, as well as to recognize that, from an environmental and socioeconomic development point of view, our interdependencies transcend borders, cultures, and social classes.

And where does the debate about the future of the Amazon fit in?
In the countries in the Northern hemisphere, there was a very strong acceleration in environmental and social transformation after World War II. Next came a regional movement of this phenomenon to other parts of the globe. These shifts of impact also occur within countries like Brazil. This is why even though improvements may be seen in some regions, the global environment is deteriorating. What we see today in the Amazon is the replication of a process of expanding resource extraction, which aligns national political visions and strong economic interests and triggers intense transformation to supply regional and global market chains. We will continue to see intense change in the Amazon, as well as in parts of Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

personal archive Brondizio with settlers during fieldwork on the Transamazon Highway in 2001personal archive

How is what is happening today in the Amazon related to what happened globally?
The Amazon is symbolic, because it is possible to see the confluence of various forces in the region, such as pressure from the global market for raw materials, pressure from the aggressive national developmentalist vision, or widespread urbanization. But also [we can see] reactions to these processes and contradictions between these forces operating side by side. The Amazon is going through phases of environmental and sociopolitical transformation. In the late 1980s and early 1990s there was a change in the regional makeup which has intensified over the past 10 years, when processes that had been disjointed began to interact physically, socially, and virtually. These changes do not only involve fluctuations in the rates of deforestation. When you analyze the trends in demographics, infrastructure, extraction, consumption, and pollution, you see that the Amazon is a microcosm of global acceleration and the resulting problems. There are many examples of positive initiatives on the part of individuals, groups, and municipalities, but they are swimming against a tide of structural problems, corporate interests, and contradictory public policies. There is also an inability to value regional resources and promote an economy that is transformative and not extractivist, in order to benefit the region and its population.

What is the damage?
Conservation and indigenous areas are becoming islands of biological and cultural diversity, while pollution of rivers and urban problems are increasing and social conflicts are multiplying. There is a very rapid process of urbanization, and municipalities cannot keep up with the demands for public and social services and environmental management which are generated from this transformation. The Amazon also represents Brazil and other regions in terms of violence. The region has a long history of indigenous and agrarian violence that still continues, but now the trajectory of urban violence is also shocking, affecting small towns and big cities. In addition to expansion in drug trafficking, it reflects the lack of a transformative economy that can create more income and opportunities for the population. Most of the municipalities are bankrupt and depend on money from the federal government, as do many families. There is a historical repetition of a political economy of exploitation.

Would the economy of açaí, a topic you have studied, be an example of this?
Açaí is emblematic. The açaí industry that we see today comes from the hands of small producers who live along the rivers in the region. It comes from local knowledge and from agroforestry intensification technology that allowed it to initially respond to regional urban demand. After this, it grew to serve the national and global market. The entire Amazon estuary and delta region is immersed in a productive forest economy that is inclusive, environmentally favorable, has a strong market, and is linked to the regional identity. The açaí berry moves an immense and important informal economy. Even so, it does not value the producers as active agents in the process of globalizing this economy, or the municipalities as places where value should be added. Like other regional resources, the açaí productive chain has a system that adds value in proportion to the distance from the production area. As a result, the producers do not receive the benefits. What they earn is little in comparison to the value which is added far away. In our surveys in this region, only a small percentage, around 20% of families, are able to live off açaí as their primary income. The majority depend on retirement and income transfer programs such as Bolsa Família. This is a depiction of the reality in the region.

How vulnerable are the cities?
What catches my attention, and I have tried to raise this as much as possible in articles and presentations, is the invisibility of the urban problem in the Amazon, the “elephant in the room” of sustainable development. I’m referring to urban problems related to poverty and environmental vulnerability, such as flooding, lack of sanitation, and violence. More than half the population of Belém is vulnerable to flooding, which brings with it garbage and sewage. Nobody talks about pollution in the Amazon, whether from organic household waste or from industrial waste or pesticides. It’s incredible. Nearly all the sewage and most of the trash produced in more than 700 cities in the region goes into the rivers. And nobody talks about it. There is a prevailing mentality that the river absorbs everything, and that the population is “adapted” to a brutal health reality. The scale of nature in the region hides large problems like deforestation. I have directed my work toward this issue: to see the effects of urbanization that appear in the cities and their surroundings, in the lives of millions of people, and the implications interurban networks will have on the configuration of the regional landscape in the coming decades. A cruel social reality is accepted as if it were natural. And we haven’t even mentioned violence. Large areas of cities like Manaus and Belém, as well as the surrounding rivers, are controlled by criminals and pirates and this reality has spread to small towns.

