A ragtag army against deforestation in the AmazonBernardo Esteves
Translated by Renato Buenafina and reviewed by Flora Thomson-Deveaux
In November of 2013, Minister of the Environment Izabella Teixeira – the longest-standing member of the cabinet, with nearly six years under her belt – met with the press to announce the annual rate of deforestation in the Amazon. After eight years of practically uninterrupted decline, the figure had started to rise again, and by a significant amount: 28%. Nonetheless, the total area razed that year remained under six thousand square kilometers, nearly 80% less than the registered rate in the year 2004. “Deforestation in the Amazon is the second-lowest on record,” the Ministry’s site announced.
The website O Eco preferred to focus on the irritated, caustic tone of Teixeira’s announcement. Her considerable exasperation had been brought on by exaggerated deforestation rate estimates from Imazon, an NGO based in Belém that operates its own monitoring system. Imazon had estimated that deforestation had risen by 92%, not 28% — a percentage more than three times higher than that announced by the government. “These are different methodologies and different objectives. The official data for Brazil is what comes out of INPE, which is what aligns with reality,” the minister countered, referring to Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research, which calculates the rate of deforestation every year by analyzing satellite images.
The target of Teixeira’s criticism was the Deforestation Alert System (SAD), an initiative launched by Imazon in 2007. The project, currently supported by a partnership with Google, was created with the aim of collecting data independent of official estimates. The idea was that deforestation should be measured as painstakingly as variations in the stock market. “We should be able to say exactly how much forest we’re losing every month,” explained agronomist Adalberto Veríssimo, one of the founders of Imazon, to an audience of academics in natural and environmental studies at an event in May.
SAD generates monthly reports on the size of the deforested zones in the Brazilian Amazon. The reports are published on Imazon’s site and sent to the press, state and local environmental offices, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and other government agencies, some at the federal level. The Deforestation Alert System is Imazon’s most high-profile project. Its results are regularly reported in the media and generate debate – Minister Teixeira’s irritation would seem to indicate that Imazon’s work has touched a nerve.
Understandably so. No figure is more relevant than the rate of Amazon deforestation when it comes to Brazil’s efforts to limit its greenhouse gas emissions. Razing forests releases carbon dioxide, the main cause of global warming. In the realm of international climate negotiations, Brazil is seen as the most successful country in containing its emissions. To challenge the government’s data is to undermine the story that Brazil tells the world. This is highly inconvenient, especially on the eve of the Paris Climate Conference.
On an afternoon in October 1988, in Belém, the American Christopher Uhl was chatting with his intern Adalberto Veríssimo about the institute he intended to create. A scientist who specialized in forest ecology, Uhl had obtained financing from a foundation in his country to create an NGO in Brazil that aimed to produce solid scientific data on the devastation of the Amazonian forest. In a way, he was throwing down a generational gauntlet: were the 20-something scientists ready to tackle the challenge of keeping the Amazon from disappearing? Was Veríssimo up to the task? Would he face it?
At age 23, Veríssimo was about to complete his bachelor’s degree in agronomy. A native of Campina Grande, Paraíba, he had known where he wanted to go since age 13, when he saw a news report on TV about deforestation that made a gloomy prediction – if nothing was done to stop the chainsaws in the near future, the largest tropical forest in the world risked becoming a desert. “I want to go to the Amazon,” he said to his mother. Ten years later, then living in Belém, at the mouth of the Amazon River, and having heard of Uhl’s work, Veríssimo met the American – who was being hosted by EMBRAPA during his sabbatical year in Brazil – and invited him to give a talk at the local university.
Instead of bringing American graduate students to the Amazon, Uhl preferred to build his NGO with a team of local researchers intimately familiar with the problems of the region. Uhl saw enthusiasm and a spirit of leadership in Veríssimo, and offered him a research internship.
Uhl was a slender, tall 39, and his dark hair was just beginning to go silver on the sides. With an expressive gaze and compelling language, he explained to Veríssimo the objective of the organization he had envisioned with his compatriot David McGrath. It didn’t take a lot of magnetism to convince the young student: the project would allow him to engage in his life dream, and do so on the margins of academia, which struck him as a calcified, less-than-stimulating environment. His answer was yes.
The team grew with the addition of Paulo Barreto, a young man from a Bahian farming family who had moved to the state of Pará when he was just a month old. Barreto had gone to Belém to study forest engineering, and was introduced to Chris Uhl by a professor. He was hired at age 21, just one day after graduating from college. Barreto became one of the founders of Imazon, alongside Veríssimo, McGrath, and Uhl. The Institute of Man and Environment of the Amazon was born on July 10th, 1990.
Those driving down the Belém-Brasília Highway in the early 1990s, around 300 kilometers away from Belém, could easily spot an orange glow in the sky and a perpetual cloud of smoke produced by the open-air burning of wood waste at hundreds of sawmills operating day and night. If travelers pricked up their ears, they’d also make out a symphony of chainsaws in action. These were the unmistakable signs that the city of Paragominas was near.
In a museum in the city, there is a photo of Juscelino Kubitschek perched in the driver’s seat of a bulldozer. The president, with a resolute air, is about to knock down a tree for the opening of the BR-010 highway. Situated in the east of Pará, on the border with Maranhão, Paragominas was founded as a midway point for the construction of the Belém–Brasília highway, the first paved highway in the region, a symbol of Kubitschek’s planned integration of the Amazon. The move to mark a clear presence in the Amazon rose in part from a fear of international designs on the area, captured years later by the dictatorship’s slogan “Integrate, don’t give it up.” The goal was to aggressively develop the northern region of the country, and the forest was seen as an obstacle to progress. The military regime encouraged deforestation by giving out land and furnishing credit to those who promised to clear half of the forest they were ceded.
