LAWRENCE — The Environmental Studies Program at the University of Kansas has entered into a partnership with Instituto Sustentar, a nongovernmental organization based in Brazil headed by KU alumnus Douglas Trent.
The arrangement will facilitate travel, study and research in Brazil by investigators and students from KU, and also help to educate local residents and a generation of Brazilian schoolchildren about the significance of the environment of the Pantanal — one of Earth’s foremost tropical wetland regions.
“It’s a general agreement that allows for a whole range of activities,” said J. Christopher Brown, director of the Environmental Studies Program. “For instance, we want to get students from the School of Business down there, to engage with economic development in the region, and to encourage micro-entrepreneurialism. With Environmental Studies students, we want to get involved in the connection-to-nature project.”
Trent said that engagement with people who live locally would be a major component of the partnership.
“The project takes place on the Paraguay River and in the county of Caceres, Mato Grosso, Brazil,” said Trent. “It will boost understanding of the wildlife of the river and wetland system and protected areas and to engage the citizens of Cáceres to learn about and help protect the wildlife in and around the city.”
Students and researchers associated with the Environmental Studies Program will help to establish baseline populations for several rare and or endangered species, including jaguar, giant and Neotropic river otters, birds, fish and other species.
“They ‘ll go down and have an intense two-week introduction to biodiversity — especially with birds — to learn about a wide variety of creatures and work with education specialists,” Brown said.
Students and researchers working in the Pantanal also will work to investigate the relationship between the condition of the environment its relationship to industry, commerce, investment and employment in the area.
“One of the biggest goals is measuring the effect of environmental degradation on the local economy,” said Brown. “For instance, locals have a fishing industry that employs people, but a lack of river management is causing it to crash.”
In addition to engaging with entrepreneurialism, research and fieldwork, KU students will help area schoolchildren, many of who live in poverty, to engage with their natural surroundings.
“We plan to establish education programs in the schools, to establish more connection to nature and to deal with nature deficit disorder,” said Trent. “Research has shown that kids with nature deficit disorder who walk in the woods and look at birds and trees for three days are more calm and peaceful and can concentrate and think more clearly.”
The “connection to nature” program will involve multiple departments and leading researchers at KU. For example, Ruth Ann Atchley, professor of psychology, has studied the benefits to humans of prolonged exposure to the natural world.
“We look forward to becoming involved in the connection to nature aspects of the Pantanal project," Atchley said. “It’s a unique opportunity to study the cognitive impacts of exposure to nature in urban areas of developing countries.”
Brown said the project would commence in the summer of 2014 with a cohort of around four KU students.
Instituto Sustentar's project Bichos do Pantanal (Pantanal Wildlife) project receives major support from the oil firm Petrobras, through its program Petrobras Ambienta.