Living With The Forest

David Pacchioli
May 01, 1997

While we were waiting for the bus in downtown Belém, Paulo Barreto smiled.

"Now we are going back in time, a hundred years," he said, and laughed, a high, nervous laugh. We were headed south to Paragominas, a logging center in the heart of the eastern Amazon. Barreto, a young, bespectacled Brazilian forester who splits his time between studying for his Ph.D. at Yale and working at IMAZON, a small environmental research center headquartered near Belém, was taking me to visit a pilot project.

The past he was referring to was a North American one. I had been telling him about some turn-of-the-century photos I had seen of mountain ridges in central Pennsylvania denuded of all vegetation, rendered to something like moonscape in order to feed the state's lumber industry.

The irony was, of course, that such destruction – albeit on a scale unimaginable in the United States of the 1890s – could well be Amazonia's future. For Paragominas, on the famous Belém-Bras'lia highway, however, that picture was simply the present. I had been warned about Paragominas. The North Americans among the scientists at IMAZON, when I told them I was going there, had either winced or chortled. A rice farmer visiting the institute, a towering, rough-hewn man who had come to Amazonia with the Peace Corps in the '60s and never left, snorted his advice:

"Take a gas mask."

It was early evening when Barreto and I boarded the coach. As we studied our tickets, a tiny teen-aged girl, hugely pregnant, dressed in a thin cotton sleeveless dress and rubber flip-flops, squeezed past us to her seat. A trio of young soldiers took turns stuffing their duffel bags into the overhead rack. A television set mounted high above the driver's head blared a Brazilian soap opera: On the screen a bald-headed man with a sweeping black moustache was brandishing a silver pistol at two cowering but very photogenic lovers.

The bus pulled out, and fairly quickly we were in open country, settled in for the five-hour ride. Barreto began to tell me about a forestry-school trip he had made the previous year to the Black Forest of Bavaria, and what he had learned about conservation there. We talked for a long time, my attention occasionally diverted by the big vehicle's sudden swerves, sometimes shoulder to shoulder all the way across the two-lane, as our driver did his best to dodge, without braking, both mammoth potholes (known locally as buracos) and oncoming headlights. Eventually we stopped talking, and I drifted off to sleep.

Well past ten I was awakened by the chill of air conditioning. The bus had stopped to pick up passengers. Below my window, her face ghostly in the glow of a propane lantern, a stout middle-aged woman in a wide cowboy hat was stirring a pot of beans at a tarp-sheltered table in the middle of a broad, red-dirt lot. A huddle of grizzled men stood or sat around her, watching, waiting, talking quietly among themselves. Dogs and small boys cavorted at the edge of darkness. A motorbike roared away, its red taillight dancing.

We set out again, and before long the sharp smell of woodsmoke began to seep through the bus's sealed windows. Outside, the night sky was nearly black, but the hanging smoke now visible was even blacker. We were getting close. Soon, in the hills on either side of the highway, there began to appear a strange orange glow. It took a moment, but finally I realized that the hills themselves were glowing – infernal, Blakean. These, said Barreto, were the mounds of burning sawdust. We had arrived in Paragominas.

With its 30-year history, Paragominas, in the state of Pará, Brazil, is old as Amazon settlements go, part of the "old frontier" of the eastern basin.

Entrepreneurs arrived with the opening of the great north-south highway, drawn by government tax incentives to clear and burn large tracts of forest for the raising of cattle. These pioneers soon found that the exotic forage grasses they planted to feed their imported cattle quickly wore out the thin forest soil. In ten years' time, the pastures created by laborious toil were overrun by stronger weedy species. These degraded fields were swiftly abandoned, new tracts of forest burned off – and so the stages were repeated, as Paragominas became an emblem of the disastrously wasteful effects of large-scale ranching.

The '70s brought lumbermen, who took advantage of the new roads to log Paragominas' forests, first culling the most lucrative tree species close to the highway, and gradually moving deeper in. They too were drawn by tax breaks from a government eager for settlement of the Amazonian interior. As Penn State ecologist Christopher Uhl acknowledges, "the region was too immense, too rich in mineral and timber resources, and too important to Brazil's national security to remain undeveloped." By 1990, logging had replaced cattle-raising as the town's main industry. There were in excess of 200 operating sawmills. Together with plywood and wood-product factories and charcoal producers, the mills now provide 14,000 jobs, and pay 80 percent of the town's local tax revenues.

The environmental impact is also substantial. Paragominas County is one of the most heavily deforested areas in Amazonia. And the economic boom, warns Uhl, will probably be fleeting. When Uhl interviewed the lumbermen of Paragominas in 1989, they told him, he wrote then, that "All the sawmills intend to pull out in five to ten years when the closest forests will be exhausted, as seems inevitable." Already some mills are routinely trucking in logs from a distance of 90 kilometers, a trip that cuts significantly into profit margins.

Uhl arrived here in the mid-1980s, when he and former colleague Robert Buschbacher, now with the World Wildlife Fund, spent a year studying abandoned pastures. At the time, scientists were stressing the terrible fragility of the rainforest ecosystem. With its delicate balance of myriad plants and animals and its thin, poor soils, the rainforest – equivalent in size to the United States from Maine to the Rockies – didn't stand a chance. Collision with humanity would simply be the end of it: the entire region transformed into red-clay desert. Great social and economic pressures, not to mention plain greed, were driving people into the basin in unprecedented numbers. There were opportunists of all types, eager to cash in a piece of the Amazon's immense natural wealth, and usually heedless of the consequences. But there were others, too: those from the desperate slums of the Brazilian northeast, for whom the forest seemed a great and only hope.

The conclusion seemed foregone, the forest doomed. What Uhl and Buschbacker discovered during their year in the field, however, was something different. "To our surprise," Uhl writes, "we found that the forest does generally regrow, even after large, long-lasting disturbances like pastures."

