The College of Natural Resources and Environment welcomed a visiting professor in February as part of a broad effort to expand connections between Virginia Tech and two universities in Brazil: the Federal University of Lavras and the University of Campinas.

During his visit to Blacksburg, Associate Professor Luis M.T. de Carvalho of the Federal University of Lavras met with University Distinguished Professor Harold Burkhart and Assistant Professor Stella Schons, both of the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, to discuss how to further strengthen connections as part of a collaborative agreement between Virginia Tech and his home institution.

Carvalho believes that such collaborations will benefit faculty and students at both institutions. “From a faculty perspective, this is an opportunity to exchange knowledge and to experience the kinds of research taking place at both universities,” he said. “For students, it’s a great chance to learn the different aspects of forestry in the two countries.”

Carvalho’s research has recently centered on land use and land cover monitoring across the main Brazilian biomes, including the development of eucalyptus plantations in the southeastern state of Minas Gerais, where the Federal University of Lavras (UFLA) is located.

“One central difference between the U.S. and Brazil is that almost all of our feedstock to produce wood pulp and charcoal comes from large and fast-growing plantations of exotic tree species, while you manage your native forests,” Carvalho explained. “We grow a lot of eucalyptus, a tree native to Australia, to extract fiber and make paper and to support our steel industry. There are many iron mines and industries in Brazil that demand charcoal from our planted forests to produce steel and alloy.”

In addition to eucalyptus, Burkhart noted that Brazil has had success growing loblolly pine, a timber tree native to the southeastern United States that is well-suited to the climates of southern Brazil. The collaboration between the two universities has already resulted in five collaboratively published papers, including one that utilized rainfall data in Brazil to better understand eucalyptus growth rates.

“This is an exciting opportunity,” Burkhart said. “It’s a very meaningful collaboration in that we’re already very in sync with the kinds of challenges we’re pursuing and the kinds of teaching we do. It has the potential to be a fruitful collaboration.”

A foothold in the Amazon rain forest

With Brazil’s rain forests being a crucial resource in mitigating climate change, there is a need for researchers to better understand forest resource use in the region. Schons hopes that a separate collaborative agreement between Virginia Tech and the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) will give researchers and students at both universities the opportunity to work collaboratively to better protect this valuable resource.

“I see part of my job at Virginia Tech as opening up collaborations with the academic sectors in other countries, starting with my own,” said Schons, who is from Brazil. “Since a lot of my research focuses on conservation and the economics of decisions made regarding land use and environmental regulation compliance in the Amazon, it made a lot of sense to seek collaborations with both UNICAMP and UFLA.”

Schons, who completed her undergraduate degree at UNICAMP, has been working closely with the university’s Institute of Economics on conservation and development research. She and Associate Professor Alexandre Gori Maia presented a paper on the effects of deforestation on migration decisions in the Brazilian Amazon region at the Population Association of America’s annual meeting in 2019.

UFLA is responsible for the design and implementation of Brazil’s Rural Environmental Registry to monitor natural vegetation conservation requirements throughout the country. Schons has worked on connecting environmental and socioeconomic data at the regional level with the aim of contributing to land use and economic development policy.

“We have complementary skills and data,” Schons explained. “The natural resources economics team here in Virginia Tech’s Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation has collected household-level socioeconomic data since 2003 for areas of influence in eastern Amazonia.”

“Moreover, our remote sensing team, through its state-of-art lab, and the remote sensing team at UFLA have different but complementary skills in developing methodologies to collect spatial data for a diversity of natural environments and purposes,” she continued. “There’s an important research opportunity in bringing these strands together. It’s crucial not just on the policy side but also for the forest biometric research that Dr. Burkhart is doing.”

Next steps

As research projects continue, the partners are looking at ways to expand their collaborative efforts.

Schons will teach a course on natural resource conservation and development economics at UNICAMP next year and one on forest economics at UFLA. She hopes that the three universities will work to develop exchange programs for undergraduate and graduate students in addition to continuing to foster collaborative research among faculty.

Burkhart said that institutional relationships like these are central to expanding Virginia Tech’s reach in the global fields of forestry and environmental conservation.

“I’m very optimistic about the future,” he said. “Virginia Tech is a global institution, and in order to fulfill our aspirations and goals, we’re going to have to attract talent from around the world to come here and work with us. Our challenge is to broaden our mission with regards to research and outreach and apply it across the world.”

Written by David Fleming