Brazil Tests World's Largest Environmental Monitoring System

But some question how well it will protect the Amazon's endangered ecosystems and peoples

6 min read

Illegal loggers forged into the sweltering depths of Brazil's Amazonian rain forest, near the Bolivian border, carving out new roads to smuggle precious hardwoods. In the wild, lawless region, there seemed little chance that they would be caught, and their new road system could have let them clear a lucrative 1500 km2 of forest.

But not this time. Far overhead, a satellite that feeds information into what's referred to as Sivam, the world's largest environmental monitoring system, gathered images that revealed deforestation in the region. Officials watching data flow into a regional data center in the distant Brazilian city of Manaus sent a plane to investigate. Equipped with multispectral sensors that can detect road-clearing equipment through tree cover, the plane let law enforcement officials collect enough evidence to arrest the loggers. ”We prevented a huge area from being deforested,” Augusto Queiroz, the executive director of the Manaus regional surveillance center, announced proudly the day after the arrests, in mid-June.

Queiroz runs one of three surveillance centers that are part of the System for the Vigilance of the Amazon, or Sivam, its Portuguese acronym. The other two centers, in Porto Velho and Belèm, are coming into operation this month and next.

A fire caused by farmers clearing land rages out of control in the Amazon state of Rondônia.

An elaborate environmental monitoring system paid for by Brazil, Sivam was built during the past six years by the U.S. defense electronics contractor Raytheon Co. (Lexington, Mass.) and two Brazilian outfits, Embraer (São José dos Campos) and Atech (São Paulo)--the former an aeronautics company that has supplied planes for Sivam, the latter the Brazilian system integrator.

The US $1.4 billion system pulls together information from over 500 monitoring devices, ranging from satellites to weather balloons covering 5.2 million km2 of the Amazon. System headquarters are going up in Brasília, the nation's capital, and final system tests on the integration of all the network's components are scheduled to begin in October or November, Greg Vuksich, president of Raytheon Brasil Sistemas, told IEEE Spectrum.

Fires and floods, development and drugs

Sivam is being built to do more than just prevent illegal logging, though that by itself is a big problem in the Amazon. Sivam will also monitor fires, floods, pollution, weather, and--not least--the status of land set aside for indigenous peoples. The idea is to feed a constant flow of critically important data to scientists and to public authorities responsible for regulating the development and protection of the rain forest that covers 61 percent of Brazil.

As a big bonus, Sivam will give Brazil complete control of its own airspace for the first time. This is important not only in the context of civil aviation and air defense, but especially in the fight against drug trafficking along the porous borders with Colombia and Peru, where clandestine airstrips and low-flying planes are key to the trade.

So far, Sivam consists of mobile and fixed radar systems, shared instruments aboard European and U.S. satellites, monitoring planes, various ground-based environmental sensors, and satellite and VHF communications equipment. Thus, weather and remote sensing satellites belonging to commercial agencies and foreign governments send images of the Amazon through Brazil's National Institute for Space Research. Meanwhile, air traffic radar systems at fixed and airborne locations scan the skies, while eight planes equipped with remote sensors fly over the forest to scope out specific areas of interest.

At the same time, environmental conditions are observed with some 200 floating data collection platforms in the Amazon River, over 80 weather stations, lightning-detecting stations, and other environmental sensors scattered throughout the region. And finally, over 900 stations containing a computer, telephone, fax, and satellite transmission antenna let people deputized in remote communities send and receive information about any threatening conditions.

All of this information is sent via satellite to one of the three regional data centers, where it is monitored and processed in real time. Government agencies and other organizations can then access the information on the Internet.

Some sensors, like the water flow and precipitation meters, are basically single-purpose. But most serve many clients and uses. The main thing, says Vuksich, is that the receiver of the information from various sources should then be able to use that information to make a generalization about a larger situation. A single infrared sensor, for example, in combination with other leads, could tip off the environmental ministry to a forest fire or alert law enforcement to illegal mining equipment or a drug processing plant, Vuksich explains .