"The cutting and burning," he continues, "doesn't kill everything. Some woody stumps of trees still sprout, and some buried seeds . . . still germinate. Even though ranchers bring in work crews periodically to hack back this woody regrowth, and fire is used on occasion to favor the grasses, the buried roots of woody plants have adequate carbohydrate reserves to rebound from these setbacks. Eventually, the trees get the upper hand again. . . ."

The forest could come back.

But not all sites recover quickly. By looking still more closely at pastures that would not regrow, systems that seemed stuck in the degraded-pasture state, Uhl and Buschbacher went on to pinpoint the obstacles that prevent regeneration. Key among these, they found, was the matter of seed dispersal.

In order to retake the fields, tree species must first reseed them. In a landscape where wind dispersal is rare, they are forced to rely on bats and birds to do this work. Uhl and a Brazilian colleague, José Maria Cardoso da Silva, found that few birds ventured into severely damaged clearings. Those that did sought rewards from weedy, fruit-bearing shrubs. Where there were no shrubs, there was little regrowth. Where shrubs were present, so were birds – and subsequently seeds, and eventually clusters of saplings.

In itself, this finding was no cause for celebration. If we continue felling the eastern Amazon's trees at the current rate, Uhl calculates, in 50 years there will be only small islands of forest in a sea of scrub savannah. These isolated clumps will not be able to re-take the surrounding area, Uhl says, for very concrete reasons. First, as the size of a clearing increases, the remnant forest decreases, leading to a decline in the rate of seed dispersal from forest to clearing. Second, the degraded landscape is far more susceptible to the ravages of fire. Third, the loss of forest cover means lower rates of evapotranspiration, which translates into less regional rainfall, which could easily build into a cycle of drought, and, again, fire. And lastly, thousands of species lost to extinction will not be replaced. At current rates, the unbelievable biological variety that is a tropical rainforest will settle into a simplified, permanently degraded state. Not a red clay desert, exactly. More like Paragominas.

Still, the idea that damaged rainforest had the potential to regenerate gave Uhl something to go on. It stirred a crucial change in his outlook. Maybe there was a way for modern humans to use the resources of the forest sustainably.

A second realization followed shortly: The current approach in academic research wasn't going to find that way. "I can remember a moment," Uhl says today, "sitting outside a hut on a ranch near Paragominas with Dan Nepstad," then a graduate student at Yale. "We were living in this hut, working on pasture regeneration, and we were celebrating that evening because we had finally got chairs to sit on.

"We were talking about how the issues of Amazonia are many-sided, and require long-term solutions. Yet these problems were being addressed in a very narrow way, within the artificial boundaries of academic disciplines. And we said, rather than start from a discipline, why not start from a real-world problem – and just follow where it takes you?"

To make such an approach work, he and Nepstad understood, would take more than individual effort. "You would need a critical mass of people," a varied group of researchers from different backgrounds, all committed to solving the problem. An applied, and truly interdisciplinary, outlook. An organization.

Some months later, Uhl was among a group of tropical experts invited by the MacArthur Foundation to a meeting in Chicago, to discuss program priorities for tropical regions. Over the next few months, as he got to know MacArthur program officer Dan Martin, he was increasingly encouraged by Martin's responses. In collaboration with a geographer from the University of Wisconsin named Toby McGrath, Uhl hashed out the concept and drafted a proposal: To start a research institute in eastern Amazonia, staffed by young Brazilian scientists, focused specifically on sustainable resource use. Its aim would be, pointedly, realistic: finding ways to preserve the rainforest by reconciling conservation with development.

In 1990 the MacArthur Foundation provided seed money for the launching of IMAZON, the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment.

On the morning following my arrival in Paragominas on June 27, the sky was blue. The smoke had lifted, leaving only its pervasive smell. In the cab of a mud-spattered pick-up truck, Paulo Barreto and I bounced over rutted red-clay roads the 40 minutes to Fazenda Sete, the farm where the pilot project was located. Along the way we picked up four men, day workers, who crouched silently in the bed behind us. These men would be cutting vines today, Barreto explained. Vine cutting was part of IMAZON's prescription for sustainable logging.

When we reached the farm, the four men jumped from the truck and ambled toward a low, open building. I followed, past a wooden fence behind which glowered a great black bull. Inside, I watched them don long-sleeved shirts to protect their arms from abrasions, and whatever else. (On the wall was a poster depicting a considerable variety of large and colorful snakes: Prevençao de acidentes com cobras, read the Portuguese.) The men took up machetes from a table, one of them hoisted a jug of water from the refrigerator, and we rode out to the forest.

As we left the pastureland the trees and undergrowth closed in around the truck until broad leaves scraped the side mirrors. Sunlight dappled the hood. The world, of a sudden, was entirely green, many rich shades of it. We were submerged in green: Leaves of all shapes and sizes; vines like ropes and streamers and corrugated walkways to the sky. ("Turtle-stair" is one aptly named variety.) This small patch of forest, a pale shadow of the virgin counterpart that inspires poems and songs of protest, was nevertheless a strange and marvelous place. A dark termite nest, a meter and a half across, encompassed the narrow bole of a small tree, six meters above the ground.

Once he had dropped off the vine-cutters, Barreto drove me around to a succession of clearings. From these, the staging areas for logging, where the heavy equipment is assembled and the logs are loaded for transport, we walked into the forest, to the spots where individual trees had been felled.

In standard practice in Pará, up to ten trees are harvested per hectare of forest. Economically valuable species, at full maturity, are scattered rather widely. Getting to these trees, and taking them down and out, is no simple task. Likely stands are first scouted. Once their location is confirmed, trails are cut, and the chosen trees are felled by a chainsaw operator and his assistant. Then bulldozers open roads to the site and clear landings. Rubber-track skidders are used to drag the giant boles out to the landings where they are sawn to truckbed length. The trees logged here, of a hundred different species, are 20 to 25 meters tall, and one to two meters in diameter near the ground – eight to 12 tons of wood apiece. When such a tree is felled, its network of vines pulls down an average of ten other trees along with it, and another 20 trees are damaged by the fall. When the tree is dragged out, the thin soil along its path is torn and scraped away. The shade coverage provided by the forest canopy, typically 80 to 90 percent, is reduced to 40 to 50 percent at a logged site.

