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Professor receives grant to study deforestation in Amazon

July 24, 2012

As the dengue virus worked through Stephen Aldrich's blood stream, he felt feverish and nauseous. His body ached.

"That was kind of a bummer," the Indiana State University professor said of getting sick on his first trip to the Amazon.

More than a mosquito bite infected Aldrich on that trip to Brazil. Along with catching dengue, he also caught a bug for the place that continues to be the focus of his research today.

Aldrich, assistant professor of geography in the department of earth and environmental systems, and a team of researchers recently received a more than $157,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to expand his doctoral research on land conflicts affecting the deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil. Of the total, more than $83,000 is marked for ISU.

As a doctoral student, Aldrich spent three years conducting fieldwork in Marabá, Brazil, a town he likened to the Wild West. In that area 80 percent of cleared land had been devoted to cattle ranching, which the government encouraged through subsidies.

A unique combination of dispossessed rural poor, large landholders and a quirky Brazilian Constitution coalesced to become a danger to the Amazon forests. For many years people eked out livings through sustenance farming, including the collection of first rubber then Brazil nuts from trees growing on public lands in the Amazonian forests. When government officials decided to lease large tracts of the previously public land, wealthy landowners took possession of what had been a communal resource and forced the farmers off the land. The subsistence farmers became known as the landless, the dispossessed. However a quirk in the Brazilian Constitution of 1988 allowed land to be taken away from a large land owner if the owner fails to manage it or the social good.

"The social movements would make a strong argument that it wasn't a strong producer," Aldrich said.

The landless began moving onto the private land claiming the owner failed to use it for public good. While it has led to violent clashes between the wealthy landowners and the landless, it also has led to further deforestation as both sides rush to remove trees to show they are using the land.

In his doctoral research, Aldrich found that for every conflict between large land owners and the poor removed from the land, that the Amazon would lose about 60 acres of forest.

"That doesn't sound like a lot, but that's per event," he said.

Through researching newspaper records in Marabá, Aldrich found 5,000 articles reporting on conflicts between property owners and groups moving onto property.

With the NSF grant, Aldrich plans to extend his analysis to look at whether the landless or land owners deforest the most land. He and the team, which includes Cynthia Simmons an associate professor of geography at Michigan State University and Eugenio Arima an assistant professor of geography at the University of Texas-Austin, also plan to evaluate the landscape ecology, where the patches of remaining forest are and if they're connected to each other.

"The goal of the NSF proposal is to take the analysis and really push it to see how people make decisions about property," he said.

The deforestation of the Amazon has become an important issue globally since it is known as the earth's lungs as it works to remove carbon dioxide from the air. With fewer and fewer acres of trees to clear air, the deforestation contributes to global warming. The Amazon also provides a home to a stunning diversity of plants and animals, many of which helped humans derive various medications.

"We derive a lot of benefits, some we see daily and some more abstractly," Aldrich said. "We will look at all sorts of things and learn why people make the environmental decisions that they do."

Photos:http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Brazil/i-NNk2wFv/0/L/Brazil-2007-249-L.jpgStephen Aldrich rides a boat cruising down the main channel of the Amazon River in Brazil. Courtesy photo

http://isuphoto.smugmug.com/Other/Media-Services/Brazil/i-xwtH6t8/0/L/P1010141-L.jpgStephen Aldrich traveling in the Amazon of Brazil. Courtesy photo

Contact: Stephen Aldrich, Indiana State University, assistant professor of geography, 812-237-2258 or stephen.aldrich@indstate.edu

Writer: Jennifer Sicking, Indiana State University, associate director of media relations, at 812-237-7972 or jennifer.sicking@indstate.edu