Envisioning success—starting with the Amazon

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President & Executive Director Philip B. Duffy

Humanity’s grand challenge for the 21st century is not just to manage global climate change, but also to feed and otherwise help a population of 10 or 11 billion people to prosper, and at the same time preserve essential natural systems upon which our well-being and livelihoods are based. That, in a nutshell, is also the mission of WHRC.

This challenge will be faced acutely in the developing world, where populations and economic activity are increasing most rapidly, and where critical natural systems are highly vulnerable. Nowhere, perhaps, are these issues more immediate than in Brazil, which is home to the world’s largest intact tropical rainforest and a diverse tropical savanna, both of which are threatened by climate change and by the emergence of Brazil as a global agricultural powerhouse. This month—along with a few WHRC Board members and donors—I had the opportunity to see first-hand the challenges in Brazil and the remarkable work WHRC is doing there to understand and address them.

photo by Georgia Nassikas

As a scientist, what impresses me most about our work in Brazil is its effective integration of diverse approaches, including a comprehensive array of field measurements, large scale manipulation experiments (for example a large forest-burning experiment), remote sensing, and computer modeling. This integrated approach, sustained now for more than a decade, allows an unusually thorough understanding of how human and natural systems are affecting each other in this critical region.

Among the more significant findings of this work is that large-scale deforestation is affecting not only global climate—which has been known for some time—but also regional climate in the Amazon. Indeed, some of these effects are large enough to be palpable as one moves between and within forest and cleared areas. A particularly important consequence of deforestation is reduction in precipitation, including a shortening of the rainy season. This threatens to prevent double-cropping, which is central to the efficiency of Brazilian agriculture. Yes, agriculture is in this sense a threat to itself.

Interesting though this may be, none of it would have much impact without our use of partnerships to bring the research into the world of policy and application. First among these partnerships is our long-standing relationship with the Brazil-based Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM), whose strong connections to Brazilian policy-makers provide an avenue for our work to influence state and national policies. Through IPAM we also partner with the Amaggi Group, the world’s largest private producer of soybeans. The exchange of data between our scientists and the growers allows us to see not only the effects of industrial agriculture on nearby forests and ecosystems, but also to document how forests improve agricultural productivity on nearby fields. Remarkably, this cooperation has been made possible by a former winner of Greenpeace’s “Golden Chainsaw” award, Blairo Maggi (Amaggi’s owner). Finally, we also partner with universities, in both Brazil and the United States, that contribute key social science insights and whose students are the vehicles for carrying this work into the future.

One of the comments that stuck with me from my week in Brazil is “We need examples that work,” meaning that we need to demonstrate the ability to combine economic growth with protection of critical natural systems (including climate). We need to prove that “sustainable development” is more than a catch-phrase.

There may be nowhere better to do this than Brazil, where the challenges and opportunities are so great and so immediate. To succeed there we’ll need to deepen our partnerships with in-country institutions and to more closely integrate our scientific work with an understanding of the societal barriers to effective solutions. We also need new sources of support for our scientific work, which is threatened by expected continuing declines in US government research funding. The challenges are great, but if we can succeed in the Amazon, we can succeed anywhere.

Thanks as always for your interest and support.