The early settlers in Paragominas, hailing mainly from Pará, Goiás and Minas Gerais – hence the name “Paragominas” – set to clearing in earnest. The lands around the Belém–Brasília highway were gradually flattened and made into cattle pastures. But within a few years the soil was exhausted (only a small portion of the Amazon is fit for agricultural cultivation) to the point of becoming economically unviable. Cattle ranchers then turned to the forest, in search of high-value timber for the international wood market.
By 1990, with about 240 sawmills working full throttle, the town of Paragominas had become the biggest producer of wood logs in the country. Besides being a regional hub for deforestation (some called it the “Cubatão of the Amazon”), it was also a hot spot for violence, with tussles over land that often left a body count—another nickname for the city was “Paragobullets.” A tense air was settling over the Amazon. In the same year, activist Chico Mendes was murdered in the state of Acre, bringing environmental issues to the foreground in Brazil. Each year brought fresh waves of graduate students and researchers funded by foreign foundations. The environmental game of the planet was being played in the Amazon, and the world was watching.
Paragominas was an open-air laboratory for studying the dynamics of deforestation. With a total area nearly the size of the state of Sergipe, the municipality acted as a microcosm of the Amazon: there was cattle ranching, logging, farming, and indigenous lands as well. It was on the vanguard of forest exploitation: tendencies that emerged there would later be identified in other areas of the Amazon. If you wanted to study environmental degradation, Paragominas was the place to be. It was there that Chris Uhl took the two young men he had recruited.
At age 66, Uhl remains slim and vigorous. When compared to old photographs, what stands out most are his white goatee and thinning hair. He has lived for the past two decades in the town of State College, where he teaches at Penn State University. The ecologist hosted piauí over the course of four days at the end of October; Beto Veríssimo also traveled to State College at this time and saw Uhl again for the first time in 15 years.
Methodical, Uhl prepared a detailed itinerary for the visit and sent it by email days beforehand. Over dinner in an Indian restaurant that Uhl had chosen for the first night, he celebrated the get-together with his former mentee, now a 50-year-old internationally recognized environmentalist. They spoke of their first Imazon research projects and of the long months spent in Paragominas. The American said he had recommended to his students not to hurry to understand what was happening. “We have to let the field be our teacher,” he advised. He warned them that nothing they produced in the first few months would be publishable. “We are going to play in the sandbox,” he told his students. “Ideas and questions are cheap, keep throwing them out.”
The institute conceived by Uhl and McGrath would be, first and foremost, a knowledge-production center. Both were scientists, after all. “It was important not to take sides,” said Uhl, “something that is quite unusual for an NGO.” This stance was not accepted without resistance, said Beto Veríssimo in a recent interview at Imazon headquarters. “Asking a group of progressive young people, concerned with the environment and human rights, to engage by means of research and not activism, was a great source of conflict during the first few years,” affirmed the agronomist.
Instead of working in activism, like most NGOs active in the Amazon in the early ‘90s, Imazon would attempt to fill the urgent need for empirical data on forest exploitation. There were almost no researchers working with quantitative tools to describe the dynamics of deforestation. The subject was hotly discussed, but the debate was guided by ideologies and dogmatism unballasted by facts. “Researchers presented themselves more as people giving their opinions on reality than producers of quality information, with a necessary degree of impartiality,” said Veríssimo.
As soon as Imazon began its studies, Uhl made it clear to his team that it was not yet time to make a splash; they would simply carry out their research quietly. They would only enter the debate once they had something substantive to say. The group’s credential would be the quality of information they would produce. For a while they would be ignored; but the world would become aware of Imazon when the time came.
Uhl’s jumping-off point had always been one question: “What is going on here?” He’d been repeatedly asked that by one of his professors in his master’s program, and now he poses it to his own students. In the case of Paragominas, this simple question unfolded into a series of others. Where was the forest being cleared? At what speed? Who was using the land? To what end? These were basic points that few scientists working in the Amazon were attempting to investigate. Uhl thought that it would not be possible to understand the dynamics of deforestation without first studying its economic aspects. Who was making money off logging, and how much? How much tax revenue and how many jobs were logging activities creating? Follow the money, Uhl would say to his students.
By prioritizing the quality of scientific information being produced by Imazon, the American implemented a standard of accuracy and integrity, not before seen in Brazilian activism. His method consisted of going to the field, observing the problem he wanted to understand, and describing it with as much precision as possible, preferably with an abundance of quantitative data. For Paragominas, this meant determining which tree species were most sought out by loggers, how many were cut down per hectare, and how many others were simply felled for having the bad luck to have grown next to a massive mahogany or a hulking massaranduba (the answer was 27 trees knocked down as collateral damage, on average). They also wanted to know how much lumber was leaving the forest and how it made its way to the mills. One of the young researchers’ tasks was to keep watch by the side of the highway, observing and tallying the flow of trucks – they saw that for every vehicle carrying cattle, there were dozens of others carrying lumber. In a single day, the number of trucks that left the Amazon forest carrying wood logs could reach 7,000.
Uhl, Veríssimo and Barreto set up camp in what they called the Casa Verde (“Green Hut”), a brick-and-wood construction that served as the headquarters for the group on the front lines of deforestation. They spent their days gathering data on logging operations, and their nights in enthusiastic brainstorming. The American planned to submit a research proposal to a foundation interested in funding conservation studies in the Amazon. Veríssimo said that the three of them spent several nights trying to frame the problem, but their ideas were all discarded for being either too modest or too ambitious. Then it clicked: they would organize a logging operation themselves – but in a structure of sustainable forest management. “That’s when Chris said: that idea’s worth going with,” according to the agronomist.