For all this, fully one quarter of the trees intentionally felled, Barreto said, never make it onto the truck: five percent are ruined by inexpert cutting, and the remaining 20 percent are literally lost, as the recovery crews that follow the sawyers fail to find them in the undergrowth. Of the logs that do get to the mill, only 35 percent of each becomes saleable wood. The rest is wasted in scrap (burned or diverted to charcoal production) and sawdust.

This picture of standard logging practice, the work of a team of IMAZON researchers over three years, represents the first systematic study of the wood industry in Pará. It was the first step in IMAZON's initial research thrust: what IMAZON-ians call the wood project. Given that the forest land would be used, Barreto explained, and given that logging, by comparison to ranching and farming, was its most environmentally sound use, IMAZON set itself the task of determining whether logging could be done sustainably – or, as Uhl puts it, "carefully, caringly, responsibly." Standard practice, they showed, was more like timber "mining."

To test their findings, and to investigate possible alternatives, they set up two 100-hectare plots: one to be logged using traditional techniques, and the other by incorporating principles of sustainable forest management.

The comparison highlighted a number of simple practices. Inventorying and mapping forest tracts before logging them significantly reduced the number of trees knocked down accidentally. Advance planning of roads and trails lowered ground-area disturbance by 20 percent. Vine cutting around a tree before felling it reduced damage to surrounding trees by one third. Basic training for sawyers decreased by three-fold the incidence of logs splitting due to bad technique. And planning operations reduced expensive machine time by 20 percent.

Strictly in economic terms, the IMAZON team found, the up-front cost for this kind of management, about $50 per hectare, is more than balanced by its long-term benefits. For one thing, they estimated, a system of careful management, by reducing damage to young trees, should halve cutting cycles from 70 to 100 to 30 to 40 years. Combined with similar efficiencies instituted at the sawmill, such a system should allow loggers to produce the same amount of wood from one-third the forest land.

Today, three years after the initial comparison, this pilot study was being replicated at eight sites across the Amazon. Here, at Fazenda Sete, the "mined" areas were badly scarred. Tangled brown piles of slash – discarded trees and brush rose to head height. The hot sun beat down through large gaps in the canopy, and the thorny undergrowth was too dense for easy passage. The spindly trunks and long narrow leaflets of cecropia, an opportunistic tree species, gave the clearings a weird Cenozoic flavor.

The nearby managed plot, by comparison, appeared relatively undisturbed. Great trees towered overhead. Under their canopy, the forest was cool and green and open. The occasional giant stump was not easy to spot at a distance. Even where there were obvious clearings, they were much smaller than their counterparts across the way. Here, in this logged space, there remained a palpable sense of the forest as a whole.

I had no inkling I'd be getting involved in forestry research when I first came down here," Uhl says brightly. At 48, he is gray-haired but otherwise youthful in appearance, a tall, lean man in Hawaiian shirt and black basketball high-tops.

Around him the IMAZON compound in Ananindeua, a teeming neighborhood on the outskirts of Belém, is humming with industry. Most of the activity inside the two whitewashed stucco buildings takes place behind closed doors, in small offices fitted with window air conditioners against the oppressive heat. (At night, rope hammocks for sleeping are de riguer; even so I lay uncovered, sweating under the mosquito netting, until about 3 a.m., when the air finally cooled enough to warrant a sheet.) Occasionally, institute researchers emerge to pass from office to office, building to building. They are distinguishable by their youth – most of IMAZON's 15-odd researchers are 28 or younger – and their seriousness. Patently, these are people whose mission is both compelling and well-defined.

The entire institute convenes at midday for a communal meal in the open-air dining area, piling plates with savory food – stewed chicken, spiced chunks of potato, fried manioc flour, and the ubiquitous beans and rice – prepared by a smiling local woman named Nadia, who sports a Penn State baseball cap. Talk, in Portuguese and English, is abundant, and Uhl is in the middle of it, moving from table to table with questions, comments, advice, encouragement. He seems always in motion, whether hustling off to arrange a meeting or take a phone call, or hunched behind the wheel of IMAZON's white Volkswagen beetle, headed for town, or hazarding an evening jog among the growling mongrels of Ananindeua's muddy back streets.

When the MacArthur grant came through in 1990, Uhl took a formal leave of absence from his position as associate professor of biology at Penn State and moved with his family – his wife and two small children – to Belém. He spent the next five years, aided further by Fulbright, Guggenheim, and Pew fellowships, fully engaged in the formidable challenge of trying to build a research institute from the ground up in a country very foreign from his own. This meant not only directing and conducting research, but developing the necessary contacts in Belém's thicket of official agencies, research institutions, and non-governmental organizations. The latter, known as NGOs, play a vital – and growing –role in the Amazon: raising money and awareness, applying political pressure, organizing for change. They come in many types and every ideological stripe: from large international environmental organizations like Greenpeace, the World Wildlife Fund, or the Rainforest Action Network, to tiny community groups organized by labor unions and the Catholic church – but until IMAZON, they had not come as research institutes.

From the start, Uhl's idea was to find and train promising young scientists – the next generation of Brazilian researchers. "I was looking for the brightest, most open-minded young people I could find," he recalls. And the most idealistic. "These are people," he says, "who could have had good government jobs, could have been set for life, just being part of the status quo."

