Conservation news

Two scientists and a NASA astronaut just biked across the Brazilian Amazon and want to tell you about it

  • On Sept 26, two scientists and a NASA astronaut completed TransAmazon +25, a bike trek across the Brazilian Amazon.
  • What makes this trip particularly interesting is that one of the cyclists, Osvaldo Stella, a mechanical engineer with the non-profit Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) in Brazil who works with small-scale farmers and other landowners to preserve and restore forests, did the same ride 25 years ago.
  • Stella was accompanied on the journey by Paulo Moutinho, a co-founder and senior scientist at IPAM and a Distinguished Policy Fellow at the Woods Hole Research Center in the USA; as well as Chris Cassidy, an astronaut with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Navy SEAL.
  • “Gold mining, deforestation, and pastures covered many of the areas that were covered with forest 25 years ago,” Stella told Mongabay. ”The cities are larger but have not changed much in their overall appearance. One more sign that the current economic model generates much impact to the environment but little improvement in the quality of life of the people.”

On Sept 26, two scientists and a NASA astronaut completed TransAmazon +25, a bike trek across the Brazilian Amazon.

What makes this trip particularly interesting is that one of the cyclists, Osvaldo Stella, a mechanical engineer with the non-profit Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) in Brazil who works with small-scale farmers and other landowners to preserve and restore forests, did the same ride 25 years ago. That means he was able to observe firsthand the environmental and social changes that have occurred in the region over the past quarter century.

On that first ride, Stella was joined by a couple of friends who were also inspired to venture across the Amazon after having witnessed the outcomes of the 1992 Rio Earth Summit. This time around, though, Stella was accompanied on the journey by Paulo Moutinho, a co-founder and senior scientist at IPAM and a Distinguished Policy Fellow at the Woods Hole Research Center in the USA; as well as Chris Cassidy, an astronaut with the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and Navy SEAL.

For Transamazon +25, the three cyclists covered 1,000 kilometers (about 620 miles) of the Trans-Amazonian Highway in the Brazilian states of Pará and Amazonas. They made a documentary film about the trek, but they were also on a scientific fact-finding mission — and they are now eager to report the changes to the landscapes and local communities that they bore witness to.

Their larger goal, however, is to inspire the conservation of the Amazon and support the people and wildlife who live in the rainforest. “Home to 25 million Brazilians, this vast region is a treasure of inestimable value,” according to the TransAmazon +25 website. “The adventurers will open a window on the region and inspire people to preserve the forest and protect the rights of the people who call it home.”

“Gold mining, deforestation, and pastures covered many of the areas that were covered with forest 25 years ago,” Stella told Mongabay. “During this period more than 340,000 km2 of forests were cleared throughout the Amazon. Currently, the total deforested area in the Amazon is 700,000 km2, an area equivalent to the entire state of Texas. The cities are larger but have not changed much in their overall appearance. One more sign that the current economic model generates much impact to the environment but little improvement in the quality of life of the people.”

Mongabay interviewed Stella, Moutinho, and Cassidy about what it was like biking — sometimes for 12 hours a day — through a rainforest in 100-degree-Fahrenheit heat, what they saw during their trip, and the changes that have occurred in the Amazon over the past 25 years.

From left: Stella, Moutinho, and Cassidy on the Trans-Amazonian Highway. Photo courtesy of Team TransAmazon25.

Mongabay: What was it like to bike through a rainforest? I imagine hot and sweaty, but it would be great to hear your firsthand take.

Stella: In Amazonia we have two well defined seasons: the winter, the season of the most intense rains, which runs from September to April; and summer, which is hottest and least rainy and runs from May to August. This year, the dry season is prolonged and the weather is drier than normal. These two factors plus deforestation contributed to a year with record fire outbreaks in the region.

Moutinho: The rainforest can fascinate and scare pretty much anyone. At the beginning of the trip, I was not expecting the enormous hills. It scared me a bit, and during the two first days, I was worried that I was not physically prepared for it. The Amazon is not flat terrain!

Cassidy: The route was surprisingly hilly, much more so than I was expecting. And the lack of rain made for a very dry, hot, and dusty ride. However, the interaction with the local people along the way far surpassed my expectations in terms of how welcoming they were. That made the heat, sweat, and thirst much more bearable.

Mongabay: Was it the rainy or dry season when you did the rides in 1992 and 2017? How big a logistical hurdle was the rain, if it was the rainy season? What other challenges were there, and how’d you overcome them? For instance, were you on roads most of the time, or did you have to do some trailblazing?

