Highroad to Amazon recovery

January 20, 1995

Three years ago the University of Sao Paulo announced that it planned to take over a model mining town on the Equator, and turn it into a research centre for Amazonian studies.

The company, ICOMI, which had mined manganese on the Serra do Navio for more than 40 years was closing down operations and offered USP its facilities, infrastructure and payment of expenses for the first year's maintenance to get the project properly installed.

Researchers, students and maintenance staff were to take over the workers' living quarters -- 517 modern houses, 60 separate visitors' lodges, a well-equipped hospital, a water purification station, sewage and garbage disposal facilities -- and prevent the settlement turning into a ghost town.

Serra do Navio in the northern State of Amap has fewer than 300,000 inhabitants on its 53,000 square miles. It is separated from the rest of Brazil by the Amazon river, so that it can be reached only by boat. It has practically no roads and much of its forest is untouched, making it "an open-air environmental laboratory".

But insurmountable financial and geographic/climatic obstacles have changed the scale of USP's project.

Aside from the maintenance of living facilities, the cost of installing and maintaining climate-controlled laboratories with sophisticated equipment proved to be unaffordable.

Moreover, students and professors had to be persuaded to settle for a semester or two, or more, in what was after all, even with television and air-conditioning, an equatorial wilderness.

Switching from the utopian to the feasible, USP has managed to salvage the original scope of its plan, and is focusing initially on three areas. First, on the trans-continental circulation of aerosols, part of an international programme seeking to show the worldwide circulation of carbon, sodium and solid particles. The research is headed by Paulo Artaxo, coordinator of the air pollution study group of USP's institute of physics.

Second, the study of the tropical forest, the relation between the different nutrients carried in by rains and the ones produced by the forest, and the evaluation of the forest's own contribution of nutrients for its maintenance. The research here is headed by Cristina Forte, of Brazil's Space Research Institute, in collaboration with USP's institute for astronomy and geophysics.

Both projects are based on the collection of samples -- air for the first, and water for the second -- supplied by collectors installed around Serra do Navio. The contents are periodically picked up by students or scientists from Sao Paulo, and brought back to USP laboratories. The water collectors are emptied and filtered every week by Paulo Neme de Amorim, ICOMI's coordinator for the environment, and local research supervisor.

Amorim is also responsible for the third, and incidentally oldest, research project initiated by ICOMI years ago: how to recuperate an exhausted, dusty open-pit mine, and to get it to reconstitute its original plant cover -- grasses, bushes, trees -- and, of course, animals.

For a visitor to Serra do Nevio, the recovery of the terraced manganese mining pits is by far the most impressive of the projects, and because of its empirical base, the simplest to understand.

Once a mine is exhausted, its sandy terraces are stabilised with the amply available brush, roots and plant remnants collected from the residential sector, and seeded with beachgrass.

The grass is eventually reinforced with small, fast-growing exotic bushes from adjacent nurseries. They are planted somewhat dispersed so as to leave space for seedlings of various types of native trees, which will grow slowly and, eventually, kill the exotic bushes.

The trees will then provide the network of roots to stabilise the terraces and attract the animals -- for example, bats and birds -- which in their faeces will distribute seeds of different native plants to fill in the soil cover. In this fashion, it takes only ten years for the native forest to be re-created.

Research developed there by USP, ICOMI and other institutions is expected to be instrumental in finding the best methods for the "sustainable development" of Amazonia's natural resources.

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