How has your research in this region evolved?
I started to work in the region in 1989 with Emilio Moran, studying communities along the Marajó River and how they adapted to the local environment and interacted with the development process. It was a privilege to have Emilio as my advisor and long-term collaborator in the Anthropological Center for Training and Research on Global Environmental Change [ACT] in Indiana. This work continued in collaboration with Walter Neves, recently retired from USP [the University of São Paulo], Rui Murrieta, also a professor at USP, and several colleagues within the ecology and human biology group at that time in the Emilio Goeldi Museum in Belém. Walter led an interdisciplinary and innovative project on ecological anthropology which was supported by CNPq [the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development]. Throughout this period I worked in collaboration with my wife, Andrea D. Siqueira, who is also an anthropologist. Our daughters, Maria and Julia, have always accompanied us in the region. My initial perspective was very local, and I always worked at the household level to understand how families make decisions involving the use of land, migration, production, and how they form communities.

Why families?
I see the family as the most disaggregated unit for understanding the process of transformation. Before going to the Amazon, my first research project was to evaluate the impact of the construction of the Rio-Santos highway on the community of Trindade [in the state of Rio de Janeiro] in the mid-1980s. I was interested in studying how a road and the real estate process that followed transformed the landscape of a fishing community, and in developing remote sensing methodologies for local analysis. This is a question that has guided my work from the beginning: understanding the transformation of rural families in Brazil, which now, following these families, has led me to analyzing the urban transformation. When I began working in the Amazon, together with colleagues I developed a methodology we could use to examine how the families’ decision-making process had implications on the regional landscape. I have worked along this line in various regions of the Amazon, across a spectrum of rural populations, from historic populations to recently arrived settlers. But my objective has always been to maintain “one foot inside the home,” interviewing families and understanding the process from the bottom up, and using a regional vision to work with more aggregated information like district and municipal census data and remote sensing. Today our work extends to studies on the interaction between indigenous areas, agricultural and ranching expansion, and the interurban networks that are expanding in the region.

How do the decisions made by families influence regional transformations?
Let’s look at the example of urbanization in the Amazon estuary and delta region. This area had and still has a very strong social hierarchy, which was in a sense shattered by the expansion of transport possibilities and better access to communication, to the media, and to legal rights. People began to see other options in life than those which were available to previous generations, who were dependent on (generally absent) landowners. Each family’s responses to the açaí market led to a transformation of the landscape toward an agroforestry economy. These possibilities for transport, communication, and market, and the income that began to come from açaí, allied with the lack of services in rural areas, led people to make decisions: families began to buy lots in the city and build small houses, which provided an option for their children to study, find health care, and work. The regional urban transformation is the result of the interaction between individual expectations and decisions, pressures suffered in the rural and indigenous areas, and opportunities created by changes in the regional infrastructure. We have seen a very interesting reorganization of the family in this and in other areas of the Amazon, what we call multi-located families. To adapt to economic and social limitations, the families have organized themselves so that they have members in the city and in the rural area.

personal archive An expert in the açaí economy, Brondizio accompanies producers in Amapá in 2006personal archive

You were on the board of directors for the Ostrom Workshop in Political Theory and Policy Analysis at the University of Indiana, which was created in 1975 by political scientist and Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom and is known for promoting an environment of interdisciplinary collaboration. What strategies are used?
Vincent and Lin Ostrom created the workshop with the intention of working collaboratively with ideas, just as in a workshop where there are teachers and learners that refine ideas together. The main issues of the workshop revolve around understanding the dilemmas involving collective action and governance of common resources and public assets. One of Lin’s efforts was to create conceptual frameworks like Institutional Analysis and Development (IAD) and Socioecological Systems (SES) that become tools for interdisciplinary collaboration around complex problems, regardless of scale. Working with her was one of the greatest privileges I’ve had. At Indiana I receive many Brazilians to be trained in IAD and SES and in the procedures we developed. These frameworks allow systematic and comparative analysis of problems involving collective action, like arenas that involve participants with different views, positions, and powers. They interact in a process of negotiation which is influenced by formal and informal rules, by the biophysical and social environment.

