When I was a kid, I went through several phases of what I wanted to be when I grew up. Remarkably, astronaut was never one of my career aspirations; however, from very early-on, I wanted to be a firefighter, a pilot, and a biologist. These goals have partly come to fruition: I have not fought any fires, but I did spend some time working in an ambulance in the States, and now I teach CPR down here in Brazil. I have flown with the help of some other pilots, and I look forward to getting my own license some day. I have spent years studying the anatomy of woolly mammoths, so the biologist thing seems to have worked out best of all.
After I got my start down here in Brazil, though, in addition to all my other career dreams, I also decided I wanted to be a tour guide. Think about it—tour guides get to go stay in all the nice hotels, and down here in the Pantanal they get to go out and look for animals all day. That's awesome, right? Well, as I learned, it's more stressful than I originally thought. When you are a tour guide, you have to worry about everyone else's well-being and happiness, constantly. Many tourists are impatient, some are impossible to please, a few are ill-mannered, and some are cool. When I was in high school, I began teaching English to tour guides down here in Brazil; I would accompany tours, co-guiding with my English students. Still, to this day, I occasionally will accompany my English students and guide some tourists. I also serve as guide extraordinaire for student groups that are here to do volunteer projects through the University of Michigan and Juara Foundation.
The very nature of ecotourism and its utility in protecting nature is something I often think about. The idea is brilliant—give locals a job guiding around tourists, earning money to show off nature at its finest, and they will be forever incentivized to preserve nature for the tourists. But many aspects of ecotourism are not 'eco' at all. Ecotourism lodges pollute in a number of ways. Tourists discard trash and produce human waste, which in many cases is not properly managed because ecolodges are in very rural areas and many are not up to code. These lodges also use exorbitant quantities of diesel fuel to power generators. In many cases, people at ecolodges feed animals, altering the animals' natural behavioral patterns. In other cases, lodge managers catch animals or bait them to make them easier to see. In other words, the 'take only pictures, leave only footprints' philosophy of being in nature is not a doctrine very often followed by the majority of ecotourism operations.
Perhaps most disturbing of all is not the fact that ecotourism can encourage minor transgressions of the law and cause small-scale environmental damage, but rather the end vision, that nature exists to please tourists. Indeed, many of the things that tour guides do to make tourists happy are against the law, like baiting jaguars and taking boats into parts of the river where they're not allowed. Fishing tourists may take a few fish of their own, which they're only allowed to do with proper permits. These kinds of transgressions are commonplace, and while they're not by themselves causing irreparable environmental ruin, they are definitely contributing to it. And, they are very easily justified: the overall goal to preserve the region is being helped by ecotourism, so ecotourists and guides get a free pass.
Really, this constitutes part of an even larger trend in law-breaking. People, when they look at their own isolated transgressions, do not think they are doing any harm by themselves. However, when a lot of people do these little things a lot of times, there is real damage done. This problem is a well-known issue with environmental rules, highlighted in Garrett Hardin's seminal work, The Tragedy of the Commons. This tragedy, the inability for people to collectively see how their individual small actions can contribute to larger environmental problems, is essentially why governance is needed to preserve the environment. It is why small communities of fishermen need to follow laws created by researchers to preserve the fishery, which is the subject of my research; it is also why we need a worldwide body to regulate pollution and development, and why we can't depend on countries individually to protect Earth's atmosphere.
Small ecotourism operations, individual guides and tourists, as well as local people and even biologists all need to follow the same laws as everyone else in order to ensure protection of natural areas like the Pantanal into the future. Nobody is exempt. And really, there are a lot of people and ecotourism operations out there that do do everything right. A number of ecolodges are very conscious of their environmental footprint, and go to great lengths (and charge tourists more money) to provide solar energy, properly dispose of waste, use as much locally-sourced food as possible, and hire local community guides. Indeed, ecotourism operations like these are largely the reason for the recovery of jaguar, giant river otter, and hyacinth macaw populations in the Pantanal. Jaguars, which used to be hunted for their hide and because they occasionally attack cows on local ranches, are now almost never hunted and have a population that has exploded since the late 1990s. The Pantanal is without question the best place to see the ubiquitous South American rainforest cat, even though its range stretches all the way to the southern United States.
Last year I guided a couple groups, and these pictures here are a couple of the fruits of my labor. I strongly recommend visiting the Pantanal to anyone interested in nature. The area is teeming with jaguars, birds, caiman, and other animals. Just make sure that when you visit you know where your money is going. It's an expensive place to travel, and most people benefiting are not truly from the Pantanal. Try to find ecolodges that are owned and run by locals, and try to pay them directly. Tell them that you appreciate what they're doing, and suggest to them how they can improve the environmental friendliness of their lodges. Finally, please, for the love of God, be patient with the people here. This region operates on a different cultural conception of time and, relatedly, urgency. The people here will make sure you are safe, they will make sure you get to see everything you can; just be patient with them and go with the flow, even though it might be hard to do, sometimes.
~Ethan Shirley, Poconé, MT Brazil
Christmas in the tropics has always been surreal for me. Seeing Christmas trees in 95-degree sunshine is weird, and people in South America think of Christmas as a time to don bathing suits at the beach—something that is unthinkable even as early as October in Michigan. My first time realizing how weird Christmas at the beach is was when I was ten years old in a hotel in Buenos Aires. I somehow at the time thought that they probably would reschedule Christmas for July, to match up with winter in the southern hemisphere. This holiday season, I found myself on a boat going up the Amazon River with about 500 locals. We were stacked neatly in small hammock spaces about three feet wide and seven feet long. 'Jingle Bells' played in English in the background as our massive boat moved slowly away from the Amazon River port in Manaus. I was very obviously the only gringo on board.
I wrote this blog while sitting in my office, or rather my hammock, staring off the side of our boat as it exits the Rio Negro, a black water river, and enters the Solimões River, which is otherwise known as the Amazon, and has water the color of a very creamy latté. The source of the waters and the sediments they bear determine the color of the river, with the Amazon originating in the springs of the Andes Mountains and the Rio Negro originating in the topsoil-rich rolling hills of southern Venezuela. The meeting of the waters demonstrates a stark difference in color. To be clear, both are huge rivers. Much bigger than the ones on which I am used to driving my cute little 15-foot aluminum boat with an outboard motor. The fish are also, correspondingly, bigger than the ones I am used to spending all day on the riverbank trying (and failing) to catch.
In spite of the size differences, ribeirinho communities like those I work with in the Pantanal dot the shores of the Amazon. One major research question that I have is how my results in the Pantanal may fit in with different social and ecological contexts around the world. My study in the Pantanal so far has showed that trust in scientists is a primary factor in frequency of noncompliance in one Pantanal ribeirinho community. What about ribeirinho communities in the Amazon? I went, in part, to scope out that question.
