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June 7, 2013

Robert Walker: All roads don't lead to Starbucks

June 7, 2013

Robert Walker is a professor of geography who has spent 20 years researching the effects of logging, road building and development on the tropical forests of the Brazil Amazon. While his work encompasses remote sensing, statistics and economics, he also focuses on the human and political sides of the equation—i.e., how the everyday actions and decisions of citizens and governments factor into environmental change. Walker’s research is funded by NASA and the National Science Foundation.

As social scientists, we’ve got our own bag of tricks and fancy footwork, but the bottom line is that our style of science forces us out into the world as naked as newborn babes, typically to an unpleasant part of that same world because answers to our questions aren’t found in places where there’s a Starbucks on every corner.

Tropical forests disappear because of human behaviors, the first of which is typically the building of roads, in advance of agriculture. Thus, in order to understand forest disappearance one must find individuals knowledgeable about road building in frontier settings. This is what I’ve been doing the past few years with my Brazilian colleagues in an effort to understand forest fragmentation in the Amazon Basin. 

Is it science? Well, yes it is science, but science of a “social sort,” which is to say we’re not the ones who roam the misty dawn like forest sprites, nets in hand, in pursuit of lovely tropical birds to tag so that we can learn how far they now have to fly in search of food because the forest is disappearing. We’re not the ones who study the scat of charismatic animals–jaguars, tapirs, forest sloths–in order to understand the perils presented by habitat fragmentation, by encroaching human settlements following in the wake of road building and the ecological disruption that results.  

In a logical sense, our work comes first, in that the why of road building happens before the roads do damage, and roads don’t build themselves.

The funding agencies like the National Science Foundation want research design and experimental control. We’re happy just to survive. Sure, we have our own cool implements–satellite images, GPS devices, laptop computers–but they’re really just props for our piece de résistance, which is talking to people, not as easy as one might imagine given the downright orneriness of homo sapiens, a primate peculiarly suspicious of strangers albeit a social animal, absolutely convinced that the world is the way he or she sees it.

To gather our data, we sit on rickety chairs or against sacks of rice, smiling, asking questions when the conversation lurches in the right direction, trying to stay conscious as heat numbs our brains, tangible diseases only a handshake away. Sometimes we get to raise our hands in the presence of firearms, assuring suspicious hosts that all is well.

It’s only after we’ve established good intentions that we spread our maps and satellite imagery onto hardpan floors, sweeping off chicken droppings, explaining physics to people with little or no formal schooling. To maximize sample size, we dispense candy to children covered with bug bites. To ensure our information is collected without bias, or in a hasty manner, we carefully push away the curious animals without a fuss, the domesticated wild boars, the capybaras, the stentorian macaws. 

As a note to our sympathetic stake in the community of our human condition, we show no consciousness of odors that are sharp enough to bite, the full weight of poverty’s enduring fragrances, the seasonings of a year’s worth of dried sweat on clothes that have never been washed, the fermentation of the rotting fruit laid out for an evening meal beneath a massing cloud of flies, the vagrant breezes blowing in from the outhouses. 

Yes, our work is scientific, but it also humanistic and practical, and it gets results.