The proposal consisted of comparing the impact of predatory status-quo logging practices, like those occurring in Paragominas at the time, with best-forest-management practices that Chris Uhl, Beto Veríssimo and Paulo Barreto were beginning to envision. They wanted to show not only that their method was technically feasible – something unprecedented, as nothing of the sort had been done in a tropical forest – but also that it could be profitable and advantageous for the loggers, without compromising the forest’s ability to regenerate itself. This would be their first major research initiative. Uhl thought that if the Institute passed this first test by fire, it would show what it had been created for; otherwise, it might as well back out.
The success of the enterprise rested on cooperation with loggers. Dialogue with the “bad guys,” as the group referred to the figures generally singled out as villains in the story of deforestation, was the foundation of the methodological approach Uhl presented to his students. The “bad guys” had to be part of the solution. There was no way around it: the logging industry was responsible for thousands of jobs and brought in most of the tax revenue for Paragominas. If the business ceased to exist from one day to the next, half of the population of Paragominas would wake up unemployed and the city would go bankrupt.
Collaborating with the loggers, a group demonized by nearly all the environmentalists working in the Amazon, seemed paradoxical. “How can I, coming from social activism, work with these guys?” agronomist Paulo Amaral asked himself. Born in Belém, Amaral began work on the forest management initiative when he joined Imazon in 1991, at age 26. He remains at the Institute today.
The Imazon team was able to create a relationship of respect with the “bad guys.” Tasked with analyzing the impact of logging on the local economy, Veríssimo interviewed the owners of sawmills and generated quantitative data. It wasn’t hard to convince one of them – the same man who had ceded a plot on his lands to make the Casa Verde – to lend two 100-hectare parcels of forest to Imazon for their research. On one parcel, a typical logging operation would take place, to be documented by scientists. The other would adopt the forest management plan, and the results from both could be compared.
The first step was to compile a painstaking inventory of the area to be logged. Before the cutting began, a team of researchers went to the site to map and identify all the medium and large trees on the lot, particularly those of commercial value. Only a limited number could be uprooted without compromising the forest’s regenerative ability. The clearing was planned out so as to identify which trees would be cut, which direction they would fall, and how the tractor that collected them would make its way across the lot. After the harvest, that sector of the forest would be left alone for at least twenty years, allowing it to recover.
Imazon’s team confirmed that the adoption of their best practices plan not only caused less damage to the forest, as they had hoped, but was also advantageous for loggers. Sustainable practices represented a cost for producers, but they would only reduce profit margins slightly, by the group’s calculations – a small sacrifice, given the possibility of being able to use the forests in perpetuity without the risk of their disappearing.
The results of the study were put out in scientific publications, but were also compiled in a best forestry practices guide aimed at professionals in the logging industry. This guide, Floresta para Sempre (Forest Forever) is now a manual used regularly in forest engineering schools. When Imazon recently shared the guide on Facebook, on the occasion of its 25th anniversary, one reader commented: “That was my bedside book!”
The success of the forestry practices piloted by the young researchers at Imazon would be replicated on a large scale. “Today in the Amazon, there are 3 million hectares of managed forest that originated from those 200 hectares in Paragominas,” said Veríssimo. At the beginning of the century, a new forest management law came into effect that called for compliance with several of the practices proposed by the researchers, such as forest inventorying and harvest planning.
It was exactly for this that Imazon had been conceived. Just generating information wasn’t enough; the data would need to reverberate in society and contribute to the transformation of the status quo – changing legislation, environmental policies, and the behavior of society, economic agents, and the government. The success of their management plan put Imazon on environmentalists’ radars and ended the formative period of the institution.
From November 30th to December 11th, 2015, negotiators from almost 200 countries will meet on the outskirts of Paris in order to draft an international agreement to keep the global warming underway below a permissible limit. Climate change is due to the accumulation of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, emitted mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, but also from deforestation and other economic activities.
As the vigorous deforester that it was until 2004, Brazil was also a heavyweight in terms of emissions. The national inventory for the year 2005 estimates that in that year, Brazil emitted the equivalent of 2.19 billion tons of carbon dioxide, with two-thirds of this coming from changes in land use, a category that includes deforestation. Brazil has since greatly reduced its emissions, thanks to the drop in the rate of deforestation in the Amazon. The origin of Brazil’s greenhouse gases is now less concentrated, spread out across land use, agriculture, and electricity production.
In an attempt to agree on an international climate deal in Paris, Brazil and other countries submitted a list of actions to the UN Climate Convention that it intends to adopt in order to combat global warming, going so far as to specify a quota for greenhouse gas emission reduction for each signatory. Brazil plans to cut its emissions by 43% from 2005 levels, by 2030, as well as increasing its use of renewable energy and ending illegal logging in the Amazon. The country is already on its way to fulfilling its pledge. An independent inventory estimates that last year, Brazil emitted 634 million fewer tons of CO2 than in 2005, a reduction of almost 30%.
Christopher Francis Uhl was born in 1949 on the outskirts of Philadelphia, in Pennsylvania, to a chemical engineer and a housewife. In college he majored in Asian Studies and spent some time in Japan, where he was influenced by Buddhism – he would later say that Japanese culture was the first subject he fell in love with. On his return to the United States, Uhl spent a year teaching at a minimal security prison for youth offenders.