My decision to travel to Manaus was also strongly influenced by the ten-dollar frequent flyer ticket that I got for the direct flight from Miami. This was not my first time in the Amazon, but it was certainly my first time on a local transport boat, and really also was my first time spending significant time in the Amazon of Brazil, where I would stay at an ecotourism lodge and research station near Tefé.
Manaus is a fascinating city. It is one where European colonizers set up shop to civilize the new world. In the middle of the freaking rainforest, the elaborate dome of the Teatro Amazonas Opera House screams, 'We're here to civilize the savages' in the most grotesque and melodic of ways. Today, Manaus is home to millions of people, and even though it is a thousand miles inland, it is one of Brazil's most important ports.
My trip to Tefé taught me that ribeirinhos in the Amazon face virtually all the same problems as ribeirinhos in the Pantanal, except that in the Amazon, there are a lot more. The communities on the rivers in the jungle, no matter where you go, are made up of people of indigenous descent, but whom typically do not fit into legal definitions of 'indigenous' and thus struggle to get property rights to their land, struggle to get attention from governments to install social infrastructure like schools and health clinics, and struggle to live their largely-subsistence lifestyles as they are targeted by police and other officials for failing to meet the requirements of laws which they do not understand. They generally distrust officials for these reasons, and I imagine that building trust in science and scientists in ribeirinho communities in the Amazon could have a hugely positive effect on compliance with environmental rules, a hypothesis which I will test in the Pantanal when fishing season starts up again in February.
I argue in a law paper that I am working on that one of the two major environmental problems we face today worldwide may potentially be fixed by helping ribeirinhos and other similar communities that live traditional and subsistence lifestyles. The two broad major environmental problems that I am referring to are (1) pollution of the atmosphere, greenhouse gases, climate change, toxic conditions, etc.; and (2) protecting natural areas and wildlife for future generations. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson recently wrote a manifesto about how putting half of the planet Earth into a permanent nature reserve would solve most environmental problems, including both of these. I somewhat agree with this. However, I think there are some nuances—not all nature reserves are created equal. The preservationist philosophy from the early environmentalist movement has been replaced in more modern times with movements to conserve areas—that is, maintain them for sustainable use by residents. In other words, putting half the Earth into a nature reserve shouldn’t mean that we should keep all humans out.
The ribeirinhos and similar traditional peoples who live around areas like the Amazon and the Pantanal are the ideal protectors of these natural areas. Enforcement of environmental regulations is complicated in these regions by lack of access. Local people might be able to help enforcement; however, there needs to be mutual trust between them and officials, and the local people need to actually trust in the biology behind the environmental rules. The results of my study of trust and its effects on compliance support these conclusions. These results also support a lot of Juara Foundation's work with these communities as means of building bridges between scientists and locals. Brazil's legal regime has made some changes to help support traditional people like the ribeirinhos, and I think laws that exist to protect the rights and freedoms of indigenous people can be rewritten to also protect traditional peoples in all their forms, as a means of protecting large natural areas like the Amazon and the Pantanal.
I spent Christmas Eve this year in a dentist office, and New Year's on the beach. I was fixing teeth that I managed to crack last year, which required an extraction and more painful stuff. It was not the way anyone wants to spend Christmas. However, I must say, I've never felt so comfortable in spite of being far from my family. The family of dentists I spent the holidays with here on the beach fed me and cured my infected mouth (as Brazilians are wont to do with guests), and I am forever indebted to them for treating me like a member of their own family for these weeks. As awful as dentist visits usually are, this one was truly special, and though I'll never be able to repay them for making my non-ideal holidays as bright as possible, I'll never forget them for all they did for me. Thanks Carol, Doroteia, and Doutor Cucco. Holidays on the beach may be weird, but they aren't all that bad.
~Ethan Shirley, Poconé, MT Brazil
One of the perks of living in a rural and largely wild and undeveloped part of tropical Brazil is that animals are everywhere. Dogs roam the streets as they do in much of the world, looking for scraps to chow down on. Toucans and parrots and macaws make low fly-bys over the giant Catholic church in the main plaza—virtually every city and town in South and Central America, as well as most in Mediterranean Western Europe, has such a central Catholic cathedral. When driving on my motorcycle from the city center to my home at the orphanage, I have seen any number of anteaters and ocelots at night, as well as foxes and monkeys during the day.
One of the drawbacks to living in such an area is that when wild animals live in close proximity to humans, there is always conflict. One major conflict that has been reduced recently due to ecotourism is that between ranchers and jaguars. Jaguars occasionally take cattle, and ranchers kill the jaguars back. These killings are now illegal, extremely rare compared to the past, and those that do happen are generally done surreptitiously. In fact, hunting any animal here in Brazil is illegal, with a couple of exceptions for invasive species. A more visible form of what happens when humans meet wild animals can be seen on the roads.
I have seen many, many animals dead on the road. I have personally hit only a couple—I drive incredibly slowly compared to most people here, many of whom bought their licenses instead of taking the pesky driver's ed class and test—which is okay, I suppose, given the massive number of kilometers I drive on the roads down here each year. It's never okay, though. It's awful to hit an animal. And it's awful to have to see dead animals on the road. I remember seeing a dead cat on the road in the city here when I was a kid, and it was devastating to me. (I have also seen dead people, after gruesome car accidents, which gives me nightmares but does not pull at my heartstrings like the cat.) Just the other day, I saw a dead monkey on the road near the orphanage. I stopped to take a closer look, and I heard the squeaky cries of the other members of its group in a tree a few feet away. It's hard to imagine the pain that those other monkeys were experiencing at that moment, having just lost their friend... but hold on: let me get to the main point of this post.
Scientists are weird people, and I consider myself a weird scientist. One of the weird things that some biologists do is look closely at roadkill. When I was a kid in middle school in the States, our biology teacher brought a mink to class to show us one day. It was dead. He had seen it flattened on the road, stopped his car in traffic, got out, and picked it up (probably to the horror of onlookers). (I don't think he made a stew out of it after class, but there are people out there that do that!) I thought it was a little weird at the time that he stopped to look at roadkill, but alas!—here I am in Brazil stopping to get a closer look at a dead monkey. Really the only difference is that I didn't actually pick the corpse up. Part of the reason that I did not pick the dead monkey up is that it is illegal here to do that without a permit from the federal institute of the environment. The permits are not easy to get, and especially not for foreigners.
