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Brazil's rainforest rebounds as a long-view investment in research and local talent pays off

June 1, 2016

“Take a gas mask.”

That was the brusque advice I got as I boarded the bus for Paragominas. The year was 1996, and Penn State ecologist Chris Uhl had invited me to Brazil to visit Imazon, the small research institute he had founded near the mouth of the Amazon.

The prospects for the rainforest seemed bleak, and Uhl wanted me to witness the epicenter of that bleakness. In an article for this magazine, I described arriving in Paragominas late at night:

The sharp smell of woodsmoke began to seep through the bus’ sealed windows. Outside, the night sky was nearly black, but the hanging smoke was even blacker. Soon, in the hills on either side of the highway, there began to appear a strange orange glow, as if the hills themselves were burning. These, I realized, were the mounds of burning sawdust.

At the time, Paragominas boasted well over 200 operating sawmills, many of them illegal. It was the largest raw-lumber producer in Brazil, and a grim and violent place. A decade later, it would sit atop the federal government’s “black list” of counties with the highest rates of deforestation.

That was then. Today, the smoke has cleared and the sawmills are gone, replaced by clean industry and manicured parks. Incredibly, Paragominas is officially a Municipio Verde, or “Green Municipality,” a model for sustainable development. Deforestation there has essentially stopped.

Since 2004, in fact, there has been an 80 percent drop in deforestation across the whole of the Brazilian Amazon, a figure touted as the single greatest reduction of carbon emissions ever achieved by humankind.

This remarkable transformation is due to a convergence of factors, both political and economic. But Imazon, the innovative organization that Uhl willed into life 25 years ago, has played a critical role in bringing it about.

Understanding the Problem

It started in the mid-1980s, when Uhl, a 35-year-old associate professor, and Dan Nepstad, a Yale grad student, found themselves working in the degraded pasturelands surrounding Paragominas. Uhl had considered becoming a medical doctor before getting his Ph.D., and was fascinated by the emerging field of disturbance ecology. “I was drawn to the areas that had been wounded,” he says.

Prevailing wisdom held that those wounds would never heal, that the slash-and-burn practices of the loggers and ranchers flooding into the area would soon turn the fragile rainforest into a desert. After seven years on the ground, however, Uhl and Nepstad were surprised by the resiliency they saw. Given half a chance, the forest had the capacity to come back. “It was way too early to write off the Amazon as a system that was irrevocably damaged,” Uhl says.

Their findings acutely challenged the status quo—and an overheated political climate made things even stickier.

“It was a difficult time in Brazil, especially in the Amazon region,” saysAdalberto Verissimo. Now Imazon’s co-director, Verissimo was then an agronomy student from Brazil’s impoverished northeast, keen to do whatever he could to save the rainforest. The military dictatorship that had held power since before he was born had just ended, and democracy was re-emerging. The country would soon have its first presidential election in a generation.

The building of the Trans-Amazonia highway had opened the interior to unprecedented development, but by the late 1980s government investment in the region had dried up, and the newly profitable logging industry had devolved into a free-for-all. “There was no government intervention, for good or for bad,” Verissimo says. Meanwhile, rising criticism from abroad stoked anger at foreign interference.

A New Kind of NGO

What was missing from that volatile mix, Uhl thought, was reliable scientific data. Very little careful work had been done on deforestation, and important facets of the problem had been misunderstood or ignored. Armed with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, he and a colleague from the University of Wisconsin, Toby McGrath, conspired to start a new kind of non-governmental organization, or NGO. Instead of pushing political action, it would focus on research—but research squarely aimed at solving a dire real-world problem. Its sole purpose would be to provide the kind of high-quality information that Uhl believed would enable policymakers and other stakeholders to make environmentally conscious decisions, and stop the destruction.

The purity of his vision was regarded by many as naïve—even McGrath soon left the project. The best way to pull it off, Uhl decided, would be to draft young Brazilians fresh out of school, a dozen students whose idealism and passion might as yet be undimmed. But that choice presented huge challenges of its own, since Uhl’s charges were as green as they were eager. Most of them, moreover, coming of age at such a turbulent time, had to be convinced that impartial research, not activism, was the surest way to effect change.

"It was way too early to write off the Amazon as a system that was irrevocably damaged."

Not surprisingly, the first few years were a period of intense struggle. “It was the hardest time of my life,” Uhl says. “My hair went from blond to gray in about three years.” Verissimo, his first recruit, remembers it as a kind of boot camp.

“We spent a lot of time in the field, just understanding the reality of the forest,” he says. “Getting close to the problem. This was something Chris stressed.”

