Our Brazilian Expedition – investigating the plight of shorebirds and rural people
We leave a cold and dark NJ with mix feelings for our destination tropical Brazil. It will be warm and sunnyish – forecasts predict drenching thunderstorms threatening us every day of our trip. We will explore a very new place, the ocean coast of Para, a largely unsurveyed coast known to be a wintering shorebird mecca. At the same time, we will undergo trials experienced by few biologists. Zeke is prevalent in Para, but recent cases of malaria are equally alarming. Of course one must be ever vigilant for food and water pathogens. Last year I developed food poisoning ending up in a rural hospital, with a room full of very sick people. On arrival, I wondered what comes next?
The contrast of poverty and the truly wild jars a Jersey biologists sensibility. People don’t fall into poverty here because it’s the common condition. Poor sanitation, terrible roads, nearly non-existing law enforcement plague those who live in coastal Brazil. The economic crisis and the ever-expanding corruption scandal in the federal government rob people of hope in the future and anchor them to a life of poor education, abysmal wages and widespread filth. In the cities, the water churns with rubbish and contamination is ubiquitous.
Yet few people populate the ocean coast areas we will survey. There, the sea teams with fish and shellfish beyond measure. Walking through a fish market is like going to a fish museum for all the species, exotic and common. Hundreds of small villages, most with only occasional power, perch precariously on the edge of this wonderful and largely uncontaminated sea or nestled deep in a vast Mangrove forest, one of the largest in the world. In many ways its a biologists wonderland.
Only a few hundred miles away snakes the many channels of the Amazon river and surrounding it lies one of the world’s last great tropical forests. It’s the home of one of the great battle grounds of environmentalism, where wealthy families and thier henchmen, cut away valuable timber for cattle ranching, destroying carbon capturing and oxygen producing trees. At the same time they wreck the livelihoods of native people who eke out a bare existence from rubber, nuts and the diverse wildlife that share the forest with them.
Our new goverement will probably undermine the Brazilians efforts to save the forest. Actually our government could learn from the Brazilians. They have created a novel conservation system, one unknown to us in the US.
They call them extractive reserves. The federal agency in charge, ICMBio, struggles to save these reserves, not for tourists or rich residents, as we do in NJ, but for the people who live within. They stop the ranchers from destroying the forest. Using real time imagery, they remotely sense illegal forest cuts and new precious material mines. They then deploy teams to stop the cutting or destroy the mine. In the same way, ICMBio can stop the international fishing fleets from decimating the fishery that lie within the territorial waters of Para. They can legally stop it because of the extractive reserve regulations.
Staff of ICMBio and other natural resource agencies like CEMAVE ,die every year doing their job. One just recently in the state of Para, not far from our destination.
Our project aims to help. Our team, sponsored by Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ with funds from the Neotropical Migratory Bird Conservation Act, will survey birds, measure habitat and ultimately map this coast with state-of-the-art GIS system developed by Rutgers Center for Remote Sensing and Spatial Analysis. We intend to provide ICMBio staff with GIS tools better than are available to us in the US.
So over the next three weeks, we will be reporting on our research investigation. We will also explore the threats to the Extractive Reserves in our study area, everything from disturbance to shrimp farms.
For my part, however, I will also investigate if this system captures best the conservation envisaged by most religious leaders including Pope Francis. Despite the political rhetoric of the old politicians that fill our media, most of the world’s religions have spoken openly supporting climate change action. They envisage an “integral ecology”, in the word of Francis, a union of the need to heal the earth and the plight of the poor. Even Southern Baptist have adopted this position that the impact of climate change falls on the poor. This is true in Brazil as it is in Delaware Bay. Perhaps in Brazil lies a better way.