Brazil in recent times has made scientific research for foreigners extremely difficult here. Why? In schools here, some kids are taught that we in the US are taught that we own the Amazon rainforest. This is ridiculous, of course. But, in any case, many believe that scientists come to Brazil to steal their natural treasures. And, in fact, many scientists from the US and Europe back in the day did just that. Collecting used to be super easy—go to the jungle, find cool stuff, take what you wish home and study it. Today, the permits required to do so in many parts of the world are virtually impossible to obtain. In Brazil, an added layer of security exists—in addition to having to have the permits, you have to have a scientific research visa if you are a foreigner doing research in the country, which means that a Brazilian scientist has to also be a part of your research team, whether you like it or not. This kind of policy is something that I understand, but I think is backwards and seriously threatens the quality and quantity of research coming out of Brazil. Partly as a result of this kind of isolationist scientific policy, there is a lot less scientific work being published in English (which is generally considered to be the standard international language of science) than one might expect or hope for. The government here has emphasized the importance of involving its own scientists in science in the country, at the cost of growing scientific understanding in general.
Well-intentioned government-created policies like the ones in Brazil exist around the world, and do harm to scientific understanding in general. Governments are also principal grant-issuers, and thus their policies can interfere greatly with what seem to politicians to be 'trivial' research objectives. Scientific understanding is not trivial, and whether specific research is worth conducting or not should not be politicized. Unfortunately, this is the way the world works, and scientists must worry about whether their research is relevant to current political agendas. Fiscal conservatism in the sciences, also very well-intentioned, can also therefore be hurtful to scientific research projects, and thus be detrimental to our ability as humans to understand and cope with the world around us.
To make matters worse, in many countries, virtually anyone can become a politician, regardless of whether or not their ideas are based in sound logic, objective evidence, and science, or faith, habit, and blind emotion. Many attitudes are heavily influenced by emotions and beliefs, and this sometimes compromises people's abilities to make good decisions. Scientific opinions are no different—scientists, after all, are human, too, and susceptible to all the same biases as laymen are. However, there is a difference: scientists are, at least in theory, more aware of their own biases, and can try to counteract them, instead of blindly moving forward based on unfounded beliefs. Attitudes of people and their beliefs shape compliance decisions in regard to fisheries rules, according to my research. Whether someone trusts (an attitude) biologists determines in part the frequency of their noncompliance. So people don't trust scientists, break the rules because they don't believe they're correct, even though scientific evidence says they are. Then the same people get installed in government positions and get to determine which research is worth conducting, and which is not. You can see the problem here.
While at times government policies and politicians visually and olfactorily resemble dead animals, roadkill is not always all bad; and sometimes, if the right scientist has the right permit and happens to come across the right specimen, roadkill can provide us with an important lesson. A few months ago I was driving along a main highway here when I saw a long, flat, brown blob on the road. It looked a little like the mink that my biology teacher had shown us in middle school. Obviously, being a weird person, and to my passengers' horror and dismay, I slammed on the brakes, turned around, and got out to take a closer look. Wow! It was what I thought it was—a furão, the lesser grison in English, or a tropical weasel that I did not think existed in this region. I have been here on and off for fifteen years, and I'd never seen one before outside of the zoo. And I look for wild animals all the time. Years of camera-trapping, driving down dirt roads at nights with spotlights—and nothing. And this day, I saw one, dead, on the road. I had already terrorized my passengers substantially, and it'd be horribly ironic if I, a compliance researcher, were caught breaking an environmental law, so I decided not to pick it up.
A day later, we arrived at a ranch where we support a local small school in an isolated community on the Cuiabá River in the middle of the Pantanal. The ranch also serves as a research base especially for researchers looking into problems of human conflict with jaguars. I was chatting with a jaguar researcher there, and mentioned that I had seen a lesser grison dead on the road, and that I had no idea they were in the region at all. His face lit up. Apparently, this was also his first sighting in the region—they seem to like drier areas more. 'You mean the one just outside the entrance to Poconé?' I couldn't believe that he had seen the same one as we did. 'I picked it up—it's here, in the freezer!'
Great minds think alike. And there are totally no metaphors in this post.
~Ethan Shirley, Poconé, MT Brazil
A week and a half ago, we had an election here in Brazil. I had to drive an employee of the orphanage here to vote at a school, where she must wait in line for more than an hour to cast her vote. Voting is obligatory here in Brazil, with consequences including fines and prohibitions on government services and government employment for those who do not vote. However, you can cast a null vote, which fulfills your voting requirement without requiring you to actually vote for any of the universally corrupt candidates.
With the obligatory voting requirement comes difficulties, and these difficulties are especially relevant for the populations that I am accustomed to living and working with. What if someone can't read or write? How does someone who lives five hours by boat from the nearest city vote? The reason I had to drive the orphanage employee to her polling location today is that the orphanage's driver doesn't have a driver's license, and thus is not driving. He is old, poor, and illiterate, and taking the driving test requires literacy and a good bit of money, so even though he's been driving since the 1970s, he will never get a license (unless someone pays off a DMV employee to give him one). He and everyone else here will cast his vote in a machine today which uses codes that reference candidates. You type in the number associated with your candidate, and the name and a photo pops up to confirm your choice. You better hope you remember your candidate's number!
Amazingly, in spite of the challenges, this system here works very well. There are very few claims of voter fraud related to rigged machines or people really not being able to pick the candidate they wanted. Brazil first introduced the voting machines in 1996 and has been using them and them alone for its elections ever since 2000. It has even loaned its voting machines to Paraguay and Ecuador for their elections. In the States, meanwhile, we still vote by hand due to irrational, I, Robot-related fears of machines becoming rigged and corrupting the vote. We also bicker over making everyone who is voting have a photo ID. Isn't real democracy registering everyone's opinion? Shouldn't it therefore be obligatory to vote? Shouldn't the government provide voting IDs to all voters for free and immediately to ensure that everyone really has a say?
Sure. That's what democracy is all about. Everyone gets a vote. But really, hold on—should everyone be voting? Shouldn't experts be making decisions based on sound science and the best available economic models? What if people don't understand or refuse to believe sound science or economic models? Should those people be disqualified from voting? In a democracy, the answer is a resounding, 'No.' For better or for worse. This point may conjure up thoughts of the election in the States, but I think it is equally or even more relevant here in Brazil. Here, many who have no education whatsoever and cannot read or write are required to choose between a slew of different candidates (Brazil is not a two-party country like the States—there are more than ten major political parties with large shares of congressional votes) whose views and aspirations may or may not be clear to the voters. Imagine—the ease with which politicians could take advantage of such populations! And oh, have they ever! Brazil's history is full of examples of rich oligarchs creating laws protecting their own assets and rights at great costs to those in lower socioeconomic classes. This is at the heart of today's corruption crisis.
