Stories in Massachusetts

From New England to Brazil

We follow Christian Marks as he takes on a new challenge.

Christian Marks
Marks: A group of visitors from the Great Rivers Partnership program partners visit a farm on the Sao Lourenco River, Mato Grasso, Brazil. © ©Tom Eisenhart/TNC

The Nature Conservancy ecologist Christian Marks has traveled several thousand miles from  Northampton, Mass., to Brasilia, Brazil on behalf of TNC, and we’re going to follow along—if only from a distance.

In Brazil, where he arrived in August, Marks will be using some of the skills he’s sharpened during years of work on forest and stream restoration in the Connecticut River watershed.

His objective: help synthesize scientific evidence quantifying the benefits native vegetation provides to neighboring agriculture, particularly in the context of croplands in Mato Grosso state.

Aside from building the business case for forest restoration, Marks will be developing landscape scenarios to guide reforestation efforts toward places where those efforts will maximally benefit conservation and agriculture.

For the 5 months he’s in Brazil, we’ll check in periodically to learn about his experiences and his work. 

November 2018

Q: Are you starting to settle into a routine? How is this different from what you typically would do in Massachusetts?

It took a while to get into a good routine, but now I am almost as productive in Brasilia as I am at home. The differences in the routine are mostly superficial like wearing shorts instead of pants or taking the bus instead of my car or bicycle. I enjoy observing and contemplating the everyday nature around me in both places. For example, I was not expecting to see any of the same species in the drastically different climates of Massachusetts and Brasilia, but there are some such as mulberry trees and pigeons. Interestingly, both species are not native in either North or South America. They went through a period of domestication in Eurasia before being introduced into other continents. This observation makes me wonder if a species’ relationship to humans may be more important than climate in determining if the species will thrive in our rapidly changing world.

Q: Have you had an opportunity to be a ‘tourist’ in Brazil? Any favorite places so far?

There is much to see in Brazil. For instance, we visited the famous Pantanal floodplains. As fish become concentrated in the shrinking wetlands during the dry season, wildlife gathers there to take advantage of an easy meal. We did indeed see abundant wildlife in the Pantanal, especially spectacular birds like Jabiru storks and hyacinth macaws, but the Jaguar whose tracks we saw remained elusive. 

Our biggest discovery has been the Chapada dos Veadeiros. This national park is not well known outside Brazil, but it should be. It offers hiking through spectacular Cerrado landscapes and along dramatic canyons punctuated by refreshing swims below waterfalls. Next to the park are two small Hippie towns, São Jorge and Alto Paraíso de Goiás with a relaxed atmosphere. A great place to enjoy an Açaí bowl or a caipirinha after a hike. 

Q: It’s fall here in New England, so we’re enjoying a colorful ‘Oktoberforest’. What are you looking forward to there?

I miss the fall colors in New England. The rainy season has started here which has turned the trees green again. The locals call these early rains “mango rains” because the fruits will ripen soon. Aside from picking fresh mangos, I am looking forward to a week of vacation in the Amazon.  

Q: In the last blog, you referred to challenges finding win-win solutions in both agriculture and conservation. Could you elaborate? How have you navigated this space?

Agriculture covets land that wildlife depends on for habitat which creates a conflict with conservation, but there are some potential win-wins. For instance, there are the obvious win-wins that involve efficiency like in any other industry. If producers use fertilizer more efficiently through precision agriculture, it reduces costs and pollution. That is great, but adoption of efficiency-increasing production systems will often happen even without the involvement of NGOs because efficient systems are more competitive. Where can TNC make more of a difference? TNC is here because deforestation threatens biodiversity of the world’s largest tropical forest and river, not to mention the world’s climate. Our challenge is to show the value of remnant forest to agricultural producers. We have decided to focus on two potential arguments for forest conservation in agricultural landscapes based on our review of the scientific evidence so far. The first argument is that pollination of crops by wild insects that live in the neighboring forest increases yield. The second argument is that forest vegetation plays a critical role in maintaining precipitation regimes in the tropics. We are now investigating the available data to see if these two arguments have compelling quantitative support in the context of this region. 

September 2018

Q: You had a very busy few weeks before you left home in Massachusetts. How did it feel to finally touch down in Brazil?

The last week before leaving on a longer trip is often hectic. There was much to prepare because my family came with me. What a relief when we finally arrived. There are so many new impressions when one travels to a new country or city for the first time that I don’t know where to begin. Even before landing the impressions started. I was immediately struck by the colorfulness of the tropics. It is currently the end of the dry season in Brasilia. Much of the grass has died exposing the bright red tropical soils. In the city, there were more bright colors. Despite having lost their leaves during the dry season, the ipê trees were in full bloom. Their yellow and pink flowers brighten the many parks and avenues of this beautifully designed capital city. We never know what we will see next or when. Yesterday, I walked to pick up the kids at their school and left the camera at home, not expecting to see anything out of the ordinary. On the lawn in front of the school along a busy city street, there was a burrowing owl standing next to its burrow. From perhaps four paces away, the owl just looked at us calmly as if its presence in the city was the most normal thing in the world.

Q: Tell us a little bit about the photos you shared.

I tried to capture the bright colors of the tropics for you with my limited photography skills. The golden ipê tree is Brazil's national tree. It blooms at the end of the dry season when the trees are bare of leaves. The local parakeets relish the nectar in their flowers. The parakeets drop the blossoms creating a carpet of gold on the ground. Pink ipê is almost as beautiful. This pink ipê tree in my picture has some red mud nests on the branches. The João de Barro or "John of clay" bird builds these nests. These small cheerful birds are ubiquitous in Brasilia’s parks. I also included a picture of a termite mound from a city park to show you just how red the soil is.

Q: What sort of work have done since you arrived?

Making my way through the extensive Brazilian bureaucracy to set up the basics of daily life took more of my time than I would have liked in this first week. Luckily, the Brazilians were very helpful. I also started early on learning about the local conservation context from my Brazilian TNC colleagues. The planning phase of a project is usually the most important in my experience, and that is where I am concentrating now. I must confess that the challenge of finding win-win solutions for agriculture and conservation is daunting. Nevertheless, it is a challenge that we must try to solve as more and more of the world’s surface is used for agriculture to feed a growing population. Will any of our team’s ideas prove feasible? I hope that at least one of them does. I will keep you posted over the coming months.