News Archive

posted 03/01/05

Contact: Jill Stoddard
212-854-6465 or js2372@columbia.edu

Researcher Wades In
Collecting growth rate data can be damp business in the Amazon flood plain

CERC fellow Robin Sears in a flooded forest

In a farmer's field in the Peruvian Amazon, CERC fellow Robin Sears measures seedling growth and survival rates of a popular plant Calycophyllum spruceanum, which is used for firewood and building materials. Photo courtesy of Robin Sears

Most people hike through forests, but CERC post-doc Robin Sears likes to canoe through them. In South America, parts of the Amazon rainforest can be flooded seasonally with up to 40 feet of water. For her Ph.D. research, Sears stood waste-deep in flooded agricultural fields, studying growth and survival rates of Calycophyllum spruceanum, a fast-growing tree used locally as fuel and building material. Her research on tree and seedling growth rates and survival helps farmers plan for future yields and contributes to the understanding of its natural history.

But the real work, Sears feels, is in helping the small-holder farmers navigate policy and regulations about natural resources. Sears and her colleagues Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez of CERC and Christine Padoch of The New York Botanical Garden are promoting an exchange of information between small-holder farmers in Peru and Brazil, providing incentives for farmers to open their land to visitors and describe their systems of management. Sears and colleagues also encourage farmers to exchange information with policy makers and extension agents, and vice versa. Her work now regularly includes working with small-holder farmers, helping them to increase understanding of how they can protect and manage the resources like timber and fish that provide their livelihood.

"It's just great work, real slow and real subtle. We don't go to policymakers and say, 'Ok, these are the policy changes that you need to make.' Rather, change comes after many conversations." Sears believes that this local type of knowledge is essential to reduce poverty in a sustainable way for the long term.

"People sometimes think environmental sustainability is only about protected areas and species survival. They don't think about pollution mitigation, global warming or carbon sequestration, which affects climate. If you improve the environment, people's health will be a lot better -- they'll have clean water to drink and to bathe in, and soils that can support sufficient agricultural production."

People can also take immediate action.

"Tree planting is a quick win. Re-vegitating areas in this way is very helpful for many reasons, including prevention of soil erosion, retention of moisture in the soil, and increase in biodiversity. People can go out and plant trees and seedlings right now."

Sears' field work in Brazil began in 1995 and in Peru in 2001. From the first trip, Sears became enamored of the forest. "Every 5 meters I would see some species new to me or interesting ecological interaction. It's my profession, but I'm also very passionate about natural places and people. I'm happy to have found a place and a topic that really integrates ecology with people issues and policy."