Agronomist Adalberto "Beto" Verissimo was one of his first recruits. At 31, Verissimo, co-director of IMAZON, is a well-seasoned veteran, a warm, bookish young man whose dark hair is receding slightly. Born in the northeastern state of Paraiba, the poorest state in Brazil, he became involved early in environmental issues: As a teen he was active in a group that pushed for the establishment of one of the first – and today one of the largest – urban green spaces in the country, in the city of Fotalese. "One day," he remembers, "I saw on the evening news that the Amazon is becoming a desert. I decided I should go there." At 18, he left home for Pará.

In 1985, Verissimo enrolled in the state university at Belém. In 1987, he was working on the problem of pasture regeneration in Paragominas when he read about Uhl in the local newspapers. Verissimo and his fellow students set up a series of seminars "to see," he says smilingly, "what the gringos were doing here.

"There was a lot of press. It was like OPenn State comes to the Amazon.' But really it was only Chris." Uhl and the wood project both appealed to him, and Verissimo joined up.

"We did the first two papers without even a computer," he remembers. "Then, when Chris got the MacArthur money, we started to talk about building a center. It took a year – to talk, to write, to go through the legal process of forming an NGO. We had to determine what kind of institution we wanted to build. We knew it would be very difficult to go against the traditional academic grain."

IMAZON's focus was to be entirely on applied research. That meant choosing and designing projects with a careful eye to pressing problems. It must also mean, they decided, carrying the results of their work beyond the pages of academic journals. The real crux of the institute's mission would be to reach those who would make the decisions for Amazonia's future policy makers, office-holders, and all levels of the Brazilian public. The various "stakeholders," as Uhl describes them.

One of the early targets was mahogany.

Of the 350 timber species harvested in the Amazon, mahogany is by far the most economically valuable. Its wood fetches from $700 to $1200 per cubic meter, five times what other species can command. Even when they have to cut a road 500 kilometers into the jungle to get it, loggers can make a profit on it.

This potential, combined with a rich stock of mahogany in the south of Pará in proximity to the new highways, created a free-for-all logging boom in the 1980s, without any government control. In 1990, Verissimo and others set about to document the consequences of this haphazard exploitation.

Their findings were duly published in scholarly journals. IMAZON also convinced a local bank to publish and distribute a compilation of the papers in Portuguese. ("There is not much information available in Portuguese," Verissimo explains, "and book prices are almost prohibitive.") Information provided by IMAZON was used by Greenpeace Brasil and lawyers from the Center for Indigenous Rights in a campaign to push for government controls on mahogany logging. And last but not least, IMAZON produced a video dramatizing its findings – a 30-minute documentary that was picked up by one of Brazil's five television networks. "The video medium is especially valuable," Verissimo says. "Its impact is wide. This is the first time that people here have recognized the wood sector as being so big and powerful.

"Now," he adds, "loggers want to collaborate with us, to learn how to log more sustainably. Everyone knows the problem now."

Early one morning, as Uhl and I and three others headed out for the docks of Belém, a big, beaming, black-bearded young man with a duffel bag slung over his shoulder came bounding up the walkway to the informally dubbed Casa Gringo, sleeping quarters for IMAZON visitors. This was Penn State graduate student Mark Cochrane, returning from several weeks in the interior, and visibly glad to be back to base. Cochrane came telling tales: Of slow three-day boat rides up the river – and nights in his hammock below-decks, swaying merrily between gold miners. Of tramping in the forest mapping tree locations, "ground-proofing" for later aerial surveys. And of waiting for official permission to do just about anything.

"It took me ten days to get to this one research station," he reported. "I had arranged it ahead. When I got there [the government employees] told me they weren't ready for me. Come back in a couple of weeks, they said." He grinned widely. "You've got to laugh down here, or you'll go crazy."

Cochrane, one of three National Science Foundation fellows studying for a doctorate under Uhl, is indeed a robust and resilient customer, further testament to which is the nasty red scar that runs half the length of his left forearm, souvenir of a close encounter with a typhoon off Antarctica when he was shipboard with the U.S. Navy. MIT-trained, a former nuclear engineer, he traded Trident submarines for tropical ecology, and is currently testing new high-resolution imaging techniques for characterizing forests by air. For starters, these techniques should allow him to determine just how much mahogany is left in Pará, and to pinpoint its locations. ("Nobody even knows what's out there," he told me.)

Uhl's other Penn State graduate students working here also have interesting backgrounds. Campbell Plowden, another NSF fellow, is a slight, mild-mannered Quaker who spent 15 years with Greenpeace and once chained himself to the harpoon cannon of a Peruvian whaling ship. Jim Lockman is a Franciscan friar from Berkeley who has written on liberation theology. Pamela Lockwood, from Hawaii, was a Peace Corps volunteer in Guatemala. Mark Schulze, the third NSF fellow, also worked in Guatemala, with the Peregrine Fund. All of them, in something like mid-career, had heard of Uhl's work and sought him out. "Few people are approaching things this way," Plowden had told me. "Knowing Chris and knowing he was putting together a team focused on Amazonia – that was exciting."

Uhl seems equally impressed. "For these graduate students to commit to this kind of interdisciplinary work in an academic world that is still overwhelmingly compartmentalized," he says, "takes real courage. It requires a mature sense of self."

Uhl found his own mission somewhat late. His father was a scientist of a different sort, a professor of chemical engineering at Villanova University. Growing up on Philadelphia's Main Line, young Uhl felt drawn to the solitude of local woods, but "was not the boy naturalist." He went away to Notre Dame, and after a sophomore year spent in Tokyo transferred to the University of Michigan to major in Asian Studies. Following graduation, after another year in Japan, he taught a stint at a Virginia reform school. Then, interested in graduate school, he signed up for an ecology class, and, "halfway through the first lecture," he says now, "I knew I had hit paydirt." Here was a discipline "analogous to medicine," he thought. "You're looking at sick ecosystems, trying to understand how they work, and what could make them well."

