Avoiding Amazonian Catastrophes – Prospects for Conservation in the 21st Century

Speaker: Dr. Robert Walker

Professor, Department of Geography, University of Florida

Thursday, March 14, 2019

2:50-3:50 PM (Period 8)

Turlington Hall Room 3018

University of Florida

All are welcome to attend.

New infrastructure threats confront the Amazon. Resulting development could push its forest past a “tipping point,” replacing it with tropical savanna. This would degrade biodiversity, reduce carbon storage, and harm continental agriculture. Environmental policy in Brazil has weakened over time. Luckily, indigenous peoples are capable of resisting development forces.

Image courtesy Ms. Roberta Mendonça De Carvalho

Amazons Within The Amazon – A Multiscale Assessment of Urbanization

Speaker: Dr. Roberta Mendonça De Carvalho

PhD Alumna, Department of Geography, University of Florida

Thursday, November 14, 2019

2:50-3:50 PM (Period 8)

Turlington Hall Room 3018

University of Florida

All are welcome to attend.

Urbanization in the Brazilian Amazon has reached 80%. This is a recent and rather intensive process. At the same we see population increase, we see the fortification of the hydropower system. But how and where this urbanization is reshaping the profile of the rainforest? And what is the role of hydropower in stimulating urbanization?


Image courtesy UT Austin’s Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies

GeoGator Dr. Cynthia Simmons joined colleagues at University of Texas, Austin’s Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies in a forum entitled Foro Urgente: “The Amazon Is Burning—Why It Should Matter to You”.

The recent surge in Amazon forest fires has sounded the international alarm, eliciting protests from European heads-of-state, scientists, Hollywood stars, and on social media. Under the administration of right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, the Brazilian government has scaled back environmental laws and enforcement capabilities, defiantly claiming Brazil’s sovereign right to extract the Amazon’s resources. This Foro Urgente brings together specialists in the history, geography, and political economy of tropical forests to reflect on the crisis in the Amazon, one of the most pressing contemporary environmental challenges.

Watch the video of the event here.

Image credit: CDC/ Prof. Frank Hadley Collins, Dir., Cntr. for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, Univ. of Notre Dame/James Gathany

GAINESVILLE – Blood sucking insects such as the Yellow fever mosquito, Aedes aegypti, are more than just a nuisance in Ecuador, they also spread diseases such as dengue fever, chikungunya and Zika. A warming world means that public health officials must decide where to direct surveillance and mosquito control efforts not only today, but also decades down the road given dramatic shifts in mosquito habitat that will take place thanks to climate change.

Ecuadorian agencies now have a powerful helping hand: a recent paper in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases provides detailed maps forecasting where mosquitoes – and diseases – are likely to be in a warmer future.

The new work from the University of Florida’s Quantitative Disease Ecology & Conservation Lab Group (QDEC Lab) and the Emerging Pathogens Institute assesses the current and future geographic distribution of Ae. aegypti throughout Ecuador. The study was led by PhD Candidate Ms. Cat Lippi and is the result of a long-term collaboration with SUNY Upstate Medical University and the Ecuadorian Ministry of Health. Lippi’s committee chair, EPI researcher and QDEC founder Dr. Sadie Ryan, also contributed to the project, as did EPI investigator Dr. Jason Blackburn.

The research team repurposed historic larval mosquito surveillance data collected by the Ministry of Health between 2000 and 2012 in Ecuadorian households to predict where Ae. aegypti may occur in areas that have not yet been surveyed. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes are important because they are a vector for several different mosquito-borne diseases and are able to reproduce in small quantities of standing water, making them common in urban settings. The research team used environmental and climate modeling to analyze how areas currently suitable for the mosquito may shift in the future as a result of climate change.

Maps A and E show mosquito distribution today while maps B-D and F-H show where mosquitoes can be predicted in the future given different climate change scenarios.

“We wanted to show the Ministry of Health in Ecuador where disease-carrying mosquitoes might occur in the future,” Lippi says. By analyzing the environmental and climactic characteristics associated with where mosquitoes occur in Ecuador today, the team extrapolated where mosquitoes may occur in 2050 under a range of climate change scenarios and used the presence of these mosquitoes as a proxy for where disease would occur.

The models show that Ae. aegypti are likely to expand their range into regions of transitional elevation along the Andes mountain range by midcentury. The expanded habitat includes the portion of mountainous area where valley floors give way to a mountain’s lower slopes. The higher reaches of the Andes famed peaks are expected to remain protected pockets that will still be too cool, even with extreme warming, for Ae. aegypti to survive. At the same time, changing climate will reduce the mosquito’s range in the eastern portion of the country’s Amazon.