Stella: The first trip in 1992 began in December and lasted until the end of February 1993, during the rainy season. Although the heat is strenuous and there is a lot of dust, mud makes the trip more complicated. Even the road being in better condition this time around, the few days of rain that we had reminded me of the hell we went through on the first trip. At that time, many stretches of the road were not ready for cars and we walked in the middle of the woods. This year, the entire section of road was dirt, but quite passable for cars.

Moutinho: It was the dry season [for the 2017 ride] — and a very extreme one, no less. So, the most critical logistical issue to overcome was to find the water that we needed. We had to find small rivers with water good enough to drink.

With our bikes we were on the roads all the time. However, at night we had to trailblaze a bit to clear places in the forest to hang our hammocks.

The cyclists frequently had to trailblaze at night and clear places in the forest to hang their hammocks. Photo courtesy of Team TransAmazon25.

Mongabay: Did you have a support team pacing you as you did the ride and/or helping with logistics?

Stella: Other than the first couple days, no. In both trips, we went alone and the only logistical support we had was the sending of spare parts and food to some points along the way.

Moutinho: We had a truck with the photographer and film maker only for the first couple of days. The rest of the ride was without any kind of support or help with logistics.

Mongabay: What was the main objective of the ride? What were some of your personal reasons for wanting to do the ride?

Stella: On the first trip, the main objective was to discover and know the region that was very distant from the majority of the population of the country. As a result of, and since, that experience, I have worked for many years in different projects in the region. On the second trip, the main objective was to see firsthand the changes that are taking place in the region and raise awareness of the importance of the Amazon and the need to develop new economic activities in the region that are not linked to environmental degradation.

Moutinho: One objective was to better understand — on the ground — the dynamic of land use and deforestation in an area still largely covered by forest. Unlike other parts of the Trans-Amazonian Highway, the area we were passing through is still relatively well preserved. However, the forest is very quickly being destroyed by logging, gold mining, and cattle pasture creation. Only a bike trip can give you a real perspective about what is going on with the local population and the forest.

Cassidy: T25 appealed to my adventurous spirit and scientific curiosity. I wanted to see from the ground this important ecosystem and what is happening there, after having already seen it from space.

Stella on the original TransAmazon ride in 1992. Photo courtesy of Team TransAmazon25.

Mongabay: Did you see much wildlife on the ride? Any notable wildlife encounters? Overall did you see more or less wildlife than you did 25 years ago?

Stella: In general, it is not common to see large animals on a trip like this because with the truck noise they move away. During the first trip, the encounters with wild animals were more frequent because the road was less used. Back then, there were stretches in which there was no vehicle traffic, and it was possible to find more animals. However, we saw lots of macaws, parrots, and other species of birds.

Moutinho: On the road it’s not easy to see wildlife due the car and truck traffic. However, we had a chance to see wide range of bird species (macaws and parrots particularly; they are beautiful and noisy), monkeys (including one common species that makes a very spooky sound during the night), and many jaguar paw prints. We also had to deal with a snake inside a room in which we were sleeping one night.

Mongabay: Did you pass many cow pastures, soy plantations, etc. that were rainforest on the original ride 25 years ago? Or rural landscapes that are now cities, even?

Stella: In the region that we crossed in this trip, we could observe a diversity of alterations in the landscape. Gold mining, deforestation, and pastures covered many of the areas that were covered with forest 25 years ago. During this period more than 340,000 km2 of forests were cleared throughout the Amazon. Currently, the total deforested area in the Amazon is 700,000 km2, an area equivalent to the entire state of Texas. The cities are larger but have not changed much in their overall appearance. One more sign that the current economic model generates much impact to the environment but little improvement in the quality of life of the people.

Cows block the Trans-Amazonian Highway as the cyclists approach. Photo courtesy of Team TransAmazon25.

Mongabay: Did you witness any impacts on indigenous and traditional people’s lands and livelihoods as a result of these changes to the landscape?

Stella: Indigenous lands and local populations are directly impacted by this dynamic. Indigenous lands are increasingly under pressure from both mining and deforestation.

Moutinho: A large portion of the lands along the road is Munduruku and Parintintins indigenous lands. They are surrounded by the forested areas being converted to extensive pasture. A large portion of indigenous villages are exposed to smoke from fires used by the ranchers to clean pasture areas. The effects on their health (breathing problems) are potentially enormous.

Cassidy with his bike near a patch of forest that was recently burned. Photo courtesy of Team TransAmazon25.

Mongabay: Were there any signs of transnational corporations like Cargill, ADM, Bunge, or Amaggi operating in the region? Or any evidence of how consumerism has infiltrated the region?