At the same time, they were getting a crash course in academic practice. “We were 20, 21, 22 years old, and we had to learn how to write papers that would be publishable in quality journals, how to present our work at conferences. It was a very high standard we had to achieve in a short period of time.”

Uhl was inspiring, encouraging – and relentless. “We would do things 30 or 40 times before they were good enough,” Verissimo says. And while they were earning their academic chops, they also had to learn to see beyond good guys vs. bad guys.

“It was not a conscious ideological choice,” Uhl remembers. “Imazon was so field-based that if we wanted to learn about logging, we had to go out and meet loggers. When we did, we saw these men for what they were—tough, hard-working survivors, just trying to carve a life out of this wilderness. They cared about what they were doing, and they wanted to learn. There was a rapport that developed, based on this trust that was established face to face.”

Instead of treating loggers as the enemy, the Imazon team undertook to help them,  by demonstrating that logging could be done sustainably, with far less waste, and without sacrificing profit or the well-being of the forest. The team produced training manuals and best-practices videos grounded in painstaking comparative research. They developed a comprehensive forest-management plan that became widely adopted, and is still in use today.

Tools of Change

By the time I visited Brazil, the training phase was pretty much complete. The young scientists and policy analysts I met at Imazon’s modest headquarters in the city of Belém were a formidable group. Several, including Verissimo and eventual co-director Carlos Souza Jr., would soon leave for the U.S. to start graduate training at Penn State. Their work had already started to transform logging practice, and given them a taste of success.

“The big card we had was that Imazon was respected,” Uhl remembers. “The quality of the work, the seriousness of the researchers, their dignity, their poise—they were just a class act.” In the ensuing years, these attributes would prove vital to the role the institute would play in shaping Brazil’s environmental policy.

From the logging project, Imazon turned to a second major focus: identifying and prioritizing vast unclaimed areas of forest to protect them against haphazard development. “Nobody was talking about this at the time,” Verissimo says, “but we realized that if we wanted to stop deforestation we would have to close the frontier.”   

Beginning in the mid-1990s, the institute produced a series of maps and reports proposing a tiered system of conservation units. When, in 2003, the federal government finally moved to create large-scale environmental reserves, Imazon’s information proved vitally important. By 2006, nearly half a million square kilometers—an area well over the size of California—had been set aside for preservation.  

At the same time, Imazon was pushing ahead in the area of remote sensing, pioneering the use of satellite imagery for essentially real-time monitoring of forest destruction. The Deforestation Alert System (SAD), spearheaded by Souza and launched in 2007, provides government agencies and the media with monthly reports of deforestation activity. The availability of this data has been a game changer, for the first time putting teeth into government enforcement efforts and enabling crackdowns on illegal logging and ranching.

Something for the World

In 2010, Imazon won the prestigious Skoll Award for Social Entrepreneurship, a major international honor. Its work has been celebrated in The Economist and the New York Times, and the latest iteration of the SAD is supported by a partnership with Google. Now 25 years old and with a staff of about 40, the institute recently expanded its monitoring efforts to include all South American countries that are part of the Amazon Basin, and Verissimo recently laid out an ambitious goal for the decade ahead: reducing deforestation to zero.

When he and Souza traveled to Oxford, England, to accept the Skoll Award, “there were a thousand people in the audience,” Verissimo remembers. After the screening of a video describing their work, the researchers were treated to a standing ovation that went on for several minutes. “This told us we had done something important for the world, something that has resonance across the globe,” he says.

Much of Imazon's impact can be traced to the foundation Uhl struggled to build.

Uhl, for his part, has not returned to Brazil since 1997. Having birthed Imazon and helped it gain its feet, he left and never looked back. The time came, he says, when he realized that his next call was to devote himself to raising ecological consciousness back home.

He has done that in several ways, first by leading a three-year student-driven research project that wound up laying the groundwork for Penn State’s institutional commitment to sustainability, and then, over the last ten years, by transforming BiSci 3, the basic environmental science course for non-majors, into something he likes to call “Awaken 101.”

He marvels quietly that the organization he launched has had such an impact on the life of the rainforest. Yet much of that impact, Verissimo says, can be traced to the foundation Uhl struggled to build, and the culture he worked so hard to create.

“Get close to the problem. Focus on the long term. Anticipate trends. Offer solutions. Try to work across the aisle.

“These are the things Chris taught us,” Verissimo says. “This is what we have always done. These are the elements of our success.”

This story first appeared in the Spring 2016 issue of Research/Penn Statemagazine.

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