The Future of Conservation in the Amazon Rainforest
You have been involved in environmental research and deforestation issues in the Amazon from the earliest stages of interest in this area. What was that like?
The Amazon appeared on the radar screen about 25 to 30 years ago as something that Brazilians needed to understand and wanted to learn about. The Amazon, up to that point, was just this big green blur on the northern part of the Brazil map. Since [that time], scientists, civil society organizations, academics, and some government officials started asking questions such as: What’s in the Amazon? What are the potential benefits that the Amazon could bring to Brazil? What are the trends in terms of development in the Amazon? What are the risks in terms of deforestation in the Amazon? These were the basic questions.
Most of these questions have been answered by scientists already; we know at least a little bit about the places in the Amazon, about the risks of deforestation or loss in biodiversity, about the importance of water cycling, and so on. The Amazon is much better known today than it was 25 to 30 years ago. It’s really fantastic. Did we win? Not even close. The Amazon today has different challenges and different questions compared to 25 or 30 years ago. The questions today are more related to which human activities are suitable or acceptable to systems in the Amazon. Which are the crucial areas for protection? Where are the concentrations of biodiversity that really require protected areas? These are new questions that are coming out of recent debates.
How does IPAM work? What approach does IPAM take in having an impact on science and policy?
IPAM is a civil society organization that is about 21 years old. It has a strong science orientation, although we do more than science, and that’s one of the main differentials of IPAM. We produce science and test science on the ground, and then scale it up through public policies. That’s pretty much the approach IPAM follows in all of the activities that we have developed – whether it’s with indigenous territories, agricultural settlements, or the Forest Code. It doesn’t matter which area we work in, we always apply this approach—science, experimentation, influencing policy.
IPAM is a main institution in the setup of the indigenous territory system in Brazil. About one-third of the Amazon is protected under the system of indigenous territories today, and a substantial portion of the work that contributed to [this] political and government decision-making process was provided by IPAM, so this is a good example. Another example of our work is in the agricultural settlements in the Amazon. They occupy an area the size of France within the Amazon; there are about 3 million people spread out across this area. It’s an important sector because today the settlements are responsible for 35 to 40 percent of the deforestation in the Amazon, so finding the right solution to the settlements is crucial for settling the Amazon equation in the long run, and IPAM is probably the NGO in a better position [to do this]—we have the science, the information, the technological solutions for land use, and the public policies that provide credit lines and technical assistance to this group so they can better develop their activities and reduce the pressure on the forest, make more money, and be happy—all without deforesting the Amazon. Those are a couple of examples of what IPAM does.
IPAM has a long-standing partnership with the University of Chicago Marine Biological Laboratory, and a newer partnership with the University of Chicago International Innovation Corps. What makes these partnerships important? More generally, what is the importance of international partnerships in this type of work?
This is an easy one. IPAM’s raw material are brains. We need good brains, good intelligence, good scientists. And not just IPAM. The environment that IPAM is involved in the Amazon requires many different capacities to solve the problem of deforestation. The problems of the Amazon are not straightforward. They are complex problems that require a sociological perspective, a technological and innovative perspective, an engineering perspective, an agronomical perspective, and an ecological perspective. All of these angles need to be combined to provide the right solutions for the issues we have in the Amazon—roads, dams, farms, and conservation. All of these challenges require different visions, and IPAM realizes it’s not our goal to have all of these capacities in-house. So the idea is that IPAM works like an intellectual hub, bringing in different aspects of intelligence to help solve common problems. The partnerships with the University of Chicago and with so many other universities and science centers all over the world is crucial for us to both learn from this process, but also to influence the way that people think and the way that people approach the Amazon. I think it’s a two-way street: We learn from this process and we also teach some new stuff to undergraduate students, graduate students, professors, and specialists, so that they can eventually use this information in the future design of science.
Many factors associated with deforestation, such as road development, infrastructure, and hydropower, are also closely related to social and economic development. How do you balance the need for conserving natural resources with development?