“When there is a population that has never been exposed to pathogens like dengue or Zika, they don’t have any immunity, and that population will be vastly more susceptible to an acute outbreak,” Lippi says. “There are thousands of Ecuadorians who will be exposed to mosquitoes in the future who have never had to deal with them before.”

The team will share their results with the Ecuadorian Ministry of Health, which will use the data to prepare for the future. Previous work through the team’s collaboration with Ecuador’s Ministry of Health showed that local knowledge and attitudes are significantly associated with the risk of Ae. aegypti mosquitoes in households in Ecuador, although effects on actual dengue fever risk are less clear. Mosquito-borne diseases pose a serious threat to public health throughout Ecuador and Latin America, where dengue alone accounts for an estimated 16 million infections occurring in the Americas each year.

“Our work gives their health department good forewarning of where to focus their preparations to prevent future outbreaks, and this will help them to conserve limited resources,” Lippi says. Preparations may include educational campaigns on using insect repellent, and window and door screens, as well as how to safely store household water in covered containers. The government can also coordinate spraying efforts to reduce mosquito larvae in the environment.

“Of course we expect to see changes in habitat and species’ ranges due to future climate change,” Lippi says. “But what this study addresses is the question of where those changes will occur, and how severe those changes may be, all within the context of disease risk to people.”

Un nuevo estudio de la Universidad de Florida (Estados Unidos) sugiere que los mosquitos que transmiten enfermedades podrían infectar a poblaciones humanas en Los Andes ecuatorianos debido al cambio climático

Comunidades en Latino América tienen el desafío de reducir la exposición a mosquitos que transmiten enfermedades, como el Aedes aegypti. En Ecuador, este mosquito es más que una molestia. El Aedes aegypti trasmite víruses que causan enfermedades de alta consideración para la salud pública incluyendo dengue, chikungunya y Zika. Dónde el Ministerio de Salud Publica (MSP) podría enfocar los esfuerzos de vigilancia y control de estos mosquitos, hoy y en el futuro, tomando en cuenta el cambio climático?

Un nuevo estudio del grupo, Ecología de Enfermedades y Conservación Cuantitativa (QDEC), de la Universidad de Florida, analiza la distribución geográfica del Aedes aegypti a través de todo Ecuador. El proyecto fue dirigido por Cat Lippi, estudiante de PhD de QDEC, y es el resultado de una colaboración a largo plazo con la Universidad del Estado de New York y Universidad Médica de “Upstate” (SUNY UPSTATE) y el MSP del Ecuador. El equipo de investigadores usó datos históricos de vigilancia de mosquitos recolectados por el MSP para predecir lugares donde Aedes aegypti podría estar presente. Áreas que no se ha inspeccionado de una manera activa y áreas donde podría estar presente en el futuro bajo condiciones de cambio climático. Modelos de “nicho ecológico” fueron creados usando información sobre lugares con la presencia actual del moquito y con variables básicos del ambiente. Los modelos fueron desarrollados usando condiciones climatológicas actuales y futuras, hasta el año 2050.

Este estudio muestra que lugares con elevaciones intermedias a lo largo de Los Andes pueden convertirse en zonas mas asequibles para la presencia de Aedes aegypti en el año 2050. Este descubrimiento sugiere que la población que actualmente viven en estas zonas de transición puede correr el riesgo, en el futuro, de ser expuesto a enfermedades transmitidas por mosquitos, como resultado de cambio climático. Los autores reportan que aumentará la población con riesgo de exposición por más de 12,000 personas bajo los escenarios extremos de cambio climático. Al mismo tiempo, los investigadores identificaron áreas que pueden ser menos propicias para los mosquitos, como la cuenca de la Amazonia.

Actualmente, la mayor parte de las personas que viven en Los Andes están protegidos por las enfermedades transmitidos por mosquitos debido a las altas elevaciones, lo que produce un ambiente frio y no apto para los moquitos. En situaciones extremas de cambio climático, los mosquitos pueden invadir nuevas lugares con elevación de 900 metros más alto que los lugares en actuales condiciones climatológicas. “Las personas que vivan en esta zona de expansión de enfermedades pueden ser más susceptibles a futuros brotes de enfermedades debido a varios factores, incluyendo falta de inmunidad debido a exposición previa al patógeno y falta de conocimiento y costumbres asociados con la prevención de mosquitos y costumbres de protección personal, como el uso de repelente,” indica Lippi. Estudios previos en colaboración con el MSP del Ecuador mostraron que el conocimiento y actitudes de las poblaciones locales están asociados con el riesgo de la presencia de Aedes aegypti en hogares en Machala. Se recomienda estudios en estos nuevas áreas de futuro riesgo.