I haven't even scratched the surface of the problems with democracy here, though. In April I posted about the impeachment of embattled now-ex-president Dilma, who was removed from office last month. Dilma was removed from office by a coalition of politicians the majority of whom were themselves under investigation for corruption. Dilma has yet to be officially accused of any corruption. The result of her impeachment was the promotion of her vice-president, Michel Temer, himself subject to corruption and fraud investigations, and equally guilty of whatever mismanagement Dilma was impeached for. Temer is of a different, and much more right-wing political party than Dilma was, and is now implementing policies in accordance with his more right-wing views, rather than the left-wing policies for which the country's citizens voted two years ago. Other corrupt politicians continue in office, in spite of a set of strict anti-corruption laws (put in place by Dilma) that prevent such people from running for government posts. Corruption on all levels continues unchecked, including in the local elections that took place recently.
The corruption in local elections doesn't happen so much at the voting booth. The machines have been reliable. The week before the elections, though, candidates bought gas for voters and in some cases handed out money to those who promised their votes. Hand in hand with corruption comes violence here in Poconé, to make matters worse. A fight broke out at a restaurant in the main city plaza and police were summoned on Tuesday. All through the week, there was an uptick in violent crime, which throughout Brazil is already high. In fact, in a recent study of homicides in cities worldwide Brazil had 20 of the 50 worst homicide rates. A further reminder of this happened last night when a friend was robbed at gunpoint while chatting with two of his friends on his front porch. This is the kind of crime that scares everyone—the kind that is unpredictable and of which anyone can be a victim. This kind of violence is too common here in Brazil, and is a major concern for the voting populace, along with rampant corruption.
For many people, the solution to corruption as well as crime issues is more police. Many people have suggested that, in fact, the country should just return to the (US-sponsored) military dictatorship that was responsible for the deaths and disappearances of thousands in the 1970s and 1980s. That was a no-nonsense government, unconcerned with the rights of bandits. Many here don't think criminals deserve rights, whatsoever. This is, of course, contrary to modern ideas of things like, you know, human rights and stuff. This is not to say that there are not problems with the system of enforcement here—unlike in the US, where drug offenders are locked up for many, many years for nonviolent offenses, many very violent offenders here in Brazil are caught and then released after a very short time in prison. The conditions in prisons here, like in the United States, are not great for rehabilitating criminals, and many who go into prisons here come out worse-off. The problem with releasing prisoners quickly here is especially pronounced when the offenders are minors. Minors are very frequently used by older people to steal and kill without consequences: minors are usually released even faster than violent offenders who are of age. With few consequences for minors, crime perpetuated by minors is rampant. Executions of enemies are common. Systematic executions exist here in the political arena, as well as outside of it. Numerous politicians and campaign staff members across the country died in the past month or so leading up to elections. Consider if something similar were to happen in the US. But is extrajudicial killings by a military dictatorship really the answer? Others here are quick to suggest that the legalization of firearms will help the situation, rather than essentially throwing gasoline on the fire. This runs contrary to research—but then again, you are not required to believe in science to vote, for better or for worse.
So democracy might not be perfect, and it has its issues, but maybe giving everyone a handgun and recreating a vicious military dictatorship is also not the right answer. The results of the vote here? Well, not great. The parties that now control most of the country are the PSDB (the Social Democratic Party of Brazil) and the PMDB (the Democratic Movement of Brazil Party). These are both centrist parties, and are two of the top three Brazilian political parties in terms of corruption investigations since 2000. The people have spoken: they got rid of Dilma in favor of politicians from parties even more corrupt than her own. And to be honest, I'm really not sure how to fix this.
~Ethan Shirley, Poconé, MT Brazil
Happy Brazilian Independence Day!
I've now been here for seven months in a row, which is my longest uninterrupted period in Brazil, and it's past the halfway-point of my grant, so I feel the need to describe my research project in a little more detail. I started off looking at attitudes of fishermen, but my project is actually quite a bit broader than that. I am interested in environmental laws, compliance, and how we can conserve natural areas for future generations. My project is really is seeking to find new ways to help conserve natural areas.
I'm working on this in a couple different phases. First, I'm doing a lot of surveys and interviews with people. Next, I'm testing out a couple of interventions to see if they have any effects on attitudes. My primary idea is that by increasing human interactions between biologists and locals, locals will understand better and trust more the laws and rules that exist to preserve nature. Additionally, I think that increasing interactions between police and people, people will have more respect for the enforcement regime and thus violate the laws less.
As for the environmental rules that are being broken, I am focusing primarily on fishing laws, which are set and enforced at the state level by the Secretary of the Environment (SEMA). Why? Well, essentially, individual people can impact the environment in only limited ways. Big companies pollute and have access to harmful substances that can inflict massive damages. While the laws controlling those enterprises are important, they are not the focus of my research. The damages that individuals are responsible for generally do not include large-scale hazardous chemical spills, landfilling, mountaintop removal, or other geological changes. Individuals, however, inflict damage on a local scale by cutting down large quantities of trees, setting fire to forests, hunting species whose populations are not high enough to sustain human hunting, and overfishing rivers. Here in Brazil, deforestation and forest fires are major problems, but more in the Amazon than in the Pantanal where I work. Hunting has been banned entirely since the 1950s, and while it still occurs, it is, for the most part, not common enough to have a big impact on the populations of wild animals since the pelt trade was essentially extinguished by Brazilian police in the 1980s and 1990s. Overfishing, however, continues to be a huge problem in the region, and one that may be fixable.
So what's the problem in the local fisheries here? Well, there are various problems, actually. First, there are natural predators to fish that are currently thriving in the absence of any hunting. The Pantanal has the highest concentration of crocodilians in the world, with an estimated over ten million Yacare caimans living in its rivers, lakes, and streams. These small (can only get to around a paltry 13 feet in length) alligator relatives can consume up to 10kg of fish in a day. Ever since the Brazilian police extinguished the pelt trade, their population has skyrocketed. This huge population exerts pressure on human fishers, who are after the same prize for dinner. Another problem is pollution of the waters from sediments laden with agrotoxins and upstream dams that reduce flow. In addition to these problems, there is what is called pesca predatória, or humans breaking fishing rules.
The rules that are broken regularly are numerous. Among professional fishermen, most seem to break rules minimally. Occasionally someone will be caught going over the weekly catch limit; occasionally someone will catch a species that is not allowed to be caught; occasionally someone will sell a fish during the breeding season when fishing professionally is banned. Rarely, a professional fishermen will be caught using a fishing net, which is banned. However, the one rule that all seem to break regularly has to do with catching undersized fish. Generally the rule is you can only catch fish of a given species over a set length. Fish under that length are illegal. Even professionals, though, catch undersized fish; these fish are generally not for sale, but rather they are eaten in homes on the riverside.
