Oct. 10, 1996
Vol. 16, No. 3

current issue
archive / search

    A real fish story

    Exploratory trip becomes adventure in survival

    In developing a research project to learn more about the interaction between people and the environment, Alan Kolata enjoyed a bit of that interaction himself when he had to resort to primitive survival skills while on a survey trip in the rain forest of Bolivia.

    Kolata, Professor in Anthropology, is developing an innovative research program that will link satellite photographs taken by NASA with the latest social-science research from Thailand and Bolivia. Working with Robert Townsend, the Charles E. Merriam Professor in Economics, and colleagues at Harvard and the University of Minnesota, Kolata intends to create a land-use model that could help set standards for using natural resources in developing countries in a environmentally friendly way.

    But the exploratory trip he conducted in August along a river in Bolivia was anything but friendly. The mission, intended to gather evidence of the interaction between people and the tropical environment, became troubled when Kolata and a half dozen other scientists and crew members ran out of food three days into a week-long journey. The native guide who prepared the provisions apparently hadn't anticipated American appetites, Kolata said.

    After consulting with Bolivians in the party, the team decided to forage for food in the tropical terrain. "I hadn't fired a gun in years, but I took one and shot an alligator between its eyes," Kolata recalled. As is customary in Bolivia, the alligator became bait for piranha, which Kolata and the rest of the crew caught with fish lines.

    When the river trip ended, the adventure continued. Kolata was due to fly to La Paz for a meeting, but the truck that was to meet the party and take him to the airport couldn't cross the river they had been navigating because of a washed-out bridge.

    Undaunted, Kolata loaded his gear into a backpack and walked the 15 miles to town, where he caught the plane shortly before it was scheduled to leave. He made it to his meeting and returned to Chicago in September.

    Safely at the University, Kolata, Townsend and their colleagues are working to conduct the project through NASA's Mission to Planet Earth program. The program helps scientists take advantage of recently declassified satellite surveillance photographs as well as other NASA resources in ways that benefit the planet.

    Kolata said the proposed project would improve understanding of the impact of agriculture on tropical land. The research team hopes to be able to link information from 25 years worth of satellite images with current research on the economic and social pressures in Bolivia and Thailand.

    According to Kolata, who has done extensive research on indigenous agricultural systems in Bolivia, and Townsend, who has studied agriculture in Thailand, the practices of the farmers have a drastic impact on the terrain.

    For instance, in Bolivia vast amounts of forests have been converted to farms for ranching and coca production. In Thailand, farmers from the interior have moved to the coast, where they have converted marsh land to shrimp beds, which degrade after a few years, leaving the terrain contaminated.

    By linking the physical changes in the terrain -- visible on NASA's aerial images -- to the social forces that produced them, the team will be able to recommend policies to better manage the land resources, Kolata said.

    "This will become increasingly important as the nations of the world, particularly China, seek more food," he said. People in developing countries may be tempted to exploit their land in destructive ways unless plans are made to prevent the destruction and to perhaps find renewable methods of agricultural production.

    In the meantime, Kolata isn't planning any fishing trips to the Amazon region anytime soon. The next catch he hopes to make, he said, will be in the form of federal research funds.

    -- William Harms