Las enfermedades transmitidas por mosquitos son una amenaza para la salud pública en toda Latinoamérica, donde dengue causa aproximadamente 16 millones de infecciones anualmente. Estudios como éstos enfatizan la importancia de incorporar la ciencia de “Geografía de la salud” dentro de los estándares de la práctica de la educación pública, proveyendo información más precisa a las agencias de salud pública para mejorar el uso de escasos recursos para el de control de estas enfermedades y para desarrollar intervenciones de control vectorial y de educación pública en lugares específicos.

Media contact: Mike Ryan Simonovich

GAINESVILLE, FL – Amazonian deforestation continues to concern the world community, especially as the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) begins to displace indigenous peoples and traditional communities. While the narrative surrounding the loss of Amazonian ecosystems is often framed as the penetration of capitalist relations into a resource frontier, research carried out by UF’s Dr. Cynthia Simmons and Dr. Robert Walker brings new evidence to light. With a case study of the Brazil Nut Forest (BNF) in the Lower Amazon Basin, they expose how the Brazilian Armed Forces hastened the process of “land creation” in helping develop an agricultural economy, destroying the forest as they waged a dirty war against poverty-stricken peasants and Maoist insurgents. The BNF once formed an integral part of Amazonia’s extractive economy by providing Brazil Nuts to the world market. Rapid conversion, initially driven by fiscal incentives and later by covert militarized assaults, reduced forest cover in the area from 97% in 1973 to less than 14% in 2009. Unless something is done to mitigate the process of “land creation” at basin scale now accelerating under IIRSA, Amazonian forest loss will desiccate the region, killing the economy now replacing the trees.

Destruction of the BNF provides insight into the development of Amazonia’s agricultural economy. The irony is that this economy, founded on the basis of a massive “land creation” process and fortified by the disciplinary force of Brazil’s military dictatorship, is now vulnerable to continued land creation, the likely result of IIRSA. Brazil’s continued push for economic development, coupled with increasing demands for Amazonian commodities, exacerbates deforestation rates given the need that more land be brought under production. But there is a limit to deforestation beyond which rainfall recycling breaks down, and with it Amazonia’s moist environment. Amazonian agriculture could be destroyed by its very success. The fate of the Amazon is even more uncertain in light of Brazil’s newly elected populist President, Jair Bolsonaro, who advocates a return of military rule. Mr. Bolsonaro has also made clear his intention to abolish environmental regulations, protected areas, and indigenous reserves to clear all obstacles to economic progress, and IIRSA conforms well with his vision for Amazonia’s future.

Discipline and Develop: Destruction of the Brazil Nut Forest in the Lower Amazon Basin” is published in The Annals of the American Association of Geographers. Funding for the research was provided by the National Science Foundation (Geography and Regional Science), the Inter American Foundation, the Latin American and Caribbean Environmental Economics Program, the University of Florida Department of Geography, and the University of Florida Center for Latin American Studies.

For more information, contact Dr. Cynthia Simmons at cssimmons@ufl.edu and Dr. Robert Walker at roberttwalker@ufl.edu.

UF Geography’s Dr. Robert Walker discusses indigenous rights, conservation, and global climate change in his latest piece in The Conversation:

Over the past 25 years that I have been conducting environmental research in the Amazon, I have witnessed the the ongoing destruction of the world’s biggest rainforest. Twenty percent of it has been deforested by now – an area larger than Texas.

I therefore grew hopeful when environmental policies began to take effect at the turn of the millennium, and the rate of deforestation dropped from nearly 11,000 square miles per year to less than 2,000 over the decade following 2004.

But a new political climate in Brazil, which set in even before President Jair Bolsonaro took office in January 2019, has led to a recent increase in the pace of rainforest felling. And Bolsonaro, a former army officer, made Amazonian development a core campaign pledge.

Read the whole story in The Conversation.

Associate Professor Dr. Cynthia Simmons and a team of international scholars – including UF Geography’s Dr. Robert Walker, Michael Waylen, and Aghane Antunes – present a strategy for achieving sustainable development in Amazonia, given global climate change and the massive infrastructure program planned for the region, in their latest paper Science in support of Amazonian conservation in the 21st century: the case of Brazil published in Biotropica, the journal of the Association of Tropical Biology and Conservation. The paper is featured on the front cover of the journal with a photo of Munduruku Women taken at gathering in July 2018 at Patawazal community in the Tapajos river valley, Para State, Brazil, taken by UF Geography doctoral student Ms. Maira Irigaray. On the banner is a greeting to participants “SAWE´! SAWE´! SAWE´!” a Munduruku battle cry signifying “We Are United, And Determined!” “The aim of the gathering was to empower and unite women and men of the tribe to defend their lands, life and culture, which today are in greater peril as Brazil’s President-elect, Jair Bolsonaro, vows to fast-track the large-scale mining and infrastructure plans they have been fighting years to stop,” said Dr. Simmons.

