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.


University of Florida Department of Geography
The Navi-Gator

So many new and exciting things have happened…
Check out our amazing new grad lab in 1215!
Come visit us in the geography office– lounge around in reclining chairs and grab some new GeoGator merch. We have T-shirts and sweatshirts for sale, along with other complementary goodies.

Now Accepting Applications for 2019 Graduate Student Awards!
* Top Published Student Research Article
* Little Family Student Fellowship Award
* John & Fawn Dunkle Award for Graduate Student Travel
* Evan Coe Award in Medical Geography
* David L. Niddrie Excellence Fund
* Anderson Award for International Travel
Submissions are due by 5 pm on November 15th via email to Crystal: cwilmoth@ufl.edu with award name in the subject header [required

UF Researchers Lead future GIS Project in Ghana on Deforestation and City Growth
Funded by SERVIR!
A team from the University of Florida – including Geography’s Dr. Olivier Walther – has received funding from SERVIR, a joint venture between NASA and the U.S. Agency for International Development for their Linking Deforestation, Urbanization, and Agricultural Expansion for Land-Use Decisions in Ghana project. The team will use Geospatial Information System (GIS) tools to assess deforestation, urbanization, and agricultural expansion to improve land use planning in Ghana.

Upcoming: (Dates TBA)
Dr. Robert McCleery
Dr. Roberta Mendonça De Carvalho
Dr. Robert Walker
Ryan Good
Dr. Kim Valenta (October 3rd): The Mad Dog Initiative – Identifying and Mitigating Invasive Species Threats in Madagascar
Dr. Bo Yang (October 10th): Drone Mapping for Coastal Seagrass Monitoring and Citizen Science
Dr. Danielle Jake-Schoffman (October 16th): Technology-Based Interventions to Promote Physical Activity and Healthy Eating
Dr. Michael Gavin (October 24th): The Geography and Conservation of Biocultural Diversity
Dr. Seth Cavello (October 31st): Rust Belt Renaissance? The Experience of Refugees from Burma in Buffalo, NY

Kim Valenta (October 3rd): The Mad Dog Initiative – Identifying and Mitigating Invasive Species Threats in Madagascar
Dr. Bo Yang (October 10th): Drone Mapping for Coastal Seagrass Monitoring and Citizen Science
Dr. Danielle Jake-Schoffman (October 16th): Technology-Based Interventions to Promote Physical Activity and Healthy Eating
Dr. Michael Gavin (October 24th): The Geography and Conservation of Biocultural Diversity
Dr. Seth Cavello (October 31st): Rust Belt Renaissance? The Experience of Refugees from Burma in Buffalo, NY

Where Are they now?
Our recent grads have found themselves in some interesting places!
Chia Yu (Charles) Wu, class of 2019, graduated with his Doctorate in Geography. He is currently researching River-Coastal Science and Engineering as a postdoctoral fellow at Tulane University.

This week’s Geography Colloquium featured some of our current Masters students presenting their research in a poster session:












Megan Black presented Post-restoration analysis of bed morphology of the Lower Kissimmee River, Florida.












Michael Dillen presented Drivers of Rainfall Variability in the Upper Luangwa River Basin












James Martin presented Socioecological systems Analysis of Household Aesdes aegypti Risk in Huaquillas, Ecuador












Jeremy Reynolds presented Channel Bed Changes in the Lower Atchafalaya River and Wax Lake Outlet, LA, 1967-2006












Tyler Schaper presented Reconciling Spatial Discrepancies: A Case Study of Five Key Crops in Florida












Morgan Walker presented Ungulates use of locally infectious zones (LIZs) in a re-emerging anthrax risk area












Jiawen Zhang presented Integrating Multiple Transportation Modes into Measures of Spatial Food Accessibility

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.

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






ANTUNES, SIMMONS, WALKER, WAYLENScience in support of Amazonian conservation in the 21st century: the case of Brazil

Cynthia S. Simmons, Lisa Famolare, Marcia N. Macedo, Robert T. Walker, Michael T. Coe, Brett Scheffers, Eugenio Arima, Rafael Munoz-Carpena, Denis Valle, Clyde Fraisse, Paul Moorcroft, Marcelo Diniz, Marcia Diniz, Claudio Szlafsztein, Ritaumaria Pereira, Cesar Ruiz, Gilberto Rocha, Daniel Juhn, Luis Otávio do Canto Lopes, Michael Waylen, Aghane Antunes, Yankuic M Galvan

Article first published online: 14 NOV 2018 Biotropica

DOI: 10.1111/btp.12610

ABSTRACT: This article presents a 21st Century agenda for Amazonian conservation. The agenda calls for developing a system of refugia and a scientific methodology for predicting impacts of the infrastructure development vision for the region. It also calls for a collaborative approach to conservation planning, in the interest of fruitful engagement with decision-makers and stakeholders. The ideas explored here emerged from the collaboration of peers over a decade, which culminated in a panel presentation, Scientific Analysis, and Simulation Models to Support Conservation and Development Decision-Making, at the Tools and Strategies Workshop held at the University of Florida in October, 2017.

Read the full publication at Biotropica






Image courtesy Ms. Maira Irigaray Castro and Amazon Watch

One of Amazonia’s most pristine waterways, the Tapajós River, is under a development threat that holds implications for the entire basin. This threat stems from an infrastructure plan proposed by the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR), in coordination with complementary projects on the part of its 12 member states. UNASUR’s Initiative for the Integration of the Regional Infrastructure of South America (IIRSA) seeks to transform Amazonia into a multimodal transportation corridor and a source of hydropower. Critical to this transformation are projects in Brazil, which has recently built dams on the Xingu and Madeira rivers, with a combined capacity of ~18,000 megawatts. Although environmental resistance surfaced in both cases, it was insufficient to stop the bulldozers, electric shovels, and wheel excavators. The same cannot be said for the Tapajós River, where an indigenous people, the Munduruku, has slowed development. Our goal is to illuminate this asymmetrical conflict between the Brazilian State and this tribal group, in an effort to address the conservation challenges Amazonia faces in the 21st century. To accomplish this, we attempt to answer two questions. First, how significant is the development threat posed by IIRSA, to both the Tapajós Valley and the Amazon Basin? Second, do the Munduruku provide a possible conservation response to development processes set in motion by large-scale infrastructure projects? If environmental policy fails, does political resistance hold promise as a conservation strategy?



Figure 1 The infrastructure plan for the Tapajós Valley. Image courtesy Mr. Michael Waylen.

The Munduruku are Ready and Willing to Defend their Homeland. Image courtesy Ms. Maíra Irigaray Castro and Amazon Watch.

The Tapajós Valley. Image courtesy Dr. Robert Walker.

Munduruku Warriors Patrolling Their River. Image courtesy Ms. Maíra Irigaray Castro and Amazon Watch.

Waters to be Dredged and Channelized for Barge Traffic. Image courtesy Dr. Robert Walker.

Wild Waters on the Historical Chopping Block. Image courtesy Dr. Robert Walker.