The ragged army of Haitian, Senegalese, Nigerian and Bangladeshi refugees sweltering in their temporary shelters in the small Brazilian border town of Brasileia, provides a stark and poignant reminder of the chaotic and unsustainable occupation now threatening Brazil’s Amazon basin.
While scientists and climatologists probe the rainforest’s more esoteric mysteries and conservationists seek to protect its still-pristine areas, the Amazon has become the stage for a chaotic and sordid people crisis sparked by wars, disasters and degradation half a world away. You can read excellent reports from the BBC about this unseen tragedy by clicking here and here.
On a wider scale, social misery and human degradation not only make mockery of attempts to preserve the Amazon – they actively contribute to its devastation.
Since 2010 the state of Acre, which forms Brazil’s border with Bolivia, has been the entry point for tens of thousands of refugees, including 5,000 Haitians, all seeking a better economic future. At the high point of the influx 1,700 migrants a week were reaching Brazil.
They are brought across from Bolivia and Peru by people smugglers after the long journey from Port-au-Prince via Panama and Ecuador. Not all of them are destined to reach the southern cities of São Paulo or Rio where they hope to find work, for the difficulties that state and federal officials have had in dealing with these immigrants compound the region’s growing problems.
Brasileia, a town of 20,000 located not far from Xapuri, made famous as the birthplace of conservationist Chico Mendes, forms a typical snapshot of Amazonia’s disordered urban development. Had it not experienced the influx of Haitians, Brasileia would still have been in as much trouble as dozens of other Amazonians towns.
Further from the frontier the migration is internal, as traditional “ribeirinho” peoples dwelling the várzea floodplains abandon the forest and move to towns in search of education, health services and employment.
Over the last decade the pace of migration and chaotic urban sprawl with its resulting pollution and environmental degradation, has accelerated. Now this has alerted international organizations such as the Belmont Forum, which coordinates the financing of global efforts to slow climate change. Rather than protecting Amazonia’s trees, scientists and social scientists are studying how to protect its people. This they hope, will eventually help protect the trees.
During a recent conference on Brazil-US cooperation in Amazonia held at Washington’s Woodrow Wilson Center, scientists from both countries presented research on socio-economic trends in the region, as well as data on the role the Amazon plays in regulating global climate change. You can read a report on the conference by clicking here.
Sandra Maria Fonseca da Costa, from the University of the Vale do Paraíba (Univap), and Eduardo Brondizio, from Indiana University in the US, told the FAPESP-U.S. Collaborative Research on the Amazon seminar that remote rural populations of “ribeirinhos” are forced to treat neighbouring towns and cities (up to 100km away) as distribution points for needed government services including education, health and social programs.
To survive there, they need to build shanties or shacks – often constructed on stilts right over the water. Filled with untreated sewage, these waters also provide water for drinking, washing and cooking. The populations of these small towns are growing at an “absurd pace,” warned Sandra Maria Fonseca da Costa. In the absence of clear public policies or the capacity of local governments to deal with influx, conservation initiatives are doomed.
For this reason, Costa told the Washington conference that it could soon become necessary to monitor and advise settlers, if not to control them – in order to guarantee minimum living standards.
Costa, who completed her PhD in 2007 under Brondizio’s orientation and received project funding from FAPESP, used as her case study the town of Ponta de Pedras on Marajó island at the mouth of the Amazon. Now her work will, with support from the Belmont Forum, be amplified to cover another 50 towns in the Amazon delta. Larger towns with an industrial presence including Barcarena (Pará state) and Mazagão (Amapá) will be included in the study.
Although the chaotic pace of urban degradation is breaking out all over Amazonia, the first efforts will be focused on the region around the Amazon’s mouth, because this fits into a global study of ecologically vulnerable river deltas already supported by the Belmont Forum.
The methodology includes satellite mapping, remote sensing, polling and questionnaires, all designed to build up a comprehensive socio-economic picture of the settlers and their movements.
Brazil’s seat-holder in the Belmont Forum is not the federal government but the São Paulo Research Foundation (FAPESP), the country’s leading region scientific research funding agency. The Belmont Forum and FAPESP are sponsoring a widening program of research through their joint agreement. As well as sponsoring the seminar in Washington, FAPESP also financed Costa’s Amazon research.
Portuguese speakers can read a detailed article on this topic by Brazilian journalist Karina Toledo by clicking here.