While reminiscing on this period, during an interview in his office, Uhl said that his interest in the environment was sparked late. He had been reading about what might be done to cure a damaged world, and considered studying medicine. “I felt this call to do something in the realm of healing,” he said. In his master’s program, he enrolled in an ecology class and discovered that there was an entire field dedicated to diagnosing and proposing treatments for environmental ills. “Is it really a profession?” he asked his professor after the first class.
It was in his search for a cure that he came to specialize in “disturbance ecology,” a subfield that studies ecosystems’ ability to recover from trauma. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Uhl conducted his PhD field research in the Venezuelan Amazon. He was surprised by the forest’s resiliency. “Cut them down and they grow back. Burn them and they regenerate,” he wrote in an article. He gained visibility in 1986 with the publication, along with his colleague Geoffrey Parker, of an article that calculated the amount of forest cleared to produce a single hamburger – 5 square meters, or the size of a small kitchen, according to the authors.
After concluding his doctorate, Uhl submitted a proposal to a large-scale call from NSF, the U.S. National Science Foundation. He was denied funding, but in the rejection letter, one of the proposal’s evaluators wrote, “Want to see some real disturbance? Go to Brazil.”
At the end of the 80s, Uhl met David McGrath at Penn State. Together, they drafted a project for the creation of a research NGO that might make a dent in the fight against Amazon deforestation. McGrath, who everyone calls Toby, is a 63-year-old geographer who spent a good part of his life teaching and researching in the Amazon. The son of a diplomat, he lived in Brazil during his teenage years and returned for fieldwork in the rainforest after graduating from Harvard. Today he is a professor at the Federal University of Western Pará, in Santarém.
Speaking over Skype from California, McGrath shared how he and Uhl came up with the idea for Imazon. “We spoke about the importance of having an institution in Brazil which could provide technical information about the environmental impact of activities in the Amazon to help draw up public policies and inform government decision-making,” he said. McGrath wasn’t living in Brazil when Imazon was founded, but actively participated in the first 5 years of the Institute’s activities.
With the foundation of Imazon in 1990, other researchers joined Chris Uhl’s team, coming from Pará and other states. These recent college graduates were in their early 20s, wet behind the ears and completely unprepared for research in the field. Uhl took it upon himself to transform this army of misfits into a squadron of first-class researchers.
The American would send the students to the field to find a research topic, which would become the object of exhaustive discussions with the professor and their fellow students. A perfectionist, Uhl would reject most of the students’ suggestions. He dissected his students’ ideas and showed the holes in their logic. “They’d get exhausted, because until they could clearly define their problem, they couldn’t move on,” said Veríssimo. Often, what the apprentice researchers needed was to adapt their projects to the funds available. Someone with an extremely ambitious idea would hear: “You would need millions of dollars to answer that. Ask a question that you can answer with $10,000 over six months.”
The selection process for a research topic could last more than a year, according to agronomist Eugenio Arima, an economist who joined Imazon in 1992. Speaking over Skype from Austin, Texas, where he is a professor, Arima said that Uhl would ask for concise and objective research proposals. “In two pages you must clearly say what topic you intend to research and its relevance. Then, explain how you will answer each of your questions in no more than five pages.”
Only after overcoming the trauma of coming up with a defensible proposal would aspiring researchers start their fieldwork. With data in hand, the next hurdle was to write an article summarizing their findings. Uhl would call for prose on par with that of the best journals in the field. Since their colleges hadn’t prepared them to write scientific articles, the novices had to learn the hard way. “They would write 20 or 30 drafts before submitting their articles for publication,” said Arima. “They were never good enough for Chris,” added economist Oriana Almeida, who worked at Imazon during its first stage and is now a professor at the Federal University of Pará.
Uhl would dedicate a substantial amount of his time to reading and editing the manuscripts, making copious annotations. “He would say that it was very good, but then give it back to me covered in red marks,” laughed Paulo Amaral. Once, the American found his 5-year-old daughter scribbling on a typewritten manuscript. Genny was trying to fix it with a pen, imitating her father – crossing out, underlining or circling the words. On the fourth page she got tired and wrote: “From here on, everything is good.”
Then there were the oral presentations – the students had 15 minutes each to present the methods and results of their research, first for the group, then for an audience of laymen. Another exercise consisted of summarizing the essence of their research in just thirty seconds – the researchers had to be ready to pitch their work in case they found themselves in an elevator with an influential figure. Uhl was merciless with his questioning. “He would analyze every single slide,” Paulo Barreto recalled. “He would comment on everything from posture to clothing. To this day, I’m a harsh presentation critic because of Chris.”
The disciples were subjected to repetitive and strenuous training whose purpose was not entirely clear to them. They would only discover later that they had acquired the skills to cross-reference statistics and satellite images, scrutinize the economy of deforestation, and craft solid scientific articles.
Uhl’s draconian methods would be vividly recalled by Bahian agronomist Rui Rocha, who joined Imazon shortly after it was founded. Uhl sat the student down in front of a Macintosh and told him to create spreadsheets of statistical data. “I had never used a computer before,” Rocha said in a telephone interview. Next, Uhl directed him to a map digitization table and told him to use it. Rocha was terrified by the complexity of the task. “Rui, do you want to give up?” Uhl asked. “If so, just go back to Bahia and get your master’s, it’s not a problem.” Rocha took that as a challenge – because indeed it was – and set himself to the task. Today he is a professor at the State University of Santa Cruz in Ilhéus and the president of an environmental NGO active in southern Bahia.
Despite his iron fist, the members of the group still admire and miss Uhl. In interviews with nine of his ex-mentees, he was described as a modest, generous figure, with vast reserves of patience and willingness to guide his students. The team didn’t just spend time together in an academic context. Professor and students ate together, played soccer, and went to the beach together. “Chris would go to our parties and had barbecues at his house, but couldn’t help talking about anything other than work,” said the agronomist Mariella Uzêda, a native of Bahia who was a part of Imazon until 1993 and is now a researcher for EMBRAPA in the state of Rio de Janeiro.