From this perspective, the Amazon "embodies so much of what life is about, this terrific diversity of species, all the interactions. I think we all know at some deep level that we humans still define ourselves in large part by our relation to all of this.

"And for me it goes beyond the forest. Brazilian society, the depth and character of relationships, the in-your face quality. . . Being here – all this being here –teaches me something about what it means to be human."

As we departed the busy market dock by wooden launch, the port of Belém gradually lost its gritty aspect. Viewed from a distance, across the widening expanse of brown water, it became something lovely. A low sun glinted off its backdrop of tall buildings.

The five of us were heading across and slightly upriver – not the Amazon, strictly speaking, but a broad tributary called the Guamá. Beyond the bow, the river extended almost out of sight, bounded only by a thin strip of green below the sky. The slow brown current rippled from left to right. I kept a lookout for the pink dolphins said to abound here.

Our destination was Boa Vista, a river-bank settlement on one of the small islands contiguous to Marajo Island, a delta landmass the size of Switzerland known for its ancient Indian culture and now populated mostly by caboclos, traditional forest dwellers of mixed descent. A 40-minute ride dropped us into another world, the noise and turmoil of Belém replaced by a lulling chorus of insects and birds, the lush idyll of varzea, or flood-plain forest.

Tying up in front of a small enclave of houses set on wooden pilings, we disembarked and strolled into the forest, following dirt paths that according to Uhl extend for dozens of kilometers. The forest here seemed more open than on so-called upland, or terra firme; a somewhat thinner undergrowth, and noticeably less variety of plant species. Uhl pointed out specimens of aça' palm, prized locally for its fruit, which is made into a popular drink taken daily in the afternoon, at aça' time.

At a distance a dark glittering stream seemed to cross the path. Approached, this stream revealed itself to run in both directions, and to be composed not of liquid but of ants: a multitude of leafcutter ants, relentlessly transferring a vast quantity of foliage, bit by bit, to their underground nest. Uhl's face brightened with interest and, leaving the path, we followed this living trail into the forest – a dozen paces, two dozen, three, eyes to the ground, before noticing that we had entered someone's front yard. Chickens wandered, fussing quietly. A raised wooden house appeared through the trees.

Approaching, Uhl clapped his hands to announce us. We slowly circled the house, rousing a small pig, who dashed off behind a bush, and bothering a klatch of birds, but disrupting no other signs of life. At length, however, an old man, bare-chested and wearing a baseball cap, appeared silently in the open window above us, and smiled a gap-toothed smile. After he and Uhl had exchanged greetings and talked for a while in Portuguese a younger man appeared, maybe a grandson, to lead us deeper into the forest.

A short walk from the house was a small farm, a system of agriculture in three phases: the small plot currently being farmed, which looked to be grain interspersed with fruit trees; the overgrown brush of the previous plot; and the burned-off patch that would be next to be cultivated, charred stems and stumps still jutting from the bare soil. On the way back to the house, our guide stopped to point out cacao and acaí, the uncultivated but potentially lucrative products of the forest.

So-called non-timber forest products, or NTFPs, have been a hot topic in Amazonia since the late '80s, when Chico Mendes organized his fellow rubbertappers in the western state of Acre to protest destruction of their forest – and their livelihood – by ranching and logging interests. Mendes was assassinated for his efforts, but as a result of the burgeoning rubbertappers' movement, the Brazilian government created a brand-new land-use category for Amazonia: the concept of the extractive reserve. Designated areas meeting specific criteria – including the presence of a "traditional" population using the forest for its livelihood – could be legally protected against deforestation.

Environmentalists have hailed the concept as a sustainable economic alternative, a way to use the forest while protecting it. Already some 2.2 million hectares of Amazon rainforest have been given over to extractive reserves. But gaining reserve status can be a long, complicated – and even dangerous – process. The extreme case is in Rondonia, to the west of Pará, where, Campbell Plowden states, "there's a group of Indians who have just been contacted [by Westerners]. Now ranchers are trying to kill them before they are officially recognized so they won't lose pasture land."

Economists, moreover, continue to argue about how much of a role NTFPs can realistically play in creating a stable Amazonian economy, a prerequisite, everyone agrees, to stopping deforestation. A highly touted study published in the British journal Nature in 1989 compared the economic value of NTFPs against that of one-time sale of timber for a given area in the Peruvian Amazon; NTFPs came out ahead over the long term. But as Plowden notes, "extrapolations only go so far." A more useful understanding will demand extensive groundwork: close scrutiny of specific potential "products" in the contexts of their local environments.

Plowden, Jim Lockman, and Mark Schulze are doing some of this work. All three are looking at native tree species with local economic value. Lockman's focus is acapu, valued for its decay-resistant wood. Schulze is investigating chicle, whose fruit was once used to make chewing gum. Plowden is studying copaiba, a legume valued principally for its oil, which is tapped like maple sap and used as a pain reliever and all-purpose remedy.

On the Tembé Indian reserve, east of Paragominas, where Plowden is working, copaiba seemed a good species to build an economic strategy around. The oil has a very high market value – $10 to 20 per liter – and is not susceptible to spoilage, an important consideration for a people who live eight hours by boat on top of four hours by truck from the nearest town.

There being almost no hard data on the tree, starting out meant Plowden spending two months on the Tembé reserve last summer. Working closely with the Tembé ("their forest knowledge and my scientific rigor"), he began to observe and record everything he could about copaiba in this particular place: Where it grew, at what density, and under what conditions; how much oil could be expected from a given tree, and how often; what was the most efficient method for tapping . . . The goal was to provide a realistic assessment of the tree's potential as one component of a sustainable, forest-based economy.

