Sunday, October 30, 2022

Paving Paradise

During my first or second visit to Brazil -- it would have been 1996 or 2000 -- I remember starting a little debate among a small group of students and faculty in Porto Velho by asking a simple (it seemed) question: "Can a person drive from here to Manaus?" which is about 600 miles to the northeast. 

Half of the people present said yes, because you could take BR-319. The other said it was impossible, because that highway exists "only on the map." Both answers were correct in their own way. Two decades later, Google Maps is not ambivalent at all: get started before breakfast and you could be there by bedtime.

Just take the highway: Google Maps

The reason for the debate, of course, is that roads paved in the Amazon do not remain paved for long. Often carved into an undulating terrain with almost no surveying ahead of construction, steep slopes, poorly structured clayey soils and extremely heavy rainfall make pavement little better than gauze over time.

This all came to mind today, as I listened to a report on the paving of this very road by John Otis on NPR. The condition of this road is of international interest as the presidency of Brazil is being decided in a run-off election today. As Otis suggests in his reporting, while the previous incumbent -- the once-and-future Luiz Inácio "Lula" da Silva -- has equivocated on the question, while the current incumbent -- Jair Bolsonaro -- is firmly committed to the repaving of BR-319. 

Where there are roads, there are cattle. Deforestation is directly proportional to road construction.
The web version of the reporting by John Otis includes several stunning photos by Bruno Kelly.

As with other aspects of national policy regarding the Amazon rain forest, the choice is between ineffective protection and very effective exploitation. Within an hour of my posting this story, we expect to which direction the voters of Brazil are taking. And within an hour or two of that, we will know whether the voters will be heeded, as Bolsonaro is hinting that he might ignore the results, as his friend to the north attempted on January 6, 2021.

Update: On November 5, NPR journalist Carrie Kahn detailed the outcome of the election I had been awaiting when writing the above. It took a few days, but Lula won and the incumbent eventually stopped contesting the win. Kahn's reporting describes that win and the importance of the Amazon among Lula's challenges. UPDATE: On November 16, Kahn reported on Lula's stunning appearance at the climate conference in Egypt, which he attended instead of the sitting president.

The last academic conference I attended before the Covid lockdown was in Porto Velho, where I was invited to speak on the acceleration of deforestation there. The conferees were interested in hearing my insider/outsider views. My talk was called Fogo, Política, Bife, y Soja -- Fire, Politics, Beef, and Soy -- because they are all connected.

Lagniappes

The story mentions Dr. Philip Fearnside, the first person I met in Brazil and still one of the forest's most ardent academic advocates.

About a week after posting this story, a geographer/librarian friend shared another story from the Amazon -- this an encouraging story of discovery in an area far from any roads, in the easternmost part of the rainforest. I introduced the story in Towering Emergent.

And finally -- I am going to make that trip between Manaus and Porto Velho in 2023, but I will not see the BR-219. I will be on a boat like this, as I originally intended to do in 1996. 

The photo is by the amazing Ocampo Fernandes, posted in the online group Rondônia, Minha Querida Rondônia.



Wednesday, October 19, 2022

Nowhere-ing a Bridge

Most of the Amazon Basin is flat, very flat. How flat? Flat enough that the Rio Solimões and Rio Negro flow languidly beside each other for about 30 miles past their confluence, in the famous Wedding of the Waters near Manaus.

The slope of Amazonian rivers is remarkably flat even hundreds of miles upstream, closer to headwaters areas, as I was reminded when trying to understand this pair of photographs, which I noticed this morning on the Rondônia, Minha Querida Rondônia page on Facebook. 



Group administrator Dacosta Dacosta shared these, with the caption "Ponte EFMM de Mutum Paraná, em duas épocas" (Madeira-Mamoré Railroad bridge at Mutum Paranà, in two different periods).

My first instinct was to look for the bridge on Google maps, based on the place name he used. There is an interesting difference between the map version and the satellite version of the map right now; the map has not caught up with this inundation, even though it seems to be more or less permanent.


Both images, Google Maps as accessed October 19, 2022

The main indication that this is a permanent flood -- indeed, an anticipated flood -- is that a causeway and  bridge were built for the BR-364 highway, where nothing more than a culvert is present on the map version.