One of Imazon’s major feats was determining high-priority areas for the creation of environmental reserves, a task that shaped the second phase of its trajectory. Its studies had shown that the Amazon contained large swaths of unoccupied land potentially vulnerable to squatting. Based on that information, the institute attempted to identify high-risk areas that would be of strategic importance in containing the creep of development.
“We proposed the creation of mosaics of different types of conservation units,” explained Carlos Souza Jr., an Imazon researcher who coordinated this project for two years. The categories ranged from areas of complete protection to areas where it was permissible to develop sustainable uses for the land. “We concentrated our attention on the ‘deforestation arc,’ the front line for agricultural development in the region,” said the researcher. “The idea was to hold the border and halt speculative advancement.”
In a series of papers published starting at the end of the 90s, the Imazon team singled out areas of the forest that the government would do well to protect, even as it looked into the economic alternatives for these proposed protected areas. Imazon’s studies did not go to waste when the federal government moved to create a large number of protected areas in the Amazon to fight off deforestation. From 2003 to 2006, the federal government set aside an area of nearly half a million square kilometers for protection – slightly smaller than the state of Bahia – distributed along the “deforestation arc,” in keeping with the NGO’s recommendations. In an email to piauí, Marina Silva, Brazil’s Environment Minister at the time, stated Imazon was responsible for “significant contributions to the environmental policies” developed by the Brazilian government.
The creation of protected areas was one of the pillars of the plan to combat deforestation in the Amazon set in motion by the Lula administration in 2004. In that year, the annual deforestation rate was the second highest on record, with almost 28,000 square kilometers of forest cleared – the equivalent of the area of the state of Alagoas. The plan coordinated efforts from 13 different ministries, starting with the Ministry of the Environment. Another axis of action involved the intensification of the use of satellite imagery to monitor deforestation activities. Satellite monitoring fell to INPE, in São José dos Campos. Starting in 2004, the institute began generating, in addition to its estimates of annual deforestation, monthly reports that made it possible to document forest clearing practically in real time. Although less precise than the annual estimate, these reports are useful for guiding the efforts to control and combat possible foci of forest destruction.
“Up until then, the fight had been a reactive one: the agency got reports and then acted on them,” explained economist Juliano Assunção, director of the Climate Policy Initiative at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro. “In 2004, driven by real-time detection, the government became proactive. That was a key game-changer.” A study by Assunção’s group quantified the impact of different public policies on reducing deforestation and concluded that monitoring with satellite images was the most efficient strategy adopted by the government, having prevented the deforestation of an area larger than the state of Paraíba.
The Protected Areas Plan also included measures that poked at the pocketbooks of important links in the deforestation chain. The government cut off funds for landowners who had illegally cut down forests by restricting credit from public banks to those compliant with environmental regulations. And from 2008 to 2011, R$2.9 billion in credit went unlent to rural landowners in the region. Imazon had “followed the money” and unmasked the role of public credit in catalyzing deforestation: the government had underwritten swapping forest for pastures to the tune of many billions.
These new policies also cracked down on farmers and cattle ranchers operating in illegally deforested areas— cattle and land were confiscated and sawmills were closed. Meanwhile, initiatives like the moratorium on soy – a pact mounted by a consortium of large agribusiness interests to boycott grains coming from Amazon lands where environmental laws had been disregarded – also helped put the brakes on the felling of the forest.
The curve in annual deforestation rates in the Amazon reflects the success of the Protected Areas Plan: in ten years, annual deforestation went from nearly 28,000 square kilometers in 2004 to around 5,000 square kilometers in 2015, even as soy and cattle production has increased somewhat (this year, the deforested area saw another slight rise, to 5,800 square kilometers, 16% more than in 2014). But the drop in the rate can’t bring back the forest that has already been razed. The Brazilian Amazon has already lost 770,000 square kilometers of forest, a swath three times the size of the state of Piauí, and equivalent to 20% of the rainforest that existed in 1500.
On a Wednesday in September, I accompanied Paulo Amaral on a visit to Paragominas. The researcher, who had taken part in the development of Imazon’s forest management pilot project in the ’90s, wanted to show the transformation wrought on the city in recent years. “This is Monte Líbano Street, previously known as Sawmill Road,” he said as our small truck passed in front of a number of deactivated industrial facilities. “Today we call this the Sawmill Cemetery. Only twelve legalized sawmills remain.”
Some sawmill owners shifted their operations to other places in the Amazon, while others preferred to change trades. One of the sawmills has been converted into a ceramics factory; farther along, another has become a small animal meatpacking facility. Amaral called my attention to an MDF factory – wooden fiberboard used heavily in the furniture industry – opened by a family of loggers, occupying the vacuum left by the closing of most of the mills. “Before, there were no factories to process the harvested timber. It all left in the form of logs,” said the agronomist. “The factory is working at 45% capacity, for lack of raw materials.” Since 2007, Paragominas has also been home to a bauxite mine, the third-largest in the world, controlled by a Norwegian multinational.
Later, a few kilometers from the center of Paragominas, Amaral pointed out an area of low forest by the side of the road, next to a pasture. “The forest is putting itself back together, see how the microclimate is already changing,” he said, referring to the cooler temperature in relation to the city center. That area, once logged for wood, was now at rest. Jaguars had been spotted there recently. “The animals are returning, a clear sign that the forest is recovering.”