Plowden's work was complicated, however, by the summer's events involving the Tembé. A few days after a rare enforcement attempt by one of the regional environmental agencies against illegal logging on the Tembé reserve, the national office of the same agency ordered the return of seized trucks, and logs, to the loggers. The Indians, frustrated by ever-increasing encroachments onto their land, responded by destroying the logs in question. Loggers and colonists in turn took up arms, captured the retreating Indians, and held them hostage for three days before federal troops came to the rescue. In the bargain, Plowden adds, the Indians lost their only truck, which was burned in the melee – and so, at least temporarily, lost their access to both emergency healthcare and the market at Belém.

Barreling along a dusty back road on the outskirts of Paragominas, past meandering streams where children splashed and mothers washed clothes, we passed a wizened old man, hatted, all in black, carrying a cloth sack over his shoulder. The forester Barreto stopped the truck, and the old man smiled around his pencil-thin stub of cigar and climbed into the bed. When we dropped him off a few minutes later, he insisted on repaying us. He reached deep into his bag and produced, one by one, six tiny green oranges.

We drove on. Glancing back in the sideview mirror, I asked Barreto about a sketchy report I had heard before leaving the States, an incident in which 19 un-armed people had been shot and killed by the military somewhere in the interior of Pará. He nodded and explained. A large group of poor people, seeking land, had converged on an area and blockaded the federal highway. The governor of Pará had sent in troops to restore order.

Back in Belém, I had seen the different result of another such "invasion": blocks and blocks of wooden shanties raised along the narrow strip of land fronting the university, between the school's high chain-link fence and the road. An entire community, with its own small grocery stores and scores of barefoot children playing soccer. My host that day had been IMAZON economist Oriana Almeida. "The people saw an opportunity," Almeida said. "Nobody was using the land. Once they are there," she added, "it is very difficult to remove them."

Such incidents offer a glimpse into the severity of the social and economic problems that plague Brazil: the complex human dimension that underlies the Amazon's plight.

"To really understand deforestation," says Douglas Southgate, "you need to understand economic processes." Southgate, a professor of natural resource economics at Ohio State University, gave a lecture at IMAZON during the week of my visit.

"There are enormous gaps here between rich and poor," he noted during a conversation after his talk. "Some say Brazil is the country with the most uneven distribution of wealth in the world. The poverty in rural areas in parts of the northeast is like a gigantic Haiti. The people have one to two years of formal education, there are diseases like leprosy . . . These are totally neglected areas. The people migrate to the cities or become Amazonian colonists."

Sixteen million people now live in Amazonia, most of them arriving within the last 30 years. By the 1980s, this influx began to have a serious environmental impact. Slash-and-burn farming on thousands of small farms began to rival the levels of forest destruction caused by large-scale ranching.

In small towns and cities, rapid growth has intensified social problems: overcrowding, alcoholism, crime. Belém, 15 years ago a lovely small city with a rich Portuguese heritage, is now home to two million people and Brazil's largest slum. In the last two years alone, according to Verissimo, Belém has seen a 30 percent increase in automobile traffic. Its one main highway is frenetically busy, no matter the hour.

There seems no doubt that development in the Amazon will continue, whether those outside the region like it or not. "The problem," says Southgate, "is to find and remove impediments to conservation in a place where there are large numbers of people without many options in life."

In Uhl's view, the resolution must lie in intensifying land-use practices in places already being deforested, like Paragominas, "thus permitting the protection of more pristine forest ecosystems." In Pará, IMAZON's wood project has shown the potential for what may be the state's optimal land use: intensive, carefully managed logging. But Uhl and his colleagues have also gathered evidence to suggest that intensification of other traditional Amazon land uses – ranching and farming – is both possible and economically viable.

With effective government controls, Uhl calculates, 80 percent of the Brazilian Amazon could be maintained in a natural state. But the needed action will require progressive leadership, something that has been sorely lacking in Bras'lia. According to many observers, government policies of the last 25 years – designed to open up the Amazon, to encourage settlement and economic activity – have simply ignored environmental impacts. Until 1991, for example, federal law encouraged the willy-nilly clearing of land as the best way of proving productive use, and thus, ownership. Government subsidies continue to sustain ranching, the most ecologically inappropriate use for Amazon land. Battered by social problems, in thrall to vested interests, the Brazilian government has been exceedingly slow to embrace the future.

International pressure has had some impact, but not enough. According to Uhl, for real progress to occur the Brazilian government must first acknowledge "that Brazil, at present, has no coherent policy with regard to Amazonia": that current laws aimed at environmental protection are shot through with loopholes and that the overlapping agencies concerned are extremely ineffective. From there, he suggests, Bras'lia must assume control over the vast yet-unoccupied majority of Amazon territory, develop a sensitive and workable plan for land-use zoning throughout the region. Such a plan, he argues, would promote sustainable farming and ranching on lands already cleared while aiming to maintain existing forest cover, in the form of Indian reserves, parks, and working forests, throughout the rest of the basin.

Is there political will to effect such change? The restoration of democracy in 1985, after 20 years of military rule, has fostered something new in Brazil: citizen activism. But this development is still in its infancy. "It is likely that the Amazon environment will continue to become impoverished until citizens become better organized and more vocal," Uhl wrote in the March 1997 issue of the journal Bioscience. He adds: "Scientists are in a unique position to speed this process of civic awakening. We can do this by the very nature of the questions we ask, by the quality and breadth of our investigations, and by the efforts we make in channeling our findings to the media and to society at large."

A real obstacle remains, however, in the sheer size and inaccessibility of the Amazonian interior. Effective policymaking will require workable provisions for monitoring and enforcement.

To this end, Carlos Souza, a geologist/agronomist at IMAZON, is one of a group using new geographic technologies to shrink the Amazon down to size.

Souza, an intensely sober young man with dark eyes and thick black eyebrows, member of a proud and long-established Belém family, was recruited to IMAZON in 1993, soon after he graduated from the state university there. The following year, he came north to University Park to master the latest remote sensing techniques under Penn State agronomist Gary Petersen, "a great example," Uhl says, "of the kind of expertise Penn State can supply."

