In the Amazon – Hobart and William Smith Colleges \
The HWS Update

In the Amazon

Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies Eugenio Arima and Hobart student Matthew Wallace ’11 spent three weeks this summer in the Amazon, working on an educational documentary about environmental applications of geospatial technologies. The two looked at how the technologies (GIS, GPS, remote sensing) have been used in attempts to halt deforestation there. Arima received a grant from the National Science Foundation to support research into how such technologies are being used in environmental applications, as well as for the creation of an educational documentary on the “Paragominas Initiative.”

Paragominas County was developed in the 1960s when the government opened the first road connecting the northern Amazon to the south. From the mid-1980s to 1990s, Paragominas was the most important logging center in Brazil. The area also received many fiscal incentives for cattle ranching.

The last time Arima was in the county of Paragominas, it was during a logging boom and he recalls dust and smoke heavy in the air from the burning of the sawmills’ residue. Such intense logging and prolific cattle ranching had caused significant deforestation in the county.

On his return trip with Wallace this June, Arima says he was surprised at how much the county had changed in 10 years. “I was impressed by how much better it was – the clean streets, nice pedestrian lines, clearer air,” he says.

It was Paragominas’ turnaround efforts in the past two years that Arima and Wallace were there to document. In 2008, the county was one of 45 put on a government list indicating the amount of deforestation was too high causing economic setbacks. Banks, for example, would not lend money for any economic activity in those counties without proof of appropriate environmental licenses and documents.

“Rather than fight the legislation, Paragominas has a very progressive mayor who worked with the president of the cattle ranching association to get off the list – and do it the right way,” explains Arima.

Among the requirements for removal from the list was that at least 80 percent of a county’s private properties had to be georeferenced. Using satellite imagery and an outside environmental agency, the government could then look at individual properties and assess and assign responsibility for deforestation. Paragominas took the proactive approach against deforestation and to support the county’s economic growth; it implemented a “zero” deforestation policy and completed the geomapping of properties. It was removed from the list this year.

Arima and Wallace filmed the collection of GPS points and processing of geospatial data in the lab. They also interviewed a number of people involved in or impacted by the deforestation efforts, including the mayor of the municipality; long-time residents; the president of the cattle ranching association; secretary of the environment; and representatives from Imazon and The Nature Conservancy, NGOs that are supporting the initiative with the Brazilian government.

Eugino Arima

“Everyone knows the size of the rainforest,” says Wallace. “Trying to enforce against deforestation without this technology would be impossible.”

Wallace was responsible for researching the town’s efforts over the past two years, looking at the political and policy side of the situation and preparing the interviews (who was to be interviewed, what to ask). He then filmed both the background footage and the interviews, which Arima conducted in Portuguese.

Completion of the documentary will become Wallace’s Senior Integrative Experience (SIE) when he returns to Hobart this fall. Likely with the help of a media and society student, he will work on editing the documentary and creating a teaching tool for it. Wallace is also undertaking an internship with Jamie MaKinster, associate professor of education. Using some of the case studies from Brazil, they will teach high school teachers and students to use GIS systems.

“I’ve already gotten so much out of the experience, from education about the problem of deforestation in Brazil and what they’re trying to do about it to just being in South America for the first time and being immersed in the culture,” says Wallace.

Next summer, Arima hopes to employ the help of another student as he works to create the course, “Amazonian Development.” It will include online materials, video clips and hopefully footage of scientists in the field in the Amazon to show what they are doing there.

Wallace plans to purse environmental studies in graduate school, possibly looking at the policy side of environmental issues in the U.S. Since his trip this summer, however, he says he’s still considering all the possibilities in the field.

Photo: Wallace in the Amazon between documentary shoots.