Could you give some examples of these arenas?
For example, the governance of a river that flows through agro-industrial properties and indigenous areas. Or the population’s decisions on the harm and benefits that would come from constructing a business venture. All of these problems deal with shared resources, where appropriation by one group limits the benefit of others, where you can see both cooperation and conflict, depending on the actors, their views, their powers, and the context in which they operate.

You have advisees from a number of countries. What problems do they study?
My students work with various problems related to environmental interaction, land use, institutions and governance, rural-urban relationships, the globalization of local products, the impact of public policies, and the cultural identity of rural populations, as well as the social dimensions of climate change. I have the opportunity to work with students and post-docs from different parts of the Amazon and Brazil, the Andes, Africa, Europe, and Asia. Of my last two doctoral advisees, Ana de Lima and Andressa Mansur (both of whom are Brazilian), one studied the impact of the Bolsa Família income transfer program on the household economy and health of women and children in the western Amazon, and the other investigated the vulnerability of urban populations to flooding in the cities of the Amazon estuary and delta. We have students working on the globalization of quinoa, management and governance of shared resources in different countries, the environmental attitudes of small and large producers, the impact of hydroelectric dams, conservation and indigenous areas, ethnobotany… The list is long.

How is work going at the Environmental Studies and Research Center at the University of Campinas (NEPAM-UNICAMP), where you are an external professor?
We have a steady flow of students between UNICAMP and Indiana, partly thanks to FAPESP. We have built very productive partnerships, for example, with the team of the sociologist Lucia da Costa Ferreira, who works with a perspective of arenas and conflicts that have helped expand our analytical tools. Also with the staff of the anthropologist Celia Futemma, with whom we are studying cooperation between small rural farmers and the role of collective action in conservation. Furthermore, I collaborate with colleagues from INPE, EMBRAPA [the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation], FIOCRUZ [the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation], USP, and the federal universities located in Pará, Maranhão, Brasília, among others. There has also been a productive collaboration with colleagues at the University of the Vale do Paraíba, at the laboratory of geographer Sandra Costa, who with support from FAPESP has allowed us to continue our surveys of river communities and understand the transformation of small towns in the estuarine area.

You worked at INPE before going to the United States. What did you do?
When INPE was transferred to an independent agency in 1985, I went there looking for training in remote sensing to understand how the Rio-Santos highway affected the lives of the fishermen in the town of Trindade. I spent two years at INPE, where I was lucky to be guided by Dalton Valeriano, developing a methodology to use sensing to analyze the transformation of land use on the local scale. I was a founding member and part of the technical staff of the SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation, and used these experiences to analyze the historical transformation of the Atlantic forest in Brazil.

What was your doctorate in Indiana like?
I developed a doctorate with a concentration in environmental anthropology and environmental sciences, working on a dissertation about the globalization of açaí and the human dimensions of land use. Andrea and I spent a good part of this time living in the Amazon, mainly in Marajó. We were ready to go back, but we did not find any interesting opportunities in competitive exams. I ended up going to the University of Arizona. We went back to Indiana to work with Elinor Ostrom and Emilio Moran in a new center for interdisciplinary excellence funded by the National Science Foundation. In return, Indiana University gave five teaching positions for the departments to compete and obtain, one of them in my specialty. It was extremely competitive, and my chances were slim, because only rarely in the United States are academics hired at the same university where they graduated. I got the position in the Department of Anthropology, which allowed me to combine teaching and research within my discipline as well as between disciplines. It was a challenging path at that time, but today it is becoming more the rule than the exception.