Published on 08/04/05

Perceptions of Brazil expand for students abroad

By Brad Haire
University of Georgia

Most Americans picture the Amazon River as a wild, dark place where large snakes slither on tree limbs over murky water teeming with piranhas and crocodiles. This is true in places. But University of Georgia students there this summer saw this developing area as much more.

"You can read about a place and someone's culture until you're blue in the face," said Susannah Martin, a junior agribusiness major in the UGA College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences. "But until you see it firsthand, you don't understand."

Five UGA and five Iowa State students attended "Sustainable Systems in Brazil," a 20-day course taught by the CAES Office of Global Programs in partnership with ISU. Two UGA and two ISU instructors led the group.

The course is designed to give students a cultural experience in another country, said Daniel Markewitz, the course instructor and a professor with the UGA Warnell School of Forest Resources. "This gives them a better understanding of the world and happens by osmosis by just going on the trip."


The students investigate whether people can use natural resources in a sustainable way. No country is struggling with this question more than Brazil today.

Over the past two decades, Brazil has become South America's leading economic power. Roughly the size of the continental United States, it has developed largely on its use of natural resources like timber, minerals and land to grow cattle and soybeans.

The group arrived in Recife on June 26. On Brazil's northeastern coast, this city of 3 million is called the "Venice of Brazil" for its many canals and bridges. Students and professors from the Universidade Federal Rural de Pernambuco hosted the group.

Around Recife, the students studied an Atlantic rain forest, a sugar cane plantation and a coral reef. They also visited the homes of a small farmer and a poor woman who made her living making pottery.

"It was difficult at first to make friends," said Túlio Toscano, a UFRPE student. "But I think we're all friends now. We exchanged much knowledge and found out we think the same about many things."

Amazon dynamic

On July 4, the group traveled to Santarem in the Amazon basin in northern Brazil.

They first hiked through an Amazon rain forest, where they saw the effects of selective timber harvesting and a study on potential impacts of drought in the area. They viewed the forest canopy, too, from a 150-foot tower.

For eight days, the group traveled on a boat, where they slept in hammocks and ate most of their meals. Many swam and bathed in the river.

West of Santarem, they visited the Mineraçâo Rio de Norte, the world's largest bauxite mine, and the city of 6,000 it supports. They learned about a project to replant the forest the mining process destroys.

The students visited several riverside communities. The Quilombolas, descendants of African slaves who escaped their Brazilian owners 200 years ago, make a meager living from the river and land. The 400 people of Urucuera are developing ecotourism with help from an organization called Health and Happiness.

In Monte Alegre, east of Santarem, students studied 12,000-year- old paintings on cave walls and heard how naturally high radioactive levels affect the people there.

In Santarem, they spoke to a local activist who opposes the area's new soybean boom. Then they visited a controversial $20 million soybean-loading terminal owned by Cargill, a Minnesota- based conglomerate.

Gustavo Negreiros, a Brazilian who is an academic coordinator for the Vermont-based School for International Training, guided the group's Amazon trip.

"I'm often shocked at (Americans') lack of understanding of what really goes on in the Amazon," Negreiros said, citing "many myths and legends."

The Amazon is more than just animals, forest and water, he said. "There are people here, too, with successes and struggles."

Brad Haire is the former news editor with the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.