While professionals are perhaps not the main problem, it is clear that even they believe that their own noncompliance contributes to the decline of the fishery. I started out by suggesting that trust may play a role in compliance with the rules, and indeed that seems to be playing out in the data. There is a correlation in people's frequency of intention to not comply with rules and their lack of trust in the agency that sets and enforces the rules. In other words, people who trust SEMA less, say they will end up not complying with the rules more.
So how might this problem be fixed? I mentioned earlier that interaction with people might be a key. What is clear from my work until now is that virtually nobody has interacted with the people setting the rules. Biologists and others who work to set the correct fish catch size limits almost never actually talk about the rules with the people who are actually affected by the rules. Perhaps with some increased interactions with biologists, trust could be increased, leading to more intent to comply with rules.
Building trust in an institution like SEMA might be more complicated than that, though. In fact, as I mentioned before, SEMA is both a rule-setting and a rule-enforcing agency, and although virtually no one has interacted with the rule-setting people (biologists), virtually everyone has interacted with the rule-enforcing people (police officers). People reported a range of experiences with enforcement officers, some positive and some extremely negative. Building trust in SEMA may also require increased interactions of the positive variety with SEMA's police. So, this is where I'm heading from here: if I can get the authorization, I will try to test the effects of a controlled interaction with police as well as a controlled interaction with biologists to see if these interactions change people's intended rate of non-compliance.
The fish in the first picture here is a dourado (Salminus brasiliensis), which is illegal to fish because it's endangered. The second picture is, totally, definitely, absolutely not the same fish, several minutes in the frying pan later. The third picture is my sad 1.0-L VW Gol rental car (thanks, Thrifty!), which got stuck in the mud after unseasonal rains. It took me seven hours by myself to dig the car out of the mud. The 20-km stretch of road took me a total of eight and a half hours to travel that night.
~Ethan Shirley, Poconé, MT Brazil
Have you ever thought about how you would teach people in another country about what the United States is?
When I first came down to Brazil, I came as a tourist. I was invited to come back as an English teacher, to stay by myself at a lodge in the middle of nowhere in the Pantanal for a couple months at a time teaching to future tour guides. I viewed this as a chance for me to basically live in the rainforest, so I lept at the opportunity. My mom thought it'd probably be a better learning experience than summer camp, so she saw no issue in sending me to Brazil to stay by myself with the locals.
At age 14 and with no English teaching experience, I began teaching English. I quickly began to learn how annoying English is. Unfortunately, a lot of our grammar makes little or no sense (I'm looking at you, irregular past participles and past tense forms), and we have a ton of idioms whose literal meaning is far removed the message they convey. At the same time, over the years of teaching English and learning Portuguese, I also learned that learning the basics of speaking a language is actually quite simple. One thing I recognize now that I did not realize back then is how much culture is intertwined with language—you can't really teach one without the other.
With this in mind, I've tried, over the years, to adapt my teaching to include pieces of culture. Now, I teach English to people down here in Brazil, and I teach Portuguese to students in the United States. I can't remember the last Fourth of July that I spent in the United States. Every year here in Poconé, we do a Fourth of July celebration with my friends and English students. I also use English songs and movies to teach idioms. Things like "Hello Goodbye" by the Beatles and "If I Had a Million Dollars" by Barenaked Ladies are essentials. "Ferris Beuller's Day Off" and "Silver Linings Playbook" are among the movies. I also like using Jazz Chants, which are these cutesy English teaching chants set to jazz standards—everything is better than going over grammar and memorizing meanings of words over and over again.
As for teaching Portuguese and Brazilian culture, there are a couple of films that I think do a good job of capturing the culture, and a list of songs that span the country's immense geography and rich history. A couple books also do a good job of helping the beginning student of Brazilian language and culture. In case any of you are interested, these are what I recommend—English translations of most are available. I provide my students also a language cheat sheet to study the grammar quickly. It is through the language cheat sheet, some basic conversations, movies, books, and music that one can pick up a language with relative ease! Meanwhile, here in Brazil we are now approaching Independence Day. There was no war when Brazil gained independence from Portugal in 1822. In any case, here we will celebrate similarly to what we do in the States: there will be fireworks, beer, and a day off of work. Some aspects of human culture are universal!
~Ethan Shirley, Poconé, MT Brazil
I see the Pantanal as a place full of opportunities. There are a number of reasons for this, but principally among them is the fact that it is not very well known. In the past fifteen years that I've been coming here, there has been a huge increase in the number of tourists visiting the area. The fact is, the nature here is unmatched in South America—it is easier to see jaguars, tapirs, anteaters, giant otters, and other typically Amazonian fauna than anywhere else. This is partly because the Pantanal is a more open habitat than the Amazon, and partly because the populations of these animals are thriving here. The fact that the Pantanal is just beginning to be discovered by outsiders means that in addition to having relatively few tourists, there has also been very little research done here. Basic questions here remain unanswered: What is the geological origin of the Pantanal? What are the effects of habitat fragmentation, both anthropogenic and natural, on different species of animals? How have humans impacted the geology and biology of the region in recent times? A good bit of research has been conducted on jaguars and a couple other species in the region, and there are researchers monitoring and mapping the area; but, there is truly very, very little published work in English or in Portuguese, and the big basic questions remain almost completely unanswered.
The Pantanal is also region that is in the process of becoming developed—or, more developed than it was, at least, however you might want to interpret that. What I mean by development is leads to a lot of bizarre and sometimes comical situations. Workers use leaf blowers to blow dust off the roads. A man tows a horse behind his motorcycle (the reverse horse-drawn bicycle). State highways are frequently dirt roads that are completely impassible at times due to flooding. I stopped last night to help at the scene of a car accident—the speeding car had hit an unlit horse-drawn cart on the expressway. (The horse survived. Somehow, in spite of flipping their car, so did the people, with only some minor injuries. The guy driving the cart was drunk, and like most drunk drivers in accidents, he had no injuries whatsoever.) The juxtaposition of modern and ancient is at once striking, entertaining, and fascinating. But more still, it presents opportunities.
One way in which the modern meets the ancient is in the education and healthcare systems here. Education and healthcare promote equity, but are particularly hard to provide to rural communities. The result of this is that people in rural communities often have to move into cities, where they have to adapt to very different living conditions, and the rural areas in which they lived for so long lose the people who served as their protectors. Helping traditional people stay in the areas in which they and their ancestors have lived for so long is a conservation strategy far superior to those that involve kicking people off lands they have occupied for generations and generations.
