Deep in the western part of the Amazon rainforest, Foster “Butch” Brown ’73 works in a place where three nations meet: a region that encompasses the Madre de Dios area of Peru, the state of Acre in Brazil and the Pando department of Bolivia. He also works in a field where many different scientific, cultural, political, economic and psychological issues intertwine, as he collaborates with the region’s people to confront climate change.
After more than 20 years teaching environmental geochemistry at Brazil’s Fluminense Federal University, Brown is now a senior scientist with the Woods Hole Research Center on Cape Cod and a faculty member at the Federal University of Acre. Since 2005 he has worked with civil defense groups in the western Amazon to prepare for and respond to natural disasters exacerbated by climate change.
That was a year of historic drought and frequent fires in the rainforest, as was 2010. In 2012, floodwaters devastated Iñapari, Peru, and in 2015, Brasiléia, Brazil. And the possibility of epidemics of dengue, chikungunya and Zika has made mosquito control a priority. “Extreme events,” Brown says, “are now becoming a way of life in the western Amazon.”
When he helps to run climate-change workshops for rural workers and leaders of the local indigenous communities, they make lists of recent patterns they’ve noticed: more variability in seasonal weather, more agricultural pests, fewer fish in the rivers, less food to eat. He presents slides and acts out skits to illustrate how these changes relate to the trade winds, the water cycle and the ways that cattle ranchers and gold miners use the land.
After that, they make plans of action for the next year (such as “internships with our brothers from other ethnic groups”), five years (“aquaculture projects”) and 50 years (“reforestation of degraded areas”).
In conducting these workshops, and in reaching the public through lectures, TV interviews and a newspaper column, Brown finds that audiences can be divided into three groups. The first are the skeptics who deny that climate change is happening. The second acknowledge it but feel there’s little use in humanity trying to mitigate or adapt to such an enormous problem. The third are the optimistic and creative people willing to find and implement solutions. Brown’s goal is to move as many people as possible out of groups one and two and into group three.
Brown lives in Rio Branco, Acre’s capital and most populous city, with his wife—Vera Reis, of Acre’s State Commission on Risk Management and Climate Change Institute—and their cat. In his spare time, he plays on an amateur rugby team with men decades his junior. An alumnus of Amherst rugby and football, he values the “emotional education” sports have given him, teaching him how to work on teams with all kinds of people and how to bounce back from defeat.
The Federal University of Acre and its Zoobotanical Park have a two-year MacArthur Foundation grant for what they call the MAP Resilience Project—named for the three locations, Madre de Dios, Acre and Pando. Brown and colleagues are using the money to develop a K–12 education program about water management.
“We aim to change the reigning paradigm from one of exploiting the Amazon for its resources to taking care of it,” he writes. “To keep both our focus and sense of humor, we describe our project as one to save the Earth in two years, and then we will move on to save Mars or Venus.”
Katherine Duke ’05 is the magazine’s assistant editor.