Postcard from Abroad: Professor Chris Brown in Brazil

Chris Brown is a professor of environmental studies and geography

Campinas, São Paulo, Brazil – My family and I have been here in Brazil for six months now, and there are six months to go. I’m on sabbatical, supported by grants from Fulbright and the São Paulo Research Foundation.

I’ve been keeping in touch with colleagues and friends back at KU these months, and one of the most common things I say is how incredible the experience has been, both professionally and personally. I’m being hosted here by the Agricultural Engineering School of the State University of Campinas (UNICAMP). We are about two hours north of São Paulo. Choosing this place to spend my sabbatical was easy. I’ve been working with professors and students here and at Brazil’s federal agricultural research agency (Embrapa) for years now.

I’m part of a group of researchers interested in mapping changes in land use across vast areas of Brazil’s savanna and tropical forest biomes, using satellite imagery. We’ve been tracking land change in this country that has become in the last few decades one of the world’s major agricultural powerhouses, producing food for people, livestock, and cars. That’s right, cars.

Sugar cane processing
Truck after truck arrives with harvested sugar cane for processing at an ethanol plant in Brazil.

It’s no different than Kansas farmers growing corn that ends up in ethanol plants. Here, it’s all about producing sugar cane. The Brazilians get a lot more energy out of their sugarcane than we do out of our ethanol. Some studies show that we barely get any more energy out of corn than we spend producing it. Sugarcane, though, gives you about an 8 to 1 return, and in the quest for ever greater amounts of fuel for transportation, Brazil has greatly expanded the amount of agricultural land dedicated to sugar cane. Food production, though, has also increased during the same period, considering the country as a whole. The ethanol industry points to this fact as evidence of the minor impact sugar cane production is having on the land and on people. It’s a lot more complicated than that, and it’s my job as a geographer to tell the more complete story, often by looking at impacts at sub-national levels, such as the state or the county level.

When ethanol plants go into an area, they have a major impact in the immediate vicinity, since it’s most economical to bring in raw material from as close as possible. For family farmers or cattle ranchers in the area, the pressure from the plant can be intense. Plants often offer farmers and ranchers monthly payments to lease their land for sugar cane production. The steady monthly income is welcome, but some farmers may feel a deep sense of loss of their rural way of life. The landscape change can be drastic. Once a populated countryside, dotted with centers of economic and social activity, with production of a diversity of livestock and food crops becomes a monoculture, as far as the eye can see, of sugar cane. People who still live in these areas remark that they can get lost, since familiar landmarks in the landscape have given way to an endless, monotonous green of sugar cane.

Researchers from a number of fields, from anthropology and sociology, to hydrology and soil science, are studying the impacts of this land change. My colleagues and I in Brazil have an important role to play in this work, because we are working to map the landscape change across entire states where the sugar cane expansion has been most intense. Our resulting maps will be made available to the public via websites in Brazil and from our own Kansas Applied Remote Sensing Program of the Kansas Biological Survey. By extending what we know about mapping Kansas and US agriculture to Brazil, we hope to provide a piece of a more global picture of food and fuel production.

As I stop to reflect on our experience, my mind quickly takes me back over and over to how we all got here in Brazil, and what a central role KU has played in that over decades. I’m thinking way back, to the mid 1980s when I was an undergraduate working in Orley “Chip” Taylor’s lab in Haworth Hall, trying to figure out how we could detect genetic differences in honey bee populations using, in part, plastic containers we bought at Walmart. In between the tinkering in the lab, and long van rides to do our field experiments with bees near Emporia, our time was filled discussing all kinds of issues related to human impacts on the environment, especially deforestation in the tropics.

I earned my BA in Biology, under Chip’s mentorship, but thanks to our discussions, I realized my passion was to understand why people were cutting so much rainforest in the first place. I sought additional advice from the Charles Michener, KU’s world-renowned bee expert, who told me it sounded like it could help me to understand Latin America from a variety of disciplinary perspectives, so he sent me to talk to Charley Stansifer, then-director of the Center for Latin American Studies. Charley said I sounded like a geographer, introducing me to John Augelli in Lindley Hall. I got to take one of the last classes Augelli ever taught at KU, but the course convinced me that I needed to study geography for my PhD. There are still so many other steps along the way to Brazil, from a history class with Betsy Kuznesof, to Portuguese with Jon Vincent and Antonio Simões, and of course my fellow students, and my experience earning the PhD at UCLA. I’m flooded with the sense of gratitude for how my time at KU prepared me for being here in Brazil today.