Humanity is exalted not because we are so far above other living creatures, but because knowing them well elevates the very concept of life. E.O. Wilson, 1984

26 Nov 2014

A model of things to come

Any attempts to unravel nature’s complex web face challenges, and in the 5 months since my last post, I have faced my fare share. In aiming to understand Amazon forest floor ant community structure, I have dug 460 pitfall traps, sieved through 360m2 of leaf litter, and sorted around 30, 000 insect samples, two thirds of which were ants. These ants were sorted to morpho-species level and around 3000 were mounted onto pins for determination, resulting in a collection of roughly 250 species. Needless to say I have been busy, and needing a break from the microscope.
But when muddying waters, you cannot help but wait to see what is revealed when things fall back into place. I have glimpsed the complex world of insects within tropical forests, but I still have little insight into how these incredible pools of diversity come together to provide the functions necessary to keep the cogs of the world’s most biodiverse regions turning. Any attempt to do so requires a brave step towards whole systems analysis, steps already undertaken by fellow researchers across the world. The SAFE project in Borneo in addition to the DIADEMA programme in French Guiana are collating the work of big teams of researchers to attempt to understand the responses of biodiversity function and structuring against the twin threats of habitat destruction and climate change.
Others are using novel ways to explore nature’s machinations, through the use of model systems. Rather than stretching often thin resources, scientists can focus their efforts on small discrete ecosystems which can reveal the forces shaping natural communities at all scales. The Srivastava lab at the University of British Columbia, and EcoFog in French Guiana use epiphytes as models to explore environmental variation on food web structure, and over the coming months, inspired by their work I hope to do the same. I am about to embark on an incredibly exciting PhD project, which will enable me to push my boundaries, and hopefully those of others too!

10 Jan 2014

Dispatches from Amazonia: 6. Brazil’s Dam Nation

Across the blue sphere of the southern hemisphere, nestled amongst the stars, the motto of 200 million proclaims "Ordem e Progresso". The hopes and dreams of an emerging economy, a GDP increase each year of 5%, almost immune to banking banalities, where former President Lula’s Bolsa Famillia has burgeoned the growing middle classes through education, medication and according to some, monetary sedation. Unlike Europe’s prevailing cynicism, Brazil is abuzz with industrial construction, roads extending to endless horizons, home spun money making business, each and all proving fruitful. But behind the financial façade, unrepentant consumption is posing consequences on social order, leading to civil unrest. The wealth divide is felt the most in unaddressed areas of the country, in particular Amerindian communities, whose world view is unaligned with that of government order and progress.

The Dam at Petit Saut
The clash of cultures is no better represented than at a hairpin bend in the river Xingu, one of the confluences of the great river Amazonas. Here, in the name of clean energy, the government is constructing the world’s third largest hydro-electric complex, which along with 200 other smaller projects makes the country the biggest producer of hydro-electricity globally. Comprising a huge dam at Belo Monte, a reservoir at Paquicamba, and a connecting canal, this megalithic construction will divert the waters of Xingu in order to collect 11,000 megawatts, enough to power 23 million homes. In Belem, at the marine mouth of the river, I met an engineer working on the project, who was almost buzzing with pride as he showed me the pictures of the site on his smartphone. The images were difficult to comprehend; walls of concrete, turbines the size of houses, and clear-cut spaces where forest once stood. Here was a Brazilian exalting on the strength of his country, its ingenuity and resourcefulness, a vision I could not share but certainly could envy.

In terms of natural order, this project is nothing short of a catastrophe. I had already seen the effects of flooding forest in Guiana, where I had flown over the Petit Saut reservoir, upon returning from a field mission by helicopter. An eerie but beautiful landscape of dead tree trunks reaching from newly arrived waters. My work in Amazonia has given me a new sense of perspective in the scale of the forest’s vitality, where I would collect over 300 invertebrates in 1m2 of leaf litter (and who knows how many microorganisms). At Belo Monte, 450km2 of land will be swept under the waters. Biologists working at the site are apparently to trap and relocate as many animals as possible, a scheme which seems both naïve and futile, but also ignorant of the functional relationship that an organism has with its habitat. In addition, the damming of the river will have an impact over an area much larger than the flooded forest. In an ecosystem where life process is shaped by the ebb and flow of the river, the rise in the wet season, the fall in the dry, to remove this seasonality is to herald an era of extinction.

Flooded Forest at Petit Saut, French Guiana
From a human perspective, saddest of all is the displacement of indigenous inhabitants of the forests, such as the Jurunda, numbering around 12,000 according to IBAMA, Brazil’s environment agency. Further up the river at Santarem, I spoke with an anthropologist who explained that for the Amerindians of Amazonia, where each living organism harbours a spirit, the loss of forest is a violation of the supernatural order. But the loss of territories kept by the population since the first humans spread down through America around 15,000 years ago, or since time immemorial depending on your perception of reality, is a grave crime, where vulgar discussions of monetary compensation and civilizing progress only act to rub salt in the wounds. Brazil, it seems, is a country painting its future with broad brush strokes, but which desperately needs to consider the finer details if the blazing optimism can be sheltered from coming defeat.