When, in 2008, the Ministry of the Environment put out a list of the municipalities with the highest rates of deforestation in Amazonia, it came as no surprise that Paragominas took place of pride. The then-mayor asked Imazon to help the city shed this dubious honor. For this to happen, the annual rate of deforestation would have to go below 40 square kilometers – Paragominas was closer to 100 square kilometers – and properties would have to comply with environmental regulations.
Researchers at the NGO advised the city government as to which measures would have to be taken to meet their goal. By studying the dynamics of deforestation in Paragominas, those at Imazon observed that, at that point, charcoal-related activities were the most destructive. That was all it took for the city to ban charcoal production. These efforts were successful, albeit not without protests from the newly unemployed, and two years later, Paragominas was off the list. “Last year, 19 square kilometers were cleared in the county,” said Jacqueline Peçanha, the municipal secretary of the environment.
As of mid-2014, SAD – the independent deforestation monitoring system developed by Imazon – became the only system to publish monthly data on the ongoing devastation of the Amazon. In November, INPE and IBAMA, the federal agency responsible for controlling rural deforestation, informed the press that their monthly reports would now be quarterly. They alleged that this measure was to protect inspectors and keep offenders from getting wind of new areas under investigation. Under this pretext, the government waited until the second round of the presidential elections to release information revealing a 122% increase in deforestation from August to September,2014 as compared to the same period in the previous year – a figure that might have damaged President Dilma Rousseff’s chances at reelection. (SAD’s data, put out punctually, showed a 191% increase over the same period.)
Forest engineer Tasso Azevedo, coordinator of the independent initiative to calculate Brazil’s greenhouse gas emissions, grimaced when recalling the government’s decision. “It doesn’t make sense. Transparency would have been better,” he declared over juice one evening in São Paulo. Azevedo observed that in the wake of the government’s decision, SAD became the only available source of up-to-date information on the dynamics of deforestation.
Active since 2007, when it inaugurated a new era in the NGO’s activity, Imazon’s monitoring system analyzes different satellite images from the ones that INPE uses for its annual calculations. The official figures are derived from data collected by NASA’s Landsat satellite, which can capture images in which each pixel corresponds to a square where each side is 30 meters long. Imazon’s system, meanwhile, uses images from MODIS, a sensor mounted on another American satellite, with lower resolution; its pixels represent squares with sides 250 meters long. This system is useful for indicating regions where deforestation may be ongoing, but should not be used in calculating the consolidated rate. “SAD’s role is to keep the discussion alive in the public sphere, in the media, among regulatory agencies,” said Beto Veríssimo.
In an interview given this year, Minister Izabella Teixeira once again criticized Imazon’s annual deforestation projections. With a full schedule on the eve of the Climate Change Conference in Paris, she declined to meet with piauí.
“Having independent monitoring is important. What you can’t do is use that data incorrectly,” said ecologist Francisco Oliveira in a telephone interview. Oliveira heads up the department within the Ministry of the Environment responsible for combating deforestation in the Amazon. He criticized Imazon and the media’s recurring comparisons between the numbers from the SAD monthly alerts and the annual combined rates of deforestation. “You can’t compare oranges to bananas, and that’s what’s happening quite often. They’re misinforming the Brazilian public.”
But there are those within the federal government who see Imazon in a less negative light. Speaking by telephone from Brasília, economist Francisco Gaetani, executive secretary of the Ministry of the Environment, cited initiatives in which the government and the NGO worked together and highlighted SAD’s importance. “Their monitoring keeps the government in check,” he affirmed. “We have to do our best, because they will be doing the same.”
The main person behind SAD is Carlos Souza Jr., a 48-year-old Belém native who has been with Imazon since 1993. After working on projects that involved cross-referencing statistical data and maps of the region, he became convinced that he needed to work with remote sensing, a field dedicated to satellite image analysis. He sought out training in the area, going to California for a PhD – a career swerve, since his bachelor’s degree was in geology. “I’d been trained to drill for oil, and I became a pixels guy,” he said in September in the office where he oversees the SAD team.
In 2008, Souza Jr. had attended a presentation by Rebecca Moore, a computer scientist at Google, in Brasília. She showed how the Suruí people of Rondônia were defending their territory from invasions and squatters with the help of Google Earth. Like other engineers working for the tech giant, Moore could dedicate 20% of her work time, or one day a week, to personal projects. Hers consisted of promoting the use of the tools she developed among environmentalists.
In November, Moore granted piauí an interview via video, from an ample conference room at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View. She said that Souza Jr. had approached her at the end of her talk in Brasilia. The researcher, while impressed by her platform. thought it wasn’t efficient enough. The images showed a static square of land – it would have been better to show the transformation of the landscape over time, allowing for deforestation to be measured. Couldn’t Moore include a tool in her platform to process the satellite images? It would be a dream: a computational task that would consume copious amounts of time and resources on Imazon’s computers but could be done quickly in the cloud, harnessing Google’s network of tens of thousands of servers. “With our infrastructure, we can only process a small volume of data at a time, and the analysis takes weeks,” the Pará native explained to the American. “When we get the deforestation results, its already too late; what happened, happened months ago.”
Moore took the Brazilian’s idea seriously. “This is a Google-sized problem,” she thought. She invited a team from Imazon to tour the company’s headquarters and together they began to develop Earth Engine, a tool launched in 2012 during the Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development. Carlos Souza Jr. and Gilberto Câmara, a specialist on remote sensing at INPE, helped develop the platform. With the launch of SAD 2, the time it took to publish deforestation alerts was halved, and Imazon’s team could devote their time to more productive pursuits. “Now we can use our time intelligently, applying our knowledge to extract information from the images,” said Souza Jr.