Stella: The border of soy production has not yet arrived in this region but in several places like Itaituba and Humaita, it is possible to see the huge silos to store the soy that is already being drained by the rivers and roads of the region. This economic model based on the production of commodities for export is impracticable both for the preservation of the environment and for the reduction of social inequalities in the country.

Moutinho: Close to Humaitá city (in the state of Amazonas), there is a growing expectation that the soy industry can be established in the region. Many land owners reported their interest in selling their lands to “sojeiros” (soybean planters). The Amaggi seem to be present in Humaitá.

Mongabay: Did you see many programs to prevent deforestation on the ride?

Stella: No, the environmental agenda in Brazil is in one of its biggest crises ever. People who profit from mining, land sales, and illegal logging elect officials who are actively working to dismantle all the environmental legislation that has been built in recent decades.

Moutinho: Not really. We found the [Brazilian environmental agency] IBAMA coordinating a fire control brigade with members of an indigenous people. But, the law enforcement there seems to be weak. It’s very easy to find illegal gold mining activities at the roadside.

Stella, Moutinho, and Cassidy each consumed as much as 10 liters of water per day during the ride. Because they couldn’t carry that much water with them, they had to find it in local streams and creeks. Photo courtesy of Team TransAmazon25.

Mongabay: Overall, did you feel the rainforest is as healthy as it was 25 years ago?

Stella: Visibly the forest is suffering. Deforestation and climatic changes together have created this scenario of record forest fires this summer, three times more than last year in the state of Pará. We pedaled hundreds of miles under a thick layer of smoke. The “lungs of the world,” as the Amazon rainforest is known, is full of smoke.

Moutinho: I would say that the rainforest is much more threatened than 25 years ago. It’s the same industries that have been destroying the forest and consuming its natural resources over the last two or three decades, but that consumption is happening much more quickly now.

Mongabay: The Amazon has been hit by big droughts and major wildfires lately. Did they see any signs of that?

Stella: The first report of the 1997 IPCCC predicted that one of the impacts of climate change would be more intense and frequent extreme climatic events in the Amazon. So, as in the United States, it is possible to see that they were right.

Moutinho: The dry season in this year was very strong. We saw large areas being burned, and during one four-day period, we pedaled in the middle of dense smoke.

Cassidy: Yes, and we captured some amazing drone footage of some of them. The number and extent of the fires also surprised me, given that this is a “rain” forest. Obviously, I knew that cattle farmers were using fires to clear pasture, but I was surprised by the extent of it.

The TransAmazon +25 team saw large areas of the Amazon being burned, and even endured a four-day period during which they had to pedal through dense smoke. Photo courtesy of Team TransAmazon25.

Mongabay: How did you use the ride to raise awareness of what’s going on in the Amazon?

Stella: When traveling on a bicycle, you can feel the environment. Because of the heat, each of us needed at least 10 liters of water per day and it is not possible to carry that much water due to its weight. So, we needed to stock up at streams and creeks on the way. In the mining areas, it was difficult to find suitable water sources. It struck me that they are destroying fresh water in order to get gold, but in the end, it is impossible to live without water and gold is of no use. Showing the contradiction of our model of life can be a good way to draw attention to the Amazon.

Moutinho: The combination of extreme sport (mountain biking) with environmental protection seems to be a powerful way to attract attention to the issue. And when you have an astronaut pedaling with you, that increases the interest even more. He brings a unique perspective, having seen the region from space, and now seeing it close up, on the ground. Everyone has some idea about what’s going on in the Amazon, but they are not really paying attention to it. So, we hope that by including a new element (sports), we will be able to reach many more people and make more of them actually care about preserving the rainforest.

Cassidy: Hopefully the documentary that we’re making will reach a large audience. T25 is not a group of elite athletes doing something that regular people could never do. It’s just three regular, middle-aged guys pushing their limits, and doing so in an important region of the planet. It should appeal to a broad range of people, including those interested in sports or adventure travel — regular people who perhaps don’t currently give much thought to the Amazon, or the environmental challenges we face in general.

Additionally, when I speak to students and adults during future Astronaut appearances, I now have direct on-the-ground Amazon experience to go with the perspective I gained from my time living on the International Space Station. Just as the ISS is a spaceship sustaining the life of those living on board, Earth is a spaceship sustaining the life of all 7.5 billion of us. And Spaceship Earth is fragile, we need to take better care of it. Hopefully T25 will help more people realize this.

From left: Stella, Cassidy, and Moutinho on the Trans-Amazonian Highway. Photo courtesy of Team TransAmazon25.

Follow Mike Gaworecki on Twitter: @mikeg2001