My research focuses on environmental laws. The environmental laws here impose structure from the modern world on ancient ways of life. This structure is one that makes little sense to traditional people in rural areas—people like the drunk horse-cart driver. The result is a misunderstanding of the laws or non-belief in their necessity. The most common method of trying to improve compliance with laws is increasing enforcement, but this approach misses the point. This is not to say that increased enforcement won't catch more violators. This year in Poconé, a step-up of enforcement has resulted in a sixty-percent increase in illicit fish seized by police. However, people don't feel any different about the rules. Providing basic infrastructure like schools and hospitals to rural communities could be a better way to increase environmental stewardship, including compliance with laws.
Modern and ancient come together in interesting ways in the Pantanal and all across the world. This presents opportunities for the people living in rural areas where undisturbed natural areas still exist. Earning money from ecotourism and professional fishing are among these opportunities for most people living here in the Pantanal. For me, the Pantanal is full of new research opportunities. Also, however, I have the opportunity to pass along what I've learned through my various pursuits and to help serve as an advocate for the people who I have lived with for years now, many of whom do not know how to read or write. My side projects, and Juara's projects, therefore, exist to further these goals—teaching CPR and first aid, teaching English to future tour guides, and fighting to help to keep rural schools open are the things that I truly believe can make a difference here. One of the perks of the job is that I get to travel all around the beautiful Pantanal!
And it turns out, as I discovered last week, there are mammoth-like ancient elephant relatives in this region. Mammoths have been the subject of my research for many years, and it seems that ancient elephants have followed me here to the Pantanal. More research opportunities!
~Ethan Shirley, Poconé, MT Brazil
My background is in the biological sciences, so one question that I get a lot is why in the world I decided to go to law school and do my Master's on the social side of wildlife management. The work is quite different from the research questions I've focused on in the past. I've realized through years of traveling and visiting natural areas the importance of local people in conservation strategies. Laws and enforcement, along with alternative management strategies, are the two primary means of saving the vast swathes of nature that have inspired me and so many others from encroaching human development.
One of the major differences between biological research and social science research is that with social science research, you have to deal with people. People are complicated animals for many reasons, and principal among these is that people often lie. When you're observing an animal, you're usually looking at behavior or physical things. Other animals often camouflage themselves and hide from people, but they never lie or deceive. This is why I prefer cats. (Just kidding!)
The research that I'm doing right now requires me to ask sensitive questions—not like "how old are you" or "how much do you weigh," but rather "how often do you break the rules?" All of these questions invite the possibility of lying, and people do it a lot, and for a lot of reasons. Some people lie about their age because they'd rather be perceived as being younger. Some people lie about the frequency with which they violate the law because they'd rather be perceived as being rule followers, not thieves and criminals.
But there's another wrinkle: in addition to all of us being compulsive liars intensely concerned with how other people see us, we also are generally not great at knowing what we ourselves actually think, believe, and do. When you ask questions about people's attitudes and what they perceive their actions to be, their responses must be taken with a grain of salt. Many people think they are violating the law a lot less than they actually are. Many people think they have strong beliefs about one thing or another, are convinced they are absolutely right, but really have much more neutral beliefs and attitudes.
With all this in mind, I set out to interview fishermen, many of whom, as I discussed before, cannot read or write and are intimidated by surveys and interviews. The key, then, to getting the best answers out of these folks, must be trust. The best way to gain people's trust? Fishing with them and hanging out with them. While this kind of thing likely will not appear in the methods section of any social science paper, know this: the scientists doing important research out there involving people's opinions, especially in rural areas, are likely having a beer and fishing prior to interviewing in order to earn their subjects' trust. It's a hard life being a social scientist!
~Ethan Shirley, Poconé, MT Brazil
As I prepare for a couple solid weeks of field work, I feel the need to reflect on the political process here and the current corruption scandal and impeachment which are on the minds of everyone in this country. My views on the process and the scandals are my own, as a person who has studied law in the United States and here in Brazil, and as a person who has lived here in the middle of nowhere in Brazil on-and-off since President Lula da Silva and his Workers' Party came into power in 2003. I should note that I have taken my own views into account and I've tried to be as unbiased as possible here.
Like most Brazilians, I spent last Sunday watching the impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff, who took office in 2011 as the hand-picked successor of Lula. The proceedings took place in the lower house of the Brazilian Congress, called the Chamber of Deputies. Brazil, like the US, is a federalist democracy with a president, a supreme court, and a bicameral legislature. The Chamber of Deputies is the equivalent of the House of Representatives in the US. In Brazil, impeachment actions start in the Chamber of Deputies and then move to the Senate for a final vote. The impeachment action was brought in the Chamber of Deputies by the president of the Chamber, Eduardo Cunha, who is himself embroiled in the wider lava jato corruption scandal which has implicated more than half of the Chamber's members in various sorts of corrupt activities, from accepting bribes, to drafting fake government construction contracts and siphoning money off to offshore bank accounts. President Dilma Rousseff, is a member of the Workers' Party, which since 2003 has established a number of extremely popular and empirically successful social welfare policies that help provide housing, food, money, education, and work opportunities especially to the poor and to minorities.
Dilma herself has not been directly implicated in the corruption scandals, but rather is facing impeachment for her alleged violation of Law 1079 of 1950, which describes "crimes of responsibility." "Crimes of responsibility" is a weird term, and we in the United States don't really have anything like it. These laws basically ban military coups, hiding government money or actions, or otherwise doing bad stuff. In other words, these laws essentially serve as a catch-all—in my view, all presidents and governors are likely guilty of at least some small infraction included in this laundry list of bad things. Dilma is no different: she is likely guilty of something, just like everyone else. In her case, it appears that she may have tried to make the economy look like it was better than it was by delaying some payments. The law is a little different from other laws in that the process is not judicial, but rather takes place in the legislature. In this way, the law provides a way of essentially deposing an unpopular president by Congressional vote, without necessitating a court-issued guilty conviction of a crime. This, of course, invites problemsthe politicians in the Chamber of Deputies are all, well, politicians; they are fighting for political power in the government, and are not independent judges of laws. Cunha, who brought the action against Dilma, is himself much more conservative than Dilma, and indeed much of the support for the impeachment action is derived from the rift between liberals and conservatives, rather than from people truly thinking Dilma is guilty of committing a crime.
This is not the first time a Brazilian president has been impeached. In fact, since the 1988 constitution was drafted here after several decades of a (US-supported) military dictatorship (akin to those in Chile and Argentina, which are better known), there have been a total of five democratically-elected presidents, and Dilma will be the second to be impeached. (Not a great percentage.) The other president who was impeached was Fernando Collor de Mello, the first president after the new constitution was adopted, who stole a bunch of money from the government, mismanaged the economy, and led the country to economic ruin. Dilma today presides over a bad economy, but nothing near as bad as it was in the 1990s under Collor. Collor was ultimately impeached because of the money he stole, and not for a violation of a crime of responsibility.