Back in the rainforest, where by old-fashioned ground surveying the important task of mapping property boundaries costs on the order of $540 per kilometer, Souza has worked on an alternative approach, combining the precise ground-based location data provided by hand-held global positioning systems (GPS) with refined overhead satellite images. In a related project, he is combining the data available on the existing official maps of Pará to produce a far richer composite map in a geographic information system (GIS).

"Working with GIS in Brazil is difficult," he says. "It's hard to get up-to-date, good data." The most current satellite images available are from 1991 and 1993, and existing imaging techniques, he explains, lack the resolution to pick up logging scars after three to four years. So Souza has learned how to incorporate spectral mixture analysis, a sophisticated new technique that can distinguish individual tree species by the distinctive quality of the light they reflect.

Essential for monitoring land use, good mapping is also key to addressing complicated land-use policy problems like fragmentation. The current protective legislation, as Uhl explains, states simply that 50 percent of any landholding in Amazonia must remain wooded. "The law says nothing about the size, shape, or distribution of that 50 percent." Yet Uhl's work on regeneration shows the size and spacing of remaining forest plots to be crucial factors in the ability of the forest to bounce back. Souza's project should culminate in a dynamic map that will clearly reflect this kind of inadequacy, and depict optimal zoning options for all land-use activities in Paragominas.

"The whole idea," Souza says, "is to show the government that it can be done."

High-quality information has an important, yet hitherto largely unexplored, role to play in guiding natural resource use in Amazonia." So wrote Uhl and IMAZON economist Oriana Almeida in 1994. In an extensive cost-benefit analysis she completed for the county of Paragominas, Almeida forecasts declines, in the near future, in economic returns from current non-sustainable land-use practices. She goes on to provide suggestions for economically and environmentally sustainable alternatives.

The question, however, remains: Will the local government of Paragominas actually use the information Almeida has generated when it plans the county's future?

It's a question that goes directly to the unorthodox role that IMAZON has chosen to play, as a research-oriented NGO in a region of intense partisan activism. The choice has not been without its doubters.

One afternoon, in the welcome shade of a large open pavilion on the campus of the state university at Belém, I spoke with the geographer Toby McGrath, who worked closely with Uhl during IMAZON's formative years. McGrath is a vibrant man, fluent and composed but with a touch of fire beneath; his father was an American diplomat in Brazil during the 1960s. He left IMAZON in 1992, soon after helping to found it. "One of my concerns," he told me, "was that IMAZON was based on a naive model of the policy process.

"As Chris sees it," he explained, "the problem is a lack of information. Once the government has the information, it will act wisely. To me, that's only a part of the problem."

McGrath, now on the faculty of Advanced Amazon Studies at the state university, continued: "If the government has information, will they use it? And if they don't, is it because they don't know how to use it, or because they don't care to? As in the U.S., planners plan, but decisions are made by politicians and bureaucrats. They call it fisiologico here – it's pork-barrel politics. Discourse is separate from action."

After leaving IMAZON, McGrath joined with scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute to set up another Amazonian NGO, called IPAM, which would bypass government contacts and focus more on grass-roots organizing and extension projects. "I believe it's necessary to work at many different levels," he said, "if you're interested in change."

In his work with the Tembé Indians, the long-time activist Plowden likewise faced a choice. In the spring of '96, he arranged to bring a Tembé tribesman to tour the U.S., to describe the plight of his people and raise money. His identification with the Indians is strong. When tensions erupted in the summer, Plowden, an accomplished photographer, wanted to get involved, to go to the disputed logging site and take pictures. Uhl advised him not to. "I told him he had seen that side with Greenpeace," Uhl remembers. "If he wanted to be on this side, as an objective researcher, he had to stay away." Plowden decided to remain focused on the ecology of copaiba; a lawyer affiliated with IMAZON is now examining the legal remedies available to the Tembé.

IMAZON's reputation for objectivity has drawn some criticism. "There is, or was, a perception on the left," said McGrath, "that IMAZON is not politically correct." But the same hard-won reputation has allowed IMAZON rare access, among NGOs, to Brazilian decisionmakers.

"At first," remembers IMAZON policy analyst Ana Cristina Barros, "people were not sure of our intentions. They wanted to know: OWho is paying you? Some big American company that wants to appropriate the Amazon?' Now we have a name."

That name came in handy on the day Barros took me to see Nilson Pinto de Oliveira, secretary of Pará's environmental ministry, in Belém. Barros, at 23, is a woman of formidable presence, her manner sure, her dark-eyed gaze direct and penetrating. As we climbed the wide polished stairs to the secretary's suite, everyone we passed stopped to greet her.

After half an hour's wait in the secretary's outer office, we were ushered in. Oliveira, a small man, dapper in starched white shirt and dark silk tie, bade us sit down. He is a geologist, and the former rector of the state university.

"Pará is a state very rich in natural resources," he began, in Portuguese. "The economy of the state is based on the exploitation of these resources, and has been for four centuries. The plan of the state is to change this. . . . But this will take time.

"With regard to logging," he acknowledged, "the problem is simple, because there are only two options: Learn how to use the forest, or lose our riches." He praised IMAZON's forestry work, and particularly a forestry manual that the institute has prepared for the logging industry. "This contribution is very important to us – showing the way to alternatives," he said. "This contribution is very positive." He paused.

"It was not easy for many people here to understand at first, to separate IMAZON from other NGOs, many of whom are very critical and only want to fight. But they learned, and today this distinction is clear. Last year, when we had to begin a project with the federal government and we needed consultants, we took people from the university, and people from IMAZON. It's a very unusual situation."

Barros nodded. Outside, after the interview, she offered a clarification. Most of the government's environmental projects are substantially funded by international agencies, she said. "Today these agencies ask for the participation of NGOs – it is specified in contracts. They trust NGOs."

