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Extended urbanization on the cerrado (savanna) of central-western Brazil

Extended urbanization on the cerrado (savanna) of central-western Brazil

Patricia Silva Gomes

This November, Dr. Patricia Silva Gomes, starts her 5-month visiting fellowship at York and EUC work-study student, Lorraine Wong, interviews her on her plans for engagement and research at the Faculty.

Q. Why did you decide to pursue a visiting scholarship at York University?

A. I chose the Faculty of Environmental and Urban Change at York University due to my alignment with Professor Roger Keil's research focus on planetary urbanisation and urban political ecology. This decision was influenced by the integration of urban and environmental themes in Professor Keil's work. I have been following Professor Keil's academic contributions and had the opportunity to meet him during lectures in Brazil. Professor Keil's expertise, along with connections to my PhD advisor, Professor Roberto Monte-Mór, and the faculty's openness to foreign researchers and engagement in cosmopolitan debates on contemporary urban and environmental issues further motivated my choice, anticipating valuable contributions from other professors and researchers in the academic community.

Q. Can you expound on the details of your research project?

A. The research focuses on the interiorization of the urban network in Brazil's Cerrado biome, a vast region experiencing rapid growth and urbanisation due to the expansion of the mechanised agricultural frontier. This phenomenon began during the military government and intensified with neoliberal policies, leading to a significant shift in the urban network from the centre-south to the interior of Cerrado and Amazon. The territory comprises agricultural and urban uses, as well as diverse land uses such as environmentally protected areas, indigenous territories, quilombolas, and family farms.

From a historical geography perspective, the study critically explores the consequences of this urbanisation process, considering its impacts on rural areas in terms of urban, environmental, and social aspects. The work draws inspiration from the original contributions of Henri Lefebvre and recent research by Neil Brenner and Christian Schmid.

From an urban standpoint, the research identifies a fragmented inter-urban network centred on mechanised agriculture, incorporating various supporting and luxury activities. Agricultural and urban uses occupy significant portions of the territory, while the rest consists of diverse land uses, including protected areas, indigenous territories, quilombolas, and family farmers.

Socially, the occupation has led to a significant migration of people from the countryside to cities, particularly into agribusiness. The descendants of traditional peoples and family farmers are moving to the outskirts of larger cities, seeking new opportunities.

From an environmental perspective, the cerrado, recognised as the most biodiverse savanna globally, plays a crucial role in South American water dynamics. It functions as an "inverted forest," aiding in rainwater infiltration and storage. However, the Cerrado landscape architecture faces challenges such as fragmentation, water pollution, and reduced water recharge due to agricultural practices.

Unfortunately, the Cerrado lacks federal protection and experiences a deforestation rate five times faster than the Amazon. The study emphasises the interconnected importance of the Cerrado and the Amazon, not just in production but also in water conservation and distribution.

The research concludes by applying actor-network theory in Bruno Latour and others, viewing the cerrado as an actor alongside humans, and emphasising the role of Indigenous ecologies as a strategy for biome preservation. Aligned with Lefebvre's idea of urban revolution through everyday life, the study indicates that the researcher's duty to act for social transformