Into the Amazon

MSU professor embarks on journey to study deforestation in world’s largest rainforest


Snaking through the Amazon rainforest, the Transamazon Highway stretches 3,000 miles from the Atlantic coast to the Peruvian border. Officially known as BR-230, construction on the highway began in 1970 but never officially finished. Hundreds of miles of highway remains unpaved, and the last several miles are considered new frontier that largely has gone unexplored.

Until now.

Robert Walker, an MSU geography professor, departed Saturday on a two-week journey that will take him 700 miles down the Transamazon to study logging activities of natives of the rainforest. Traveling with him are Eugenio Arima, a former student of Walker’s and an assistant professor of environmental studies at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and Ritaumaria De Jesus Pereira, an MSU graduate student studying geography.

Robin Stremlow / The State News

“We don’t know anyone who’s traveled the whole road,” Walker said. “We don’t know what the towns will look like and we don’t know what the people are like.”

Keeping dangers such as this in mind, Walker and his counterparts are prepared for the long drive that will take them through the heart of the world’s largest rainforest.

A new frontier

The expedition’s purpose is to gather information on ecological changes in the area, specifically ones associated with the deforestation of the Amazon, Walker said.

“The loggers are the first people who open up the forest for economic activities,” he said. “They are the first to build in the first areas that are absolutely pristine. (We want to explore) how they open up a place, how do they decide where to build a road and the network of the road patterns.”

As the more isolated parts of the Amazon become more populated, information about the local population can help plan for the future of the area.

“The first wave of settlers in search of economic opportunities are arriving,” Arima said. “We believe that computer models used to predict future landscapes must reflect human behavior, and this is an excellent place to gather information to accomplish that.”

The unknown

There are five settlements along the highway, but their isolation from other areas has lead to them being widely unexplored.

“It’s kind of a mystery for people not in the area,” Pereira said. “In the raining season, it’s almost impossible to drive through it.”

The rain is only one of several hazards the forest holds for explorers. Rain can make mud thick and deep enough to strand cars on the roadside for days. It is Walker’s greatest concern for the trip, along with rickety wood bridges along the highway and the hantavirus, a flu-like virus that broke out when Walker was in the Amazon last summer and was 100 percent fatal at that time.

But the biggest concern for Arima is the nature of the trip itself.

“It’s the unknown,” Arima said. “In all our previous trips, we always brought someone who already had been in the area and had contacts and could introduce us to the local leadership. This time is different. We don’t know the region, the people we are going to meet and we don’t know what to expect.”

Lifelong interest

Walker is no stranger to the Amazon. In August 1991, prior to coming to MSU, he worked for the International Institute of Tropical Forestry with the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. There, he helped set up a program for social science research in the Amazon. It was the beginning of a fascination that has spanned two decades, Walker said.

Since his first trip, Walker has traversed thousands of miles across the Amazon on various highways and visits the Amazon area several times a year. But this expedition will lead him on the one part of the Transamazon he has yet to explore.

“It’s a bit of an overwhelming experience to see … the raw expanse of nature,” he said. “I felt like I needed to spend time to understand how humans were living in the forest and how they were changing it.”

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