It's a delicate balance. By tireless agitating, more conventional NGOs have brought the international pressure responsible for much of the progress that's been made against wanton deforestation. Yet, as McGrath acknowledges: "NGOs are not looked on positively by mainstream society here. They're seen as radical environmental organizations with outside funding and outside agendas."

Uhl, for his part, believes there's room in the Amazon – need, in fact – for many different approaches. "One of the things that convinced me, early on, that it would be good to create IMAZON," he says, "is that I think it's healthy to have a diversity of problem-solving models. "Prior to IMAZON, the only one was the federal model. Then came IMAZON, and then IPAM, with a different sort of culture and philosophy. And although it was a shock to them at first, I think this development is beginning to have a salubrious effect on federal institutions. In a way it's a comeuppance for them. We're setting high standards, challenging them to do what they're supposed to be doing."

Somewhat ironically, IMAZON, still following where the problem leads, may be moving toward a new, more activist, orientation. "In July," Uhl reports, "Beto [Verissimo] was invited to a G7 meeting in Germany." The G7 group, an alliance of the world's wealthiest nations, has established a well-publicized pilot project to promote sustainable initiatives in Amazonia. "This led us to do some thinking about what the next stage of the forestry project should be." The ensuing discussion resulted in a plan for promoting what Uhl calls community forestry.

At present, he explains, logging companies will descend on a particular locale, seeing the forest as something to exploit and then leave behind. They have no attachment to the land, and typically they can buy off those who do – the local caboclos, who have little knowledge of economic value. The best way to stop haphazard destruction, Uhl argues, is to impress the notion of value on the people who make the forest their home – to make them careful stewards of their own resources.

According to an institute proposal, "The creation of a network of community-managed Oworking forests' might stabilize the Amazon frontier more effectively than any other measure. These working forests could become buffers against the further advance of deforestation and provide badly needed models for forest-based economies." As an added benefit, the riverine communities likely to be first preserved are the home of most of the region's biodiversity.

"You have come at an interesting time," Verissimo told me. "IMAZON is entering a new phase. We're moving into more difficult territory, taking a more external role.

"We have new people coming in, and others leaving," he added. "It's good to have that balance. The new people bring new ideas, they spur us along. And the ones who leave. . . . One former colleague now works at the World Bank. Three years from now, some of us, I think, will be working in government."

Others will not. "If I quit IMAZON," Ana Cristina Barros told me, "it will be to build another non-governmental organization like it. Maybe we will need a political NGO, or one that makes the link between researchers and the media. We need to fill these gaps. We will probably need more NGOs to do it."

On my last day in Brazil, Uhl suggested a trip to Mosquiero, a popular Amazon beach. The afternoon sun was hot, but under the shade of palm trees, the breeze was pleasant. Beyond the broad expanse of silty sand, the river in its delta lay shimmering like an ocean; the far-off shore of Marajo Island seemed an illusion.

That night the people of IMAZON gathered to celebrate the festival of Juniho, a commemoration of the corn harvest: Verissimo's house in Ananindeua was the site for a night of delicious corn-based food (shrimp and corn chowder, rich corn pudding, spicy corn breads) and the matchless verve of samba music. A small bonfire blazed in the street in front of the house, in honor of St. John, whose feast day it was. Bright ribbons and banners festooned the space that had been converted to an open-air dance floor. At the evening's height, the young Brazilians exuberantly danced the quadrille, a rousing and elaborate South American cousin of the square dance, and Uhl joined in with relish.

Four hours later, at 4:30 a.m., he and I were folded, with baggage, into the white IMAZON Beetle, heading for the airport. He would drop me off, and use the return trip to fetch a new graduate student arriving on the red-eye from Brasília.

For once, Uhl looked a little bleary. His hair was askew. By the time he got back to Ananindeua, he acknowledged with a rueful grin, it would be too hot to sleep. Despite the hour, however, Belém's perpetual traffic had not dissipated. The roadside markets, lit with strings of white bulbs, were crowded with people.

I thought about something Uhl had said at the beach, about how he and his wife, a social-services administrator, had talked about coming back to Belém to live, once their kids had grown, to work together in their separate ways against some of the Amazon's many problems. "Pick any field you want," he had said. "There's so much to do."

I thought about those two forest plots outside Paragominas and how well they stood for the two possibilities for Pará's future, and, by extension, the future of Amazonia: the one plot, ravaged and unrecognizable, the other relatively unscathed. What would it take to move from the "default" model, as Uhl identifies it in a report to the Ford Foundation, to the sustainable alternative?

The answer, here on the ground, is a daunting combination of clarity and constancy of vision mixed with hard and unglamorous work, and a willingness to cross disciplinary borders, to set the focus outward, instead of in. These, and a fierce resolve against discouragement.

As we look at the prospects, Uhl writes, it is important not to be overwhelmed or defeated by the current prognosis. Indeed, deforestation continues, resources are still used wastefully, and urban migration and poverty are growing. But this does not have to be the Amazonia of tomorrow.

We putted along, dodging buracos, and I thought of something else I had heard Uhl say, to a large group of graduate students, during a lecture he'd given back in the States some months earlier:

"I'm a lot less pessimistic about the future of the Amazon than I was 10 years ago when I first went down there."

If you are, I thought, as we passed through the outskirts of the pre-dawn city, then so am I.

Christopher F. Uhl, Ph.D., is associate professor of biology in the Eberly College of Science, 208 Mueller Laboratory, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-3893.

Uhl co-founded IMAZON, the Amazon Institute for Man and the Environment in 1990, with funding from the MacArthur Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the World Wildlife Fund. In addition, Uhl has received fellowships from the Fulbright Program, the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

In 1995, Uhl returned to full-time status on the biology faculty at Penn State; his current role at IMAZON is scientific adviser to the Institute's Brazilian directors, Adalberto Verissimo and Paulo Amaral.

Last Updated May 01, 1997