Feature Story

Connecting the Amazon Rainforest

by Laurence Cruz

A Brazilian nonprofit is using broadband to bring distance learning, telemedicine and opportunities to the jungle to help reduce deforestation.

Ten years ago, Virgilio Viana was a lonely voice in the Amazon. His approach to preserving the health of the ailing "lungs of the world" set him apart from the many rainforest activists who focused purely on protecting the environment. The key to helping the rainforest, Viana maintained, was to help its guardians – the people who live in it.

Viana, who today is one of Brazil's leading experts on the Amazon, has spent the past decade pioneering a strategy to do just that. The nonprofit he heads, the Amazonas Sustainable Foundation (FAS), focuses on reducing deforestation by investing in those who dwell there, improving their livelihoods and teaching them to make better use of forest resources. The group's main goal and challenge is also its eight-word mantra: "To make forests worth more standing than cut." And, perhaps surprisingly, one of its most powerful tools is broadband connectivity.

"It makes a huge difference," says Viana, whose unique approach is gaining traction in Brazil and around the world. "Reducing deforestation is not primarily an issue of more police and enforcement. It's about education, awareness and economic alternatives, and for those things connectivity is very important."

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Distance Learning in the Jungle

The broadband connection, provided by satellite and paid for by the state of Amazonas, is bringing distance learning to the rainforest and helping Viana realize a dream of establishing "small universities" there. So far, FAS has built four campuses, each located in a state-protected area of the rainforest, and a fifth is on the way. Known as conservation and sustainability centers, or nuclei, each is equipped with classrooms, lodges for teachers and students, a healthcare center and a digital center housing a satellite antenna and computers with Internet access.

Viana says the benefits of the broadband service are myriad. The most obvious is the education of children who would otherwise have little or no formal schooling, due largely to vast distances to cities and a lack of roads. With FAS, children travel by boat from their homes to the nearest nucleus, staying for 10 to 15 days of every month. There, in addition to workshops on subjects like forest and fisheries management, they attend virtual, interactive, real-time lessons in subjects like Portuguese, math and science taught via telepresence by teachers hundreds of miles away in Manaus, the largest city in Amazonas. Local teachers guide the process, assisting with exercises, homework and so on.

"If it wasn't for the Internet connection, we wouldn't have education beyond fourth grade or elementary school," says Viana, who previously served as Secretary of State for the Environment and Sustainable Development in Amazonas.

Stemming the Rainforest Brain Drain

But educating kids is just the start. Viana says bringing education and the Internet to the heart of the jungle also reduces the migration of forest dwellers to cities, where many lack the skills to survive and all too often fall victim to prostitution, drugs and other urban ills. And since it's often the brightest kids who are the first to leave for the city, providing greater educational opportunities in the rainforest helps to retain talent there, Viana says.

"Having broadband discourages this brain drain," he says."The more bright and educated people we have in the rainforest, the more likely we are to come up with solutions to make forests worth more standing than cut."

The health centers in the nuclei use Skype for telemedicine sessions between doctors in Manaus and patients in the rainforest, with local resident nurses liaising between the two, Viana says. Broadband connectivity also provides access to markets for small businesses that are taking root in the jungle. For example, some forest communities are investing in tourism and can now advertize lodging and other services via websites, he says.

The satellite broadband service also helps combat another casualty of the isolation of life in the jungle – political engagement. Viana says presidents of the local associations that govern protected areas in the rainforest use the service to communicate with local mayors and the state government about their concerns. And rainforest dwellers can use it to send messages to alert government authorities about forest fires, illegal logging and other activities that degrade the forest, Viana says.

Environmental Services

The stakes in the fight to preserve the 2-million-square-mile Amazon could not be higher. Scientists have shown that, like other tropical rainforests in Southeast Asia and Africa, the Amazon acts like a giant pump, cycling moisture around the planet. But the march of deforestation has leveled 17 percent of the original forest cover, much of it since 2000, according to Brazil's National Institute for Space Research (INPE). And if current trends continue, some models predict as much as 30 percent of the forest cover in Amazonas state will be destroyed by 2050, with corresponding massive releases of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, FAS says.

Borrowing a concept minted by famed Brazilian Amazon expert Samuel Benchimol, Viana says this water-cycling action of the rainforest constitutes an "environmental service," and that those who ensure its continuance should, like providers of other services, be compensated. To that end, Amazonas state has joined forces with Brazil's largest private bank, Bradesco, to fund a scheme that pays cash to rainforest dwellers in exchange for trees left standing.

For example, to qualify for a payment of 600 reais (US$360) a year, a family must attend a two-day training course on environmental awareness and commit to zero deforestation and ecological practices to prevent forest fires. Instruction is largely geared towards changing economic incentives. Case in point, attendees learn they can earn more money by selling Brazil nuts than by illegally selling the timber of the Brazil nut tree.

Changing the Economic Equation

Viana says there's evidence that this scheme, known as "Bolsa Floresta" (forest allowance), combined with FAS's education program, is working. According to a 2010 INPE report, forest fires decreased by more than 50 percent in one sustainable development reserve where FAS has teamed up with the state and the Marriott International hotel chain to carry out a project to reduce deforestation and degradation.

For Viana, it all comes down to education and changing the economic equation.

"The important message is that deforestation is not the result of stupidity or irrationality or ignorance," he says. "If we can show people that they can earn more from a forest standing than from a forest cut, we can win the game."

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