If I had the answer to that question, I wouldn’t be here. That’s not just the million-dollar question, it’s the billion-dollar question. I think that’s the question that scientists working in the Amazon are asking right now: How can you balance development and conservation? How can you build a road in the middle of the Amazon and keep indirect impacts to a minimum? The deforestation in the Amazon costs money. Chopping down trees is expensive. You have to have a motive, you have to have money, you have to have a reason for cutting down trees. Most of the time, these excuses come from a road. So when the government decides to build a road, the cost of cutting down trees is reduced because you have access and the potential income from the activity, such as ranching and agriculture, which becomes feasible because of the proximity of the infrastructure. Infrastructure is important for the region, and we can’t close our eyes to that. But there are good ways and bad ways to build a road in the Amazon. The wrong way to build a road is without asking questions, without involving society in the process. When you do that, it’s in an expedited mode: You build the road in a couple of years and, by the third and fourth years, the damage is already present.
The right way to build a road is to consult first, analyze first, create protected areas so that things don’t get out of control, invest in education, investigate the risks, create monitoring systems ahead of time—before you build the road. Of course, that’s more expensive and more time-consuming, but that’s the right way to do it. IPAM is not against roads; we are not against investments in infrastructure in the Amazon. We are against they way this process and this decision is made today. This has nothing to do with technology. It has to do with political intelligence. We need politicians who will negotiate with society on a longer timeframe and process. It’s very important that the readers of the Chicago Policy Review, who might be policymakers or be influencing policy, know this. Good politicians and a good policy process drive sustainable investments, including infrastructure, whereas unhealthy political debate leads to short-term decisions and, most likely, wrong decisions.
Brazil is currently in a place where deforestation has decreased significantly and it appears that the country will meet its goal of reducing deforestation by 80 percent (below the 1996–2005 average rate), yet there is still a large portion of the Amazon being deforested every year. In some ways, Brazil appears to be “stuck.” How do you get to zero percent deforestation? Is this even a reasonable goal?
The analogy I like to make with deforestation in the Amazon is like going on a diet. Losing the first pounds is easy; you eat less, do some walking and jogging, and you lose the first pounds that you need. But the remaining pounds are the hardest ones to tackle, and it’s the same with deforestation. Brazil has done the hard work over the last 10 to 12 years. We have reduced deforestation in the Amazon by roughly 80 percent. However, over the course of the last four to five years, deforestation has remained in the vicinity of 5,000 to 6,000 km2 every year. Up until this point, we have relied on command and control activities—policing, fines, putting people in jail, sequestering lands—to reduce deforestation. Now, we need to be creative and produce incentives for sustainable land use. The elements that need to be put in place are a different set of tools than the ones we have used so far. It’s much more complex and needs much broader participation from society. Yes, we have reduced a lot, and there is a strong probability that we will reach our goals according to national targets set in Paris, but the question is: Is that enough? Can we be more aggressive by zeroing deforestation forever? Technologically speaking, Brazil can produce two to three times more beef and grains than we produce today without chopping down a single tree. Now that’s a challenge. We need to associate existing technology with better monitoring and provide more information to society so that everyone can support zero deforestation, not just scientists who are engaged in the process directly.
What advice do you have for people studying or practicing science and/or public policy? How can people make the biggest impact?
The way I see policy work is almost like a translation. A good policymaker must have the capacity to learn, listen, identify different expectations, and translate knowledge into action. That’s the beauty of politics. Often times, that’s not what happens. Often times, politics is protecting interests or fighting other interests. One piece of advice that I would give to students is to learn from science ideas and solutions, and to translate that into policy. Come as close as you can to the work you are trying to influence. A good policymaker is not one who just reads papers, but also goes out and sees people, touches the environment, touches base with different groups, and listens to the real actors. So, the first advice is: go out into the field. The best decisions are made when you really know the object of your decision.
Another piece of advice would be for policymakers to try to do some science, and for scientists to try to do some policy. These are two different languages, but we need both of them. As I said, policymakers are translators and they need to learn different languages in order to properly translate for their audiences. I’m not a scientist by training, but I’ve done science. I used to work as a consultant for government agencies, passing laws and rules. So, another piece of advice I would give is to try to do something out of your comfort zone. If you like policy, go do some research. Learn the language that is going to enhance your personal capacity.
Featured photo: cc/(LuisCSilva, photo ID: 70131039, from iStock by Getty Images)