- The Washington Times - Monday, January 9, 2006

RIO BRANCO, Brazil — Irving Foster Brown, a scientist with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution on Cape Cod, Mass., has spent the past 14 years conducting research in Rio Branco to understand regional challenges such as forest fires and climate change.

Mr. Foster Brown, originally from Canton, N.Y., is based in a remote corner of the southern Amazon jungle in the state of Acre, bordering Bolivia and Peru. Exotic birds hum in the thick forest, and colorful plants flower in the garden of his research station. Butterflies as big as the palm of a man’s hand flit from branch to branch.

The scene looks like a place where relaxing is paramount, but that is an illusion.

“We have a saying here,” Mr. Foster Brown said. “We consider ourselves to be at the very center of the universe. And that is because this place is at the end of navigable waters. Indigenous tribes here are trying to avoid contact with industrial society.”

This isolation, the scientist said, is nearing an end.

Enormous infrastructure projects under construction — paved highways, deep-sea harbors, airfields, radar-monitoring stations and telecommunication centers — are changing the Amazon region forever.

A road has been paved from near his research center to the Peruvian border, and an $800 million contract was signed to pave another road from that border through the lowlands of Peru and high into the Andes to the Pacific coast. It will be part of an intercontinental highway.

Compounding human activity is natural disaster. Major forest fires have erupted on a scale that even the area’s oldest residents have not experienced.

This region of the Amazon was considered to have almost no chance of burning, but an unusually long drought has parched Acre and the state of Amazonas, and fires have attacked the rain forest.

Mr. Foster Brown said fires this season have burned about 772 square miles of open areas, pastures and agricultural land, as well as scores of square miles of rain forest underbrush.

“We at this institution are now in the process of quantifying the extent of that damage,” he said, adding that major climate changes are under way in other regions of the world, such as the Arctic.

“We like to think that what happened here was an anomaly, but we are very concerned that it may recur. We, from this region, have no control over that. We have to adapt. But what we do control is the use of fires. So I can see for the next few years a new relationship developing in the culture of this region here, between climate and fire.”

Anselmo Forneck, the regional director of the Brazilian Institute of Environment and Renewable Natural Resources, usually sees Mr. Foster Brown at meetings or the waiting room of the Rio Branco airport, but recently made a rare visit to his office.

He was seeking help in preparing testimony for Rio Branco officials, who are worried about the fires and the record low water level in the Acre River. The city’s water supply has been reduced amid a diarrhea epidemic that has claimed the lives of three children.

“Soon after I began showing Anselmo the data available, a reporter and cameraman from TV Acre arrived,” Mr. Foster Brown said.

Satellite imaging showed an unusually large number of “hot pixels” — fires — in Acre state, despite a 30-day moratorium on outdoor burning. The forests had become a tinderbox into which lighted matches were tossed.

“The crew had come to do an interview about the Acre River, but switched gears to address the fires. Since then, my local ‘15 minutes of fame’ has stretched out to a few hours, and TV and radio reporters are interviewing me every few days,” Mr. Foster Brown said. “Unfortunately, my role continues to be ‘the fifth horseman of the Apocalypse,’ warning about the dangers of fires getting out of control.”

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