The Brazilian Amazon represents a third of the tropical forests in the world, but it is the only one in which deforestation is monitored on a monthly basis. Brazil is a global leader in satellite monitoring of forest clearing. Souza Jr. is regularly asked to hold workshops and advise foreign specialists. The NGO works closely with other Amazonian countries and helped prepare a deforestation map that includes all the South American countries with territory within the Basin. “Imazon is helping to monitor 1 billion hectares of tropical forests worldwide,” said Beto Veríssimo.
Brazil is beginning to increase the area it monitors via satellite. In November 2015, Imazon and other Brazilian institutions launched an initiative that uses the technology behind SAD 2, with Google’s infrastructure, to track the deforestation of all Brazilian biomes, not only the Amazon. The system’s first output was a series of eight maps with details about the loss of vegetation across the entire country between 2008 and 2015.
Imazon is mainly financed by donations from foreign foundations, like MacArthur, Moore, Ford, and Skoll. According to Beto Veríssimo, about a third of Imazon’s funds between 2010 and 2014 came from Brazilian sources, including money from the Amazon Fund, which has Norwegian origins and is administered by the Brazilian National Development Bank, or BNDES. The NGO’s activities don’t tend to attract major players in Brazilian business. “The Brazilian GDP hardly ever visits the Amazon,” said the researcher, attributing the scarcity of domestic donations to either a lack of fiscal incentives or a local culture of philanthropy. The Institute’s budget for 2014 was R$13.7 million.
The institution occupies two floors of an office building in Belém. It recently went through a downsizing of its personnel: of the nearly 70 employees who worked there in 2013, 40 now remain, with 15 of those being researchers and eight interns. Veríssimo presented the cutback as a strategic decision: along with the bulky payroll, the size of the group was dispersing its efforts and stifling innovation. “In order to always be on the cutting edge, we made the decision to not expand, and not take on tasks that other organizations can tackle,” he said.
Part of Imazon’s identity was constructed as a counterpoint to university culture. The idea was to structure thinking around problems and not around subjects, as in the traditional academic division. Hierarchy has never held much weight at the NGO: good ideas are worth more than titles or academic credentials. “Imazon doesn’t have a library, a graduate program or a formal structure,” Carlos Souza Jr. said. Of the four senior researchers with the institute, he’s the only one with a doctorate. “That’s what universities are for. Right now, connections and networks are more important for us.”
One night in the early 90s in Belém, Chris Uhl went to a movie theater to raise his spirits after a day of bleak observations at a wood-logging site. The film was Pretty Woman, in which Richard Gere plays the role of an executive who falls in love with a prostitute, played by Julia Roberts, and showers her with luxury and presents. Instead of diving into the romantic comedy, Uhl saw in the movie “the glorification of a whole way of life based on materialism, speed, and shallow relationships,” as he later wrote in an autobiographical piece.
“I was pointing a finger at the Amazon and all of a sudden the elephant in the room was right under my nose,” he said in October, recalling that moment. The American wondered how he could transform something that, after all, was the culture of his very own country. It occurred to him that if he returned to Penn State, he could start promoting more sustainable practices at the university itself. That would be a start.
By this time, the young Brazilians that Uhl had been training had some academic meat on their bones. Paulo Barreto had completed a master’s at Yale; Beto Veríssimo and Carlos Souza Jr. had done the same at Penn State; and Paulo Amaral would soon complete his in Costa Rica, the gold standard for the study of tropical biology and conservation. “They were beyond my level of expertise. They knew how to do things I couldn’t,” confessed the American. His work there was done.
“The best thing I can do for Imazon now is to distance myself,” Uhl told Paulo Amaral on the day he communicated his decision. “You have to be able to take care of the institution by yourselves now.” Amaral, the director of Imazon in 1996, the year Uhl returned to the United States, turned to the image of an umbilical cord being cut when he spoke of his mentor’s departure. In an essay on the figure of the teacher, literary critic George Steiner puts it another way: “A valid master should, at the close, be alone.”
Taking stock on Imazon’s 25th anniversary, Toby McGrath – one of its founders – highlighted the entity’s role in consolidating a new model of action for NGOs during Brazil’s return to democracy. “Back then, NGOs were seen as organizations that liked to stir the pot, but they didn’t have much of anything concrete to propose,” said the geographer. “Imazon had a pioneering role in proposing solutions instead of just criticizing and denouncing.” They weren’t the only ones, he added, but this was the beginning of a new generation of Brazilian NGOs. McGrath noted that the emphasis on empirical observation practiced by his former colleagues was a great novelty. “This powerful methodology generated important data and blazed paths toward shaping public policy, opening the way to sustainable practices.”
But the geographer also has reservations about the operations of the institute that he helped to create. In McGrath’s view, Imazon transgressed in its excessive proximity with the state and local governments of Pará. “I don’t see Imazon articles criticizing public policies,” he said. “They work to develop policies for forest preservation, but I don’t know of any work they did criticizing previous forest management policies.”
McGrath’s concerns were echoed in the Amazonian scientific community. A researcher who preferred not to go on the record for this article alleged in an email that the decision stemmed from the fact that Imazon had long ago stopped being a non-governmental organization. The scientist characterized it as something akin to an advisory council for Para’s state government, defining its environmental agenda.
Toby McGrath withdrew from Imazon five years after its creation. When I interviewed him in November, he said he left because he no longer identified with the institution’s principles, which seemed excessively focused on the production of scientific information. He spoke with other colleagues and sketched out another NGO that would work on different fronts – the Environmental Research Institute of the Amazon, IPAM, which was established in Belém in 1995. “IPAM combines elements of research and mobilization,” he explained.