The fate of Amazonia is of great concern given its value as a global resource and the extent of its degradation to date. With nearly 20 percent of a pristine forest gone up in smoke, what happens in the 21st century will determine the fate of this last remaining tropical wilderness. The prognosis is not good, given the Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA), the cross-continental program of infrastructure development being undertaken by the South American nations. Recent declines in rates of deforestation have raised some hope that the Amazonian nations will be able to ensure the long-run integrity of the region’s ecosystems. The new infrastructure plans could reverse these promising trends. Land clearance for agricultural development may soon be overshadowed by forest die-back associated with global climate change. While infrastructure development will likely bring economic opportunity to the residents of Amazonia, the growth it stimulates will surely generate substantial environmental impacts and strenuous efforts will be required to conserve it for future generations.

The paper sheds light on the massive scale and integrated blueprint design of IIRSA’s transcontinental plan, which synchronizes municipal, state, and national level road and rail projects, with national hydro-electric dam projects that serve the dual purposes to generate energy required for electricity intensive industrialization and make navigable the main tributaries of the Amazon through locks and reservoirs coupled with rock demolition, dredging, and channelization. It clearly illustrates the looming threat from infrastructure plans with a focus on the Tapajos Valley, Para State, where projects will dissect the Munuduruku homelands and transform the entire basin to make way for the Mississippi of South America, Brazil’s ultimate goal to spur the economy. “Readers will be surprised by the magnitude of this integrated plan, and worried when they contemplate the potential cumulative and synergistic impacts that will surely have dire consequences for the environment and the region’s populations,” explained Dr. Simmons.

The paper articulates an approach to conservation based on decades of transdisciplinary research and collaboration among the team of scientists that envisions organizing Amazonia’s protected areas into a basin-scale System of Refugia (SR), capable of maintaining biodiversity and ecosystem services in the face of climate change. It also presents a coordinated program of interdisciplinary research capable of simulating Amazonia’s coupled natural and human systems and assessing the social and environmental impacts from IIRSA. Thus it provides essential information for planners and policy makers to select more sustainable alternatives, and it could serve as an early warning system for communities and environments at risk.

For more information, contact Dr. Cynthia Simmons. The full article is available at Biotropica.

ANTUNES, SIMMONS, WALKER, WAYLEN – Discipline and Develop: Destruction of the Brazil Nut Forest in the Lower Amazon Basin

Cynthia S. Simmons, Robert Walker, Stephen Aldrich, Eugenio Arima, Ritaumaria Pereira, Edna Maria Ramos de Castro, Fernando Michelotti, Michael Waylen, & Aghane Antunes

Article first published online: 20 DEC 2018 The Annals of the American Association of Geographers

DOI: 10.1080/24694452.2018.1489215

ABSTRACT: This article considers Amazonian environmental change by focusing on political and economic processes in a place-specific context with far-reaching global implications. In particular, we consider the destruction of the Brazil nut forest (BNF) in the lower basin. The Brazil nut tree yields a valuable nontimber forest product, and its loss raises concerns about Amazonia’s agro-ecological sustainability. The article posits the destruction of the BNF as an outcome of land creation, the transformation of soil surfaces into a production factor for market-oriented agriculture. Land creation in the lower basin sparked violent conflict, with the destruction of the BNF as collateral damage. Our account complements earlier research on the political economy of Amazonian development by providing an update tuned to the institutional and economic changes that have led to the region’s engagement with globalized beef markets and to the transformative impact on implicated actors (i.e., peasant, capital, and the state). In addition, the article uses the BNF case to consider current threats to Amazonia. In Brazil, deforestation rates declined after the turn of the millennium, due to environmental policy. Recent numbers show deforestation on the rise, however, as South American nations fast-track large infrastructure projects to transform Amazonia into a transport hub and a continental source of hydropower. The article questions whether Brazil’s environmental policies will sustain the Amazonian forest over the long run; the BNF disappeared despite efforts at conservation buttressed by legislative action. The article uses data from surveys, remote sensing, regional newspapers, and secondary sources based on declassified documents from Brazil’s Armed Forces, the National Truth Commission, and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Read the full publication at The Annals of the American Association of Geographers