 I assumed that this related to hydroelectric projects that were completed about a decade ago -- none were present during my first three visits to the area, but I did see the Santo Antâo dam when I returned in 2019. My master's thesis involved finding dams of various sizes on aerial photographs and satellite images, so I assumed searching the area of the lake that now contains Rio Cutia would be simple. I looked over this area, to no avail:

Back I went to Google. This time I searched for the Mutum Paraná and the word "usina" for hydroelectric plant. I remember the word from visiting and researching Usina Samuel on the Rio Candeias years ago. This led to an article about Usina Hidrelétrica de Jirau, which fortunately includes geographic coordinates --  9°15′51.8″ S, 64°38′30.8″ O. Realizing that O is for Oeste, I searched for this lat/long, changing the last character to W, and found the Jirau hydroelectric. 

Usina Jirau, Google Maps accessed on
October 19, 2022

Zooming out, I could see that this is nowhere near the inundation that first got my attention. In fact, it is about 60 kilometers (35 miles) downstream -- with many miles in between where the Madeira (the Amazon's longest tributary) seems to be within its normal banks.

The engineers who build the dam, however, know exactly how flat this land is, and they used Geographic Information Systems to figure out where the floods would be and what steps they would need to take in order to protect the BR364 highway as it passes over what was previously a trivial tributary, many miles from their main project.

Lagniappe

During my first visit to Rondônia (Brazil's 26th state) in 1996, I saw the first internet server while it was still in a shipping box. For years after, my (now outdated) Rondônia Web page was the only online English-language resource about the place. Now it is a place full of very connected people of all ages, and this particular Facebook group has almost as many members as the entire state did in 1960. This page is similar to many groups pages I find in U.S. communities, brimming with nostalgia.



Monday, October 10, 2022

The "Crying Indian" Ad

 Anybody who was watching U.S. television in 1970 and the following few years will remember the poignancy of this video, which was called Keep America Beautiful but was better known as the Crying Indian. It was released around the time of the first Earth Day. 

I do remember learning much later that the actor was not Native American: he was Italian-American Iron Eyes Cody (1904-1999). Still, I thought, the video was well-intended, and it did cause people -- at least some people -- to think about our place in the environment. 

It was not until I started looking for the video for this year's Indigenous Peoples Day that I learned the insidious background of the story. Writing for the Chicago Tribune in 2017, journalist Finis Dunaway argues that the ad fooled the environmental movement by shifting attention -- and thereby responsibility for pollution away from manufacturers and toward individuals. It was, Dunaway argues, part of a greenwashing campaign that ushered in an era of disposable packaging. Half a century later, we still struggle to develop sustainable waste-management strategies that actually existed prior to this ad.   

Writing for The Columbian (Vancouver, WA) in April of this year, journalist Greg Jayne offers a different perspective, insisting that the ad had a positive influence on a generation of young people.

Monday, October 03, 2022

Coffee & Volcanoes: Travel Course in Cabo Verde

Traveling May 2023 / Applications Due February 24, 2023

When I led my first Cabo Verde travel course in 2006, we spent all of our time on Santiago (which was fantastic) but we were not able to get to Fogo (which would have made a great trip even better). All these years later, we are finally doing it! Both islands will be part of my next travel course.

We are taking applications now for Geography of Coffee and Volcanoes in Cabo Verde. We will start on Santiago with an introduction to the country and its important role over five centuries connecting (in ways both terrible and wonderful) Africa, Europe, and the Americas. We will then fly to Fogo to learn about one of the world's smallest and most unusual coffee industries -- where the coffee is grown inside an active volcano. (Active means recently erupting, not currently erupting.)

This course is available for undergraduate or graduate credit (contact me directly if seeking the latter) and is open to BSU students as well as alumni, students at other universities, and other adults who want to have this learning experience. For BSU students, the class can count toward a major or minor in geography and toward minors in Cape Verdean studies, sustainability, or African studies. 

I use "we" above because this course results from deep collaboration with the Office of Study Abroad and the Pedro Pires Institute for Cape Verdean Studies. We will also be working closely with the University of Cabo Verde and the schools and municipal governments of the island of Fogo. Pre-departure meetings wil be both on campus in Bridgewater and via Zoom as I travel to Fogo for a coffee festival about a month before the trip itself.

Please apply now, using the following links.

Everybody can look at the program brochure for highlights of the trip. The $2,900 cost is the same for all participants, whether seeking credit or not. Also see syllabus for more details.

Current BSU students can apply by starting at the course application page. Please read it carefully!

People who are nod current BSU students needs to start by getting a Banner ID from the Take a Course page at the College of Continuing Studies.


This course will visit two of the Sotavento (Leeward) Islands.
See my Cabo Verde Basics post for introductory geography notes.


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