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May 21, 2013

Seeing the forest for the trees

Brazil’s struggle to conserve its rainforests has become a global talking point. As more and more forests have been cleared in the name of economic growth, preserving them has become less attractive to landowners. But a new focus on integrating the social and natural sciences to address environmental problems is yielding promising results that may save the rainforests—and the planet.

For three decades, Emilio Moran, Visiting Hannah Professor in MSU’s Department of Geography, has been on the front lines of this effort—piecing together the big picture of deforestation and conservation efforts in Brazil. In the southeast city of Campinas, Moran partners to use remote-sensing technology to collect data on deforestation, land use, agriculture, and reforestation.

In addition, he and his colleagues are on the ground, interviewing landowners to determine what motivates them to conserve forests because, in the end, the choices people make in their daily lives will determine the success of conservation efforts. As Moran notes: humans created the problem, and they must work together to solve it.

Researcher profile: Emilio Moran

Emilio Moran is a Visiting Hannah Professor in the Department of Geography

Emilio Moran is a world-renowned and dauntingly pedigreed social scientist who, when driving through the lush hills of Brazil, will burst into an enthusiastic and detailed explanation of soil structure.

Welcome to the scientific whiplash that has become his hallmark.

He is a social anthropologist who regularly charges into other disciplines. He has studied and published in tropical agriculture, social science, ecology, economics, and, most recently, earth observations from satellites.

Moran’s true discipline is asking the right questions and merging human and environmental sciences to get a holistic understanding of some of the world’s most crucial problems—climate change, land use—and a project he pioneered some 30 years ago: determining the potential of the humid tropics for intensive agriculture. In the process he has studied soils, agricultural production, deforestation, reforestation, and how humans make decisions about all these things.

Moran joined MSU’s Department of Geography in early January as Visiting Hannah Professor. He is the university’s 11th member of the National Academy of Sciences. At MSU, Moran will contribute to the new Center for Global Change Science as well as the Center for Global Change and Earth Observations.

You may also call Moran a behaviorist. At a recent lunch at a Brazilian landowner’s home, a co-diner asked him to pass the chicken, but casually gestured to the pork. He passed the pork.

Behaviorists give more weight to what people do than to what they say. That has been the backbone of his work. He has spent years in the Amazon and in forests in other parts of Brazil and in the United States, collecting empirical data, training students in rigorous methods, and building relationships with the people who work the land and ultimately shape it. Moran understands that people will solve the problems they create under the right set of incentives.

Moran was born in Cuba. His widowed mother swept him, her only son, to the United States just ahead of Fidel Castro’s wave that engulfed the country. His early life was one of change and learning early to recognize opportunity, seize it, and go along for a memorable ride. As an undergraduate at the University of Florida, he figured out that Brazil was under-studied but filled with potential. He signed up for Portuguese lessons and started to pursue what became a lifelong passion.

That it now is becoming more common, though not yet conventional, for scientists to integrate social sciences with environmental sciences is becoming his legacy—to have seen the need and developed the methods that integrate the social and physical sciences to address environmental problems.

In this way, he shares much with his colleague and collaborator Jack Liu at MSU’s Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability, of which he now is a member. Together, both position MSU to be a lynchpin for understanding global change in ways that enable both humans and nature to thrive.

Field note: Extending a discipline to the next generation 

Sue Nichols is the assistant director of the MSU Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability

The environment isn’t just a big subject. It’s also a long subject.

So for the scientists who study it, it has become something of a family business, passing from generation to generation to ensure continuity. Practice becomes tradition.

Here in Campinas, Brazil, a city of about a million people situated northwest of São Paulo, four generations of Emilio Moran’s family gather. Moran’s former student, Mateus Batistella, now heads a section of Embrapa, the state-owned research arm of Brazil’s Ministry of Agriculture. Juliana Farinaci is a postdoctoral student of Batistella who now helps advise Ramón Bicudo, who is working on his doctorate and plans on studying at MSU in the fall.

Moran has been venturing into the Brazilian Amazon for some 30 years. When he started his work, the idea of blending social and natural sciences was at best unusual—at worst heresy.

Back in his day—as the stories of the family elders usually start—you were supposed to pick your discipline and stick to it. Moran’s multifaceted career, now the stuff of academic legend, back then was a struggle.

Over the years, Moran has advised some 28 students from Brazil, the United States, and other countries. Now Farinaci and Bicudo in Brazil have majors in human-environment interaction.

“People are watching to see how this plays out,” Moran said. “I think students today get it, more than the faculty in many cases. The interesting questions are at the intersections of the natural and social sciences. Now they can actually be taught by both biologists and sociologists and address issues in interactive ways.”

The United States isn’t there yet. Moran says work is needed at universities to judiciously pare down requirements to allow room for students to study more than one discipline without compromising academic rigor. 

So, it is like family—balancing tradition with youthful rebellion to change with the times.