Invited to cast a backward glance on the institution he had created, Chris Uhl took a long pause and said calmly that he was surprised. “I’d never imagined that it would become one among several important catalysts for beginning to turn around a situation that for me at the time seemed unsolvable.”
Beto Veríssimo says that Imazon’s success should be measured not in terms of output – the work produced by its researchers – but by outcome – the repercussion they have. Output is easy to measure: Imazon has put out more than 700 publications in 25 years. The list includes scientific articles in first-rate journals, but also materials in other forms, like books, textbooks, and special reports. “Our papers are read by people far away from where the decision making takes place, so we try to produce work in accessible language,” explained biologist Andréia Pinto, the current executive director of Imazon.
Measuring outcomes is a lot more complicated. The organization’s projects have certainly contributed to the reduction in deforestation over the last two decades, be it in creating new laws and public policies or working in conjunction with the government and mobilizing society and key economic actors. “We didn’t reduce deforestation, but we have created the know-how for that to happen,” Veríssimo said. “Our idea is to show the government all the ways that this goal can be accomplished, but the decision making is in the hands of public actors.” Marina Silva also highlighted the fact that Imazon “contributed greatly to shaping a generation of highly trained Amazonian researchers.”
Ubiratan Cazetta is a 47-year-old attorney from São Paulo who began working in Pará in 1996, concentrating on environmental issues, at the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office. When asked about Imazon’s influence on public policy, he mentioned, among other works, an Imazon study on the illegal exploitation of mahogany that led to a ban on its logging in Brazil, as well as a study exposing the inefficiency of punishment for environmental crimes in the Amazon which then provoked a review of legal procedures. Since 2010, Cazetta has been a member of the Supervisory Board at Imazon, which is tasked with examining the institution’s accounts and ensuring that they rely on a variety of financial sources.
Chris Uhl has not been back to Brazil in over fifteen years. Beside sporadic contact with some of his former protégés at Imazon, he has cut all ties. He said he still understands the language and could hold a conversation if need be, but did not venture to say a word in Portuguese during the time that Beto Veríssimo and I spent in State College. A year and a half ago, Uhl was invited to a TED event in Brasilia. “I don’t need to fly halfway around the world to talk for 15 minutes,” he thought, and then turned down the invitation. The ecologist avoids getting on planes unnecessarily, uses a bike to get to campus from his house and has a hybrid that can stay parked in his garage for weeks at a time. He improved the energy efficiency of his house, and most of what he eats comes from a 400-square-meter vegetable garden in his backyard.
A turning point in Uhl’s career came at the beginning of the century when he took a sabbatical in Seattle. Upon his return, he ended his marriage of 29 years and decided to abandon research to focus entirely on teaching. Uhl said he’d lost his appetite for doing science, and hardly recognized himself in the articles he’d written years before. On the other hand, he was drawn to the classroom and wanted to reinvent himself as a teacher. The university didn’t seem to mind, but neither have they given him a raise in the last 15 years. As a full-time professor, he’s driven by the aim of transforming young people.
Uhl married again, to Dana Stuchul, a former high school chemistry teacher who now teaches at Penn State. He was 57 years old when they had their daughter Katie, in 2006. Every now and then, he can be found at Quaker meetings, which he attended more during his first marriage. The Quakers are a pacifist offshoot of Anglicanism, preaching “non-violent direct action.” Their services are different from other Christian churches, starting with the silence of their meetings where the faithful meet to reflect. Anyone can speak up if they feel that they have something inspiring to say; Uhl said that he went to meetings for 10 years without saying a word.
In 2013, Uhl released the second edition of his book Developing Ecological Consciousness, written twelve years prior. This meant practically writing a new book, as he cut many passages,, restructured the chapters, and included new material. The changes start in the subtitle, which in the original was “Paths to a Sustainable Future.” The author de-emphasized the concept of sustainability in his new edition. Environmentalists tend to use the term to refer to a compromise between development and the preservation of the environment. But Uhl noted that the concept has been diluted and put to dubious ends. “It carries the notion that what we want to sustain is the status quo, which doesn’t challenge the underlying assumptions that guide our culture,” he said. “What do we want to sustain? That’s the classic question that’s not being addressed.”
Since 1983, Uhl has taught Biological Science 003 – Environmental Science, a class offered to students in the humanities that he prefers to call “Awaken 101”. Classes are held on Mondays and Wednesdays in a large auditorium with capacity for over 600 students. He teaches with a discreet microphone looped over his ear, a clipboard in his left hand and, in his right, a remote that advances PowerPoint slides on a large screen behind him. His delivery is dramatic, going up and down the aisles of the auditorium and breaking up the flow of his lecture to ask his students questions. The 50 minutes of the class period are tightly controlled.
On the Monday that I visited, the topic was “From feelings to action.” Uhl invited his students to consider the possible impact on our health and the environment wrought by the thousands of synthetic chemical compounds that freely circulate around the planet. He approached this topic by relating the life stories of four women who, each in her own way, helped reveal the ways in which certain of these substances can cause several types of cancer, hormonal imbalances, and undermine fertility. Each fought to be heard and to share her discoveries with the public. “What do these four people have in common?” Uhl asked at the conclusion of the class. His response: while not necessarily extraordinary, the women were all fearless. “And all of them asked questions.”
*This article was authored by Bernardo Esteves and appeared in Portuguese in the Brazilian Magazine: Piaui, December, 2015, pp. 40-47. It was originally translated to English by Renato Buanafina and revised by Flora Thomson-DeVeaux.