Since I was a teenager, not long ago, I knew I wanted to become a doctor. When the time came to go to college, I had everything ready for medical school. However, I received a phone call from my uncle, (a famous surgeon that specialized in kidney transplants) and he wanted to know why I wanted to become a doctor. I answered him right away – “I want to help others!” – His next words changed my life forever – “Sorry Junior, but you want to be a doctor for the wrong reasons. If you really want to help others you need goodwill and resources.” Since that conversation I have been trying to find ways to help others. I used to have a strong feeling that something was missing in my life, an empty space in my chest, a sensation that I could do more. Many years passed, and on February 12th of 2013, I received an email from the Duke-UNC Rotary Peace Center, acknowledging that I was granted a Rotary World Peace Scholarship. In that moment, the empty space in my chest started to fill. Regardless of what I would experience during the program, one thing was clear from the beginning, I wanted to go back to the Brazilian Amazon to help others.
During my first year at Duke, in the Master of International Development Policy Program, focused on Peace and Conflict Resolution, I have been constantly asking myself, what am I going to do with all this knowledge after graduation? I wish my uncle had the answer for this one. Fortunately, during my Conflict Management for International Peacemakers class, Professor Maureen Lempke, asked us to work on an assignment called Peace Laboratory, where we were supposed to create an innovative initiative toward peace. That assignment gave me the time I needed to organize my ideas, read scenarios and identify opportunities. As a result, I came up with this great idea of creating the first Peace Center in the Brazilian Amazon, focused on promoting peace across the region. Receiving an ‘A’ from the professor and positive feedback from other peace fellows, invited me to look at this project as the answer to my queries. Under the circumstances, when the time came to start seeking a summer internship, I respectfully submitted a research proposal to the Rotary Foundation, asking permission to study the feasibility of creating the Amazon Peace Center. Thanks to Francis Lethem, Susan Carroll, and Renee Reiling I was granted permission.
Understanding a little about the dynamics in the Brazilian Amazon is the key to having a better idea about my research project. Therefore, I will give you a superficial overview.
The Brazilian Amazon is located, in most part, in the North of Brazil, and extends throughout the Northeast and Mideast regions. This vast region is also known as the Legal Amazon and comprises nine Brazilian states (Acre, Amapá, Amazonas, Mato Grosso, Pará, Rondônia, Roraima, Tocantis and Maranhão), covering an area of 5,034,740 km2 or 2,014,458 mi2 equivalent to 61% of the Brazilian territory. According to the last national census conducted in 2010, there are 21,056,532 people living within the Legal Amazon, which represents 12.4% of the Brazilian population.
The Amazon is a region of strong internal contrasts where wealth, inequality and conflicts have been part of the reality for centuries. Until the end of WWII, there was no physical connection between the Amazon and the rest of Brazil, illustrating how careless the central government is regarding the Amazon. In the last decade, the region has experienced a fast development process driven by billion of dollars invested by the government and private sector, undertaking projects which exploit abundant natural resources found in the form of land, biodiversity, water, minerals, forest, and more recently oil and gas. However, instead of resulting in better living standards for the population, this trend has worsened the situation. A comparative analysis to the rest of Brazil reveals that the Amazon experiences one of the lowest levels of economic development and the highest level of conflict involving land disputes, deforestation, displacement of indigenous people, violent crimes, and impacts caused by large-scale infrastructure projects.
As a result of the strong cycle of natural resource exploitation, the Amazon’s GDP increased 69% over 2006-2010 while the national growth was 16%. For instance, Rondônia, the state with the highest perceptual growth in the Amazon, had an increase in GDP by 81% over 2006-2010. This most likely was driven by the construction of the Jirau Hydroelectric Dam on the Madeira River which generates energy to other parts of Brazil, but not to the Amazon. However, the level of conflict also increased. The World Health Organization established, as a limit, an annual rate of 10 homicides per 100,000/inhabitants; anything above that rate is considered high. In Pará state, for example, – the most violent state in the Amazon, and the fourth in Brazil – the homicide rate jumped from 29.3 in 2006 to 47.6 in 2010, an increase of 63%, while the national rate increased only 4.5% in the same period. This trend is most likely correlated to the fact that Pará, the most populous state in the Amazon, experienced a disorderly urbanization process over the last decade – increases of 26% in the urban population – and the third lowest HDI index (0.646) in Brazil, ahead (slightly) only of Maranhão (0.639) and Alagoas (0.631). Based on the Amazon’s average homicide rates in 2010 (46.1), a person has a greater chance to be murdered in the Amazon than in conflict zones such as Chechnya (25), Angola (20) and Iraq (13). Such trends are expected to increase in the coming years, especially considering the 22 hydroelectric dams planned for construction in the heart of the Amazon before 2030. This challenging scenario, the scarcity of organizations focused in promoting peace, the lack of reliable and independent information, the prospect of new conflicts in a near future, and the absence of safe spaces to mediate conflicts is the rationale behind the creation of the Amazon Peace Center.
My research is focused in creating a model capable of addressing the root causes of conflict in the Amazon. However, the biggest challenge still remains. Finding a strategy to deal with an extremely complex scenario that involves stakeholders with opposite interests and the need to design and implement a basket of multi-sectorial policies. The lessons I learned in my Policy Analysis and Empirical Analysis classes have been vital throughout this research. I have spent weeks trying to define the scope of the problem and another considerable amount of time has been invested in creating an empirical model aimed at understanding the correlation between variables related to conflicts. Additionally, I have been meeting with scholars, professionals and those working in similar organizations, to learn lessons from them and carefully note their advice.
Narrowing down the organization’s scope has been my biggest challenge since the beginning. My first model was extremely ambitious. I wanted to solve all the problems by myself, quite unrealistic according to one of my professors. One funny aspect about thinking too much on something is that your universe starts orbiting around that subject. One day my wife told me that I was dreaming about things like significance variables, HDI, deforestation levels, homicide rates, etc. Believe it or not, she became really interested in my research. When I have time, I like to update her about my findings. She says things like “interesting how much the model has changed since last time…” I hope she is trying to encourage me by saying that. One thing is certain, getting lost and finding yourself is part of the game when it comes to creating something new. I believe that my anxiety is related to the fact that the Amazon Peace Center is not just a research project or academic assignment, but my future! Therefore, I cannot afford to fail. Despite the difficulties, I have good news! I strongly believe that I am close to a feasible model which will be tested during my field research in D.C and N.Y during my visits with development agencies in a couple of weeks. I hope, once the research is over, I can feel more confident about implementing this project and can begin helping others. Then, maybe, I will call my uncle and thank him for the advice.