I would be remiss if I did not mention some similarities and differences between the Clinton impeachment and the present impeachment of President Dilma in Brazil. Clinton was impeached, of course, not because he had an extramarital affair with a White House staffer, but rather because he then tried to cover up that affair when he was accused of it. Ultimately, he did obstruct justice. And he was impeached. But Clinton was not removed from office. Why? Well, most people in the United States at the time and most in Congress seemed to believe that what he did was bad, but didn't really compromise his ability to run the country. In fact, Clinton finished his presidency with a high approval rating, and continues to be a heartthrob to this day. Dilma is also, basically, accused of hiding the truth—she allegedly delayed some payments and economic figures in order to make the economy look better, which played in her favor during her reelection campaign in 2013. However, unlike Clinton, she is extremely unpopular across Brazil, and while her crime may have been miniscule, her accusers have won the media battle, and have widespread popular support. Brazil, incidentally, is rated 104th out of 180th in journalistic freedom, and the media itself (which is owned by more conservative interests) is accused of manipulating the situation to vilify Dilma in the eyes of the general populace, making her seem to be at fault for many things she has not been officially accused of. In a democracy, the will of the people is supposed to dictate the actions of the government. Misinformed or not, the will of the people in this case is to remove Dilma from office.
The nation watched the process Sunday, and it was a comical, over-dramatized, hypocrisy-heavy event. Large television screens were erected in public parks and plazas so that massive throngs of people could watch the proceedings live. The mood of the crowds was something like a football match, with the supporters of impeachment wearing green, and the other team wearing red. The players were the deputies in the lower house of Congress in Brasilia, who also treated the whole thing as something of a sporting event. Instead of having members vote "yea" or "nay" or "abstain," the president of the Chamber allowed each voter access to the microphone to voice his or her vote, which allowed each an opportunity to give a brief and impassioned speech about why they chose to vote the way they did. At one point, a fight nearly broke out on the floor between two deputies. Many deputies wore capes and flags which were the color of the team they supported. Several deputies brought and shot off confetti cannons in support of the impeachment. One stole the microphone to give a shout out to a family member he had forgotten to mention in his speech. One deputy spat on another deputy and had to by physically restrained.
If you're thinking, "That's crazy!" You are not alone. That's what I was thinking all day.
The speeches of each deputy offered a glimpse of the reasoning behind their votes, which was at times questionable, and at times revolting. Many in favor of the impeachment said things like, "For my mom, for God, and for my country, I vote 'Yes' for impeachment!" Those against it said things like, "Because Dilma has not committed any crime, I vote 'No.'" Several things were notable about these speeches. Those voting "yes" typically did not say they did so because Dilma was guilty of a crime. Instead, they said they were voting "yes" for people. This is weird, and caused an internet explosion of memes about how Dilma is apparently universally hated by the families of the deputies, and by God. Several deputies cited the end to rampant corruption as a reason for their "yes" vote. This was particularly amusing because the action was brought by Eduardo Cunha, who is accused of illicitly receiving more than R$20 million. In fact, more than half of the deputies are currently under investigation or formally charged for some form of corruption, and the fact that they so vociferously opposed corruption in their speeches makes one think that hypocrisy, rather than logic, reigns supreme in the Brazilian Congress. One deputy dedicated her "yes" vote to her husband, a mayor and, according to her, an exemplar of good and fraud-free management. He was arrested for fraud the following day. Several deputies dedicated their 'yes' votes to agricultural development interests, because many of Dilma's environmental policies have endangered those interests. A particularly notable 'yes' vote came from Deputy Jair Bolsonaro, known as a defender of Christian family values and as a supporter of torture and military dictatorships. Bolsonaro dedicated his vote to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, who headed the Brazilian military regime's torture program during the dictatorship here. This was, of course, extremely inflammatory, especially because President Dilma was one of many Brazilian political dissidents tortured at the time for her activities.
Altogether, it seemed to me that the Chamber of Deputies voted "yes" for impeachment not because Dilma has committed a crime, but rather because Dilma has led the country during a recession and has made a number of political enemies. The reasons for voting 'yes' were mostly that the deputies did not like her policies and want someone else in power—even if the person who will assume power is Vice-President Michel Temer, who is himself implicated in the corruption scandal. Many might argue that this is not how democracy is supposed to work—certainly, it is not how it's supposed to work in the States. I disagree, however, that this is not how democracy is supposed to work in Brazil.
Ultimately, I think the Chamber of Deputies came to the right conclusion. Why? Well, the fact of the matter is, whether you like it or not, this is the process as defined by Brazilian law, and the president is currently extremely unpopular across the country, even among those who voted for her in the general election two years ago. The job of the Chamber of Deputies is to do the will of the people, and I think by all measures they succeeded. It is now up to Brazilians to move past this, with a new set of (perhaps even-more) corrupt people in power, and look for ways to improve their system so that the rampant corruption that exists at every level of government here today can be reduced and the country and its people can prosper.
~Ethan Shirley, Poconé, MT Brazil
I'm currently patiently waiting for my boat and motor to arrive so that I can continue my research talking to fishermen on the river. I was hoping that I would have the boat by now, but things like this tend to move slowly. There's no point trying to force them to go fast, unless you want to stress yourself out. I've done that to myself enough times in the past, and I've learned my lesson. As a local song goes, "Ando devagar, porque já tive pressa..." ("I go slowly now, because I've been rushed in the past, [and I'm, like, so over it]...") In other words, I am going with the flow; just not the flow of the river, yet.
In my last post I mentioned that I live in an orphanage. This may seem unusual, so let me give a brief history. I've worked on a number of projects here in the Pantanal since 2004. A lot of my work involved teaching English to people in the inchoate tourism industry. I looked at my volunteer work as both an opportunity for me to teach myself tropical field biology and as an opportunity to give back to the community here. When I was in college, I managed to convince some hapless friends to come down here with me and try to set up a rural school and field station, with the idea that more interaction between researchers and locals would be beneficial to all involved and would help with the fight to preserve the Pantanal. Keeping the school going in Porto Jofre is an ongoing challenge, but ultimately the work there in the middle of nowhere won me and other volunteers the opportunity to work at a number of other schools on a number of other projects. These projects—including teaching English, CPR and first aid, sustainable technologies, biology, and music—were the impetus behind the creation of Juara Foundation. They ultimately led to my involvement here at the orphanage, where we base our music projects and many of our other education projects, and where the director has given us a small bit of living space in exchange for our help with the kids and our projects.
So now I live in an orphanage. This is at times wonderful and at times, err, less-so. The facility here is in constant need of maintenance and repairs, and is hardly a five-star accommodation. It's more like a hovel, full of loud kids. The plus side is that it is a hovel, full of loud kids who bother me incessantly, which I quite like. There are very few things that I enjoy as much as playing soccer with the kids here. I'm also slowly teaching a little English and piano to some of the kids. I often am awoken at ungodly hours of the morning or night by kids wanting to play the piano, which I, stupidly, decided to put in my room. Every so often one of the kids will miss the school bus and I'll have to rush him to school on my motorcycle. The kids get far too much enjoyment out of this, and I'm soundly convinced that on several occasions, they have intentionally missed the bus just to get a free ride on the bike. I admit that I get enjoyment out of it, too, though—I'm helping make going to school cool!
~Ethan Shirley, Poconé, MT Brazil
After two weeks of testing out a survey instrument with local fishermen here in the Pantanal, I'm finally getting comfortable with the questions that I am asking. I've had to change my questions a million times so that they are actually understandable to the people fishing here. I am working to a certain extent with the local Fishermen's Colony, a lobbying organization that also provides a space for the weekly fish market and is responsible for issuing licenses to professional and amateur fishermen. The president of the Colony told me that some 40 percent of the professional fishermen whose opinions I'd like to hear are illiterate. Based on years of personal experience, I suspect the percentage is far greater than that—many are literate only in the sense that they have learned how to sign their name on papers. Because the local fishermen have so little formal education, many are intimidated by surveys, and really writing in general; for this reason, the survey that I am doing is really a structured interview in which I orally ask the questions on the survey form. The subject of my research is compliance, or rather noncompliance, with fisheries rules. The rules here stipulate species-specific size minima for fish that are caught in rivers and weight restrictions for how much people can transport at a time. I am focusing on the size minimum for pacú, an omnivorous piranha relative that can grow more than two feet in length. The weight restrictions vary based on the type of license a fisherman possesses, with professionals allowed to catch about 100kg, ten times that of amateurs. These rules are commonly broken, something that I have personally borne witness to on a number of occasions, and also something that is supported by remarks by fishermen themselves during interviews.
While it may seem silly for me to be walking up to someone and asking whether or not they break the rules, it is actually one of the more reliable methods of getting compliance rates. Specifically, I am interested in why people choose not to comply with laws, and how compliance rates might be increased. My more than a decade of experience here in the Pantanal has led me to believe that the people here don't think that environmental laws are right. I think this might be due to the fact that there is so little communication between locals, who are largely without formal education and many of whom are illiterate, and scientific agencies and scientists that do the studies and create the laws. Basically, I am asking people whether they comply with laws, and then I am asking them how much they trust the agency that sets the laws, and seeing if there is a correlation between the two. I am also asking questions about environmental attitudes, risk perception, knowledge and understanding of the rules, and cultural norms in the region to see if those different potential causes of noncompliance correlate.
I started my research by interviewing fishermen at the fish market the week before and the week of Easter. Those who know about a thing or two about Catholic traditions know that it is customary to eat fish, and not red meat, on Good Friday. This results in a huge influx of fishing, especially the week before Easter. The fish market, which normally opens on Saturday and Sunday, instead opens on Wednesday and Thursday, and professional fishermen bring their catch from the river to town where locals buy fish until the stock runs out on Friday. The fish caught are mostly pacú, pintado (a large catfish), and piranha. Piranha are so common that they aren't subject to weight and size restrictions like the larger fish. Fishermen arrived on the top of big flatbed pickups, stacked high with Styrofoam coolers filled with ice. A pacú at the fish market of legal size goes for between 45 and 60 Reais, which is roughly fifteen dollars at today's exchange rate.
With a heavy influx of fishing at this time of year, environmental regulators such as the state Secretary of the Environment (SEMA) up their enforcement of the rules. All week, police officers stopped each car and truck coming in from the two major roads going into the Pantanal and searched them for undersized fish or catch that exceeded weight limits. This is one of the few times when there is any sort of enforcement, and the result was a lot of seizures of undersized fish and fines handed out. The reason that I know that there were many people who were caught and forced to give up their fish is that I was actually a direct beneficiary of these enforcement actions. You see, whenever fish are seized, they are donated to the local orphanage. And the orphanage is where I happen to reside, helping out with various side projects involving the kids. So, every time someone is caught violating a fishing rule, I have a tasty, free dinner with all my friends. I suppose this provides me with some twisted incentive to actually encourage more illegal fishing...
~Ethan Shirley, Poconé, MT Brazil
I begin my research project at a time of civil unrest in Brazil. Brazil is a country known for its massive parades, so it is not surprising that its protests bear a strong resemblance to celebratory processions, replete with street vendors selling ice-cold beers and snacks. Although Brazilians never seem to tire of parades, the populace has grown very tired indeed of rampant corruption, for which Brazil is also known. The questions of why people break laws and why people follow laws are especially interesting in a time and place in which people so openly and vociferously oppose the government that creates the laws.
My research focuses on environmental laws—Brazil, after all, is known not only for its parades and corruption, but also for its natural resources, and especially the Amazon rainforest. Although the Amazon is the best known of the country's natural wonders, Brazil also is home to several other fascinating natural areas. Specifically, I am focusing on fisheries regulations in the Brazilian Pantanal, why people decide to violate them, and whether interactions with scientists can improve compliance with them. I've been working in the Brazilian Pantanal, the world's largest inland wetland, for fourteen years now on a variety of different service and research projects. I have lived alongside many people who think that environmental preservation is of utmost importance, but who see environmental laws as incomprehensibly complex inventions of scientists and politicians that exist solely to punish people who are living the same way their forefathers did for hundreds of years. These views that seem to be at odds with each other motivate my research.
I am investigating questions of compliance that other researchers have looked at in other places, but have never been asked about the fishermen in the Pantanal. As the numbers and size of fish in Pantanal rivers continue to shrink, the need for better conservation of this resource that is so important for the people here grows more and more. I have high hopes that my research may provide some insight into how scientists and people living in rural areas can better work together to conserve natural resources now so they are available for generations to come.
This is the first installment of this Sponsored Researcher Blog. I will post here stories, opinions, images, highlights of my progress, and other silly or interesting pieces of information. I will post roughly every two weeks for the next eight months or so, for the duration of my Fulbright grant. Next year, I hope to pass on the torch to another researcher. Thanks for reading!
~Ethan Shirley, Poconé, MT Brazil