Many people like to take adventurous road trips, but few match the journey of Robert Walker, a geography professor at Michigan State University who recently returned from a drive through the Amazon forest.
Walker and Eugenio Arima, a doctoral student at Michigan State, drove along the TransAmazonian Highway deep into the heart of the Brazilian Amazon forest. Along the way, they visited gold mines and indigenous Kayapó villages, and observed the effects of logging and settlement.
Walker and Arima drove from Santarém, Brazil westward to Labrea into the world's largest tropical rainforest in order to study first hand the causes of deforestation. Though the last five years have seen a dramatic reduction in logging, due to stronger government regulation and reduced demand in a sagging global economy, there are still many threats to the Amazon's long term survival.
As Walker and Arima traveled the Highway, they saw evidence of these threats, but also ways that human settlements can integrate themselves into the forest without destroying it.
By organizing how the forest is used, Walker points out that the Brazilian government can minimize the damage to the forest, and that maximizes the long-term benefits people get from the Amazon.
"If you have an orderly sort of fragmentation of the forest that maintains ecological productivity, that is, if you preserve a forest's spatial order in an intelligent manner, then species can migrate, whether they're animal or plant, and you maintain biodiversity for that reason," said Walker in a press release by the National Science Foundation, who funded the trip.
One of the most concrete examples of how government planning can preserve the Amazon is in organization of road construction. A well-planned grid of roads can preserve the forest much more than haphazard, meandering roads, concluded Walker.
A grid of roads forms a “fishbone” pattern on maps that allow wildlife corridors and reduce forest fragmentation. The meandering or “dendritic” roads can cut the forest into disconnected chunks and isolate wildlife in pockets.
"Fragmentation can be directed by government plan, as has been the case in colonization frontiers," explained Walker. "Then, logging occurs as part and a parcel of the land clearing process, and not as a rogue activity."
Historically, the Amazon may have supported large populations and urban centers. Early Spanish and Portuguese explorers and conquistadors noted that the Amazon River was lined with villages. Even today, people find patches of “dark earth,” the remains of enriched agricultural fields used by the native peoples in antiquity.
“The prime global consequence of Amazonian deforestation is loss of the world's greatest repository of biodiversity," said Walker.
Many medicines, raw materials, and engineering designs originated in nature, so preserving biodiversity can mean preserving the source of future cures for diseases and solutions for mechanical problems.
"The forest also provides for significant carbon storage, and its conversion intensifies global warming. On a continental scale, loss of the Amazonian forest impacts climate with drier conditions," said Walker.
Walker's understanding of how human choices affect the Amazon came not from academia's ivory towers or from satellite maps, but from his long trek along the TransAmazonian Highway, and other trips through the Amazon, as Discovery News reported in July, 2010.
This time, his starting point was near the Xingu River.
"The Xingu River is a place that's quite amazing because it had been very difficult to have access. It had tribes that had opted to remain outside of Brazilian culture well into the 20th century," said Walker. "Our ostensible effort was to understand how loggers built penetration roads into this particular region, which is called Terra do Meio, is located just west of the Xingu River."
In this region, Walker and Arima visited the Kayapó, an indigenous group, and received a celebrity's welcome. At first, the Kayapo thought Walker was James Cameron, director of Avatar.
"Cameron had a statement that the Kayapó represented the best of native peoples, and that they had been an inspiration to him in his film ," explained Walker.
"It's very difficult to have an opportunity to encounter this particular tribe or any tribe now in the Amazon given there's been a lot of abuse since colonial times and before," Walker said.
"The Kayapó were very helpful because a lot of the logging that had occurred in the region occurred in their historic territories," he said.
Walker and Arima bid farewell to the Kayapó and drove further west. In a swampy region near Jacareacanga, they encounter a myriad of blue macaws.
"It was literally a macaw city. They had not seen many human beings so they started playing with us–they would fly and buzz us and they'd be literally 10 feet overhead," said Walker.
Trudging ever westward, the road-tripping researchers stumbled into a clandestine goldmine.
Walker found that nearly 60 percent of the miners suffered from malaria. “There's every imaginable form of commodity and human degradation. It was a rough place," he said.
Continuing on further west, Walker and Arima hit a waterlogged and swampy area where the only travelers on the road were maintenance crews. Afraid of jaguars, they slept nights in their car with the windows rolled up.
In the end, Walker never managed to interview any illegal loggers, but he hopes to return and try again. Hearing why illegal loggers do what they do in their own words, could help Walker and others understand their motives and find alternatives.
Many of the loggers are from impoverished families and are doing what they can to make a living in a harsh world.
"It's really important to remember that there's not just an environmental struggle here," said Walker. "There are battles on a personal level day-in and day-out by people who live here largely because of the brutal conditions of poverty that impact them."
IMAGE 1: Forest along the banks of the Rio Beni, a tributary of the Amazon River in northern Bolivia (Tim Wall).
IMAGE 2: Robert Walker and Eugenio Arima (NSF).
IMAGE 3: An example of "terra preta" or dark earth on the right, compared to regular Amazonian soil on the left. (Wikimedia Commons).
IMAGE 4: This map illustrates "fishbone" road patterns identified via satellite imagery, as well as deforested lands in Brazil. (NSF; Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazonia).
IMAGE 5: In this map the road network makes a spidery dendritic pattern (in yellow) that is accompanied by deforestation (in pink). (NSF; Instituto do Homem e Meio Ambiente da Amazonia).
IMAGE 6: A group dof Kayapo in Brazil. (Wikimedia Commons).
IMAGE 7: A family peels yucca in the Bolivian Amazon forest (Tim Wall).