By: Nick Santangelo

The Amazon is changing. With decades of coverage of deforestation, that might not exactly be breaking news. But what is relatively new is how and why it’s changing. While deforestation is still a critical issue, Indiana University Bloomington Distinguished Professor Eduardo S. Brondizio was recently on campus to speak to students about the region’s changing rural-urban interface.

In addition to his Amazon research, Dr. Brondizio is co-chairing the Global Assessment of Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services of the Intergovernmental Science Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services. The group’s 150 authors will soon produce the first comprehensive report on global biodiversity loss since 2005.

But when Dr. Brondizio spoke in Gladfelter Hall as a guest of the Center for Sustainable Communities, his focus was the Amazon. The professor said that, since WWII, changes have occurred so fast that just when researchers begin to understand them, things have changed again. 

Most recently, there has been an “explosion of infrastructure systems in the last 30 years.” That explosion has manifested itself in the form of new roads, cellular towers, dams, reserves, protected areas and more. Dr. Brondizio’s research has focused on understanding what has fueled these changes on the ground and what impact they’re having on South Americans living in the region.

“Understanding the region today requires us to understand the conditions of this process,” he told College of Liberal Arts (CLA) students Friday.

In pursuing that understanding, the professor found that the Amazon “very quickly” went from a purely regional market to a global market for small farmers in large part due to explosive demand for the acai berries they grow. The households in ownership of those farms came to realize that they had enough newfound power and money to organize themselves in social networks, lobby for their best interests and spread their influence from rural areas to cities.

“The city and the town started becoming part of the life of rural families,” explained Dr. Brondizio, who showed a series of charts displaying the region’s rapid urbanization since the ‘90s.

The new “high frequency of mobility” farming families were afforded allowed them to send family members—many of them women—to live in urban areas. There, they could better lobby for the families’ best interests while more easily finding meaningful work for female family members. 

But the region wasn’t entirely prepared for this reorganization of populations. Problems with crime, climate change, clean water and more became pronounced in many Amazonian cities. 

“The configuration of the regional landscape is now being shaped more strongly by the interconnection of the urban centers than before,” said Dr. Brondizio.

One CLA student asked what the relationship was like between those who remained on the farms and those who moved into the urban areas. Are the roles evolving? 

The professor said it changes depending on where you are in the Amazon. While some family members move back and forth from rural and urban areas, others take root in one place or the other. Interestingly, the advent of cell phones and the demands for social lives have heavily influenced this dynamic in some areas.

Because change comes faster than researchers can track it, Dr. Brondizio and his fellow researchers will include chapters on both what is expected to happen and what they think could happenin a best-case-scenario as part of a full assessment they’ll publish on May 6.

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