• Water Production Connections

Postcard from the Field: The Rondonian Environment

By Rachel Dubbs

A pasture with a few palm trees. A billowy plume of smoke comes from forest on the horizon against a grey hazy sky.
Burn in Ouro Preto do Oeste, 2005. Photo credit: Jill Caviglia-Harris

The Connections between Water and Rural Production project (CAP) investigates whether and which farmers adapt their production systems when they experience changes in rainfall, what adaptations they make, and whether these adaptations reduce income losses expected when drying occurs. Improved understanding of these responses will inform efforts by government agencies and civil society to help farmers adjust to changes in water availability. As an environmental studies and political science major at Salisbury University, I followed the researchers and recorded my observations.


After my return to Salisbury for fall semester 2019, I sat down to write about my travels in Rondônia. As I prepared to write, I saw messages from Leonardo DiCaprio, Madonna and other celebrities on social media noting that the Amazon was ablaze. Who would have imagined that one month ago, I was in the exact same location as one of the most trending taglines of the week: #prayfortheAmazon? Alongside the tagline were images of flames consuming mature, green tropical forests and thick, grey smoke concealing the sun.

One of my favorite aspects of Rondônia was the appearance of the vast blue sky dotted with billowy, cumulus clouds. It seems ridiculous, but for some reason, the sky in Rondônia seemed so big, and made you and your surroundings feel incredibly miniscule. That big blue sky had vanished.


Before I arrived in Brazilian Amazon, I learned that the Rondônian landscape was not what I would expect it to be. My mentors, Drs. Jill Caviglia-Harris, Daniel Harris and Andrew Sharma, informed me that Rondônia is one of the most deforested states in the Amazon.

Government programs first encouraged migration to the area in the 1970s. During this time, tens of thousands of migrants moved from the more populated urban regions around Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro for free land. Rapid deforestation resulted when these migrants cleared land to establish family farms.


During my time in Rondônia, I was able to tag along with several Rondonian students who were surveying local farmers to gather information about how they lived and used their land. Though I came prepared to see extensive deforestation, I don’t think anything could have prepared me for what I consider an environmental studies student’s worst nightmare.

Our drive to the farmers’ homes included miles and miles of dirt roads cut through expansive pastures without any forests in sight. It often was difficult to breathe because of the dust that was circulating throughout the air. I felt discouraged to see this version of the “Amazon” mostly because I had a short experience of what Rondônia could be.


I couldn’t help but wonder how this dry, dusty climate could be a result of deforestation. When discussing my observations with Drs. Trent Biggs, a hydrologist, and Fernando De Sales, a climatologist, both professors at San Diego State University, they informed me that Rondônia’s history of deforestation had significantly impacted the environment.

Biggs explained that “fewer trees means less rain,” causing changes to the hydrological cycle. De Sales added that the long-term presence of agriculture, and its continuing intensification, in tandem with declining rainfall could greatly reduce soil quality. Both predict that farmers eventually will need to adjust to these shifting environmental conditions.


On my flight back to the U.S., I wondered if what I saw on the Rondônian landscape is the future for all of the Amazon. As I sit here now, days after #prayfortheAmazon has trended, I’ve learned that the fires started in part because the Brazilian government views the forested Amazon as an inefficient use of land. President Bolosonaro, whose rhetoric supports continued development and agricultural expansion into the Amazon, rejected donations to help fight the fires started by his farmer supporters and will likely continue to push to further develop the region.