It also has been exciting to see people putting Sivam to even more uses than initially planned, observe those involved in creating Sivam. ”I know of one case where a Brazilian Navy hospital ship was directed by Sivam to attend to a medical emergency called through a terminal station operated by a local agency,” Colonel Aviator Jurandyr de Souza Fonseca told Spectrum. Fonseca is a member of the Brazilian Air Force and the director of operations at the Commission for the Coordination of Sivam, the organization charged with oversight of the system's construction.

Big boon or Big Brother?

Despite its evident benefits, many find fault with Sivam, complaining that it's unduly focused on military and law enforcement problems, to the detriment of environmental concerns. The fact that a non-Brazilian company, Raytheon, built most of the system also has been a sore point.

”There was not enough participation of the Brazilian industry where Brazil has competence,” says Rogério César Cerqueira Leite, a professor emeritus of physics at the Universidade Estadual de Campinas (São Paulo state).

In defense of the arrangements, Fonseca says, ”A foreign contractor [had] to be selected in order to provide the main technological assets that were not readily available or produced in Brazil.” Nevertheless, that approach was fraught with controversy. In July 1995, a Brazilian judge annulled the initial contract with Raytheon because of irregularities in the evaluation of bids. News reports speculated that the U.S. government had strong-armed the Brazilians into selecting a U.S. company.

In the second round of proposals, Raytheon was again selected to build Sivam, primarily, says Fonseca, because it offered the best financing. But physics professor Leite argues that Brazil could have contributed more--and now will have a harder time updating and maintaining a system it didn't design or build.

In the eyes of Lúcio Flávio Pinto, a Brazilian journalist who has been following Sivam closely, what he calls the ”militarization” of the project is an even bigger concern. Pinto believes that the system really was designed by the military, for the military, to monitor the Amazon for criminal activity. Scientific environmental monitoring was added only as an afterthought, Pinto has argued in the Jornal Pessoal, a newsletter published in northern Brazil.

Fonseca rejects that claim as ”false.” He says, ”Input from Brazilian scientists was requested and welcome since the early stages of the program.” Scientists especially participated in the development of the software designed to manage environmental and weather data, he adds.

On the face of it, the left-leaning Brazilian government headed by President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva would be expected to keep a sharp eye on how Sivam is used or abused. The government's environment minister, Marina Silva, is the daughter of an Amazonian rubber tapper who worked closely with the legendary Chico Mendes [see photos]; Mendes had organized rubber tappers to stand up against cattle ranchers clearing forest and was slain. Yet suspicions persist that Sivam might become part of a repressive apparatus or that sensitive information might be shared--improperly, from Brazil's point of view--with the United States.

Taking responsibility for science

Raytheon and the Brazilian government contend that the information gleaned from Sivam strengthens rather than threatens Brazilian sovereignty over the Amazon, and that information from the system will be adequately protected. Outside organizations, including foreign governments, can make arrangements to share the Sivam data, but only on a limited basis.

”Access is controlled through clearances,” says Fonseca. ”An effort is being made to invite neighboring Amazon countries to become integrated with Sivam so we can share valuable environmental and surveillance data.” But information that could threaten Brazil's national security is accessible only to police and military officials, he insists.

In any event, Sivam as such won't cause the problems that critics like Pinto have highlighted. What matters is how the government uses the data it obtains.

So it remains to be seen if the science and environmental monitoring missions of Sivam will be successfully fulfilled. At this early date, only a few scientists working directly with the government organization running Sivam have had access to the data. ”Useful monitoring data on the environment are yet to come,” says Philip Fearnside, a specialist in deforestation who is working with the National Institute for Research in the Amazon, Manaus. ”Nevertheless, the technology is impressive, and we hope to have useful results when it is functioning.”

Photos: Left: Jamil Bittar; Right:Edison Caetano

All In The Family

Brazil's President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva [center] and his enviorment minister, Marina Silva [left]; the late Chico Mendes [right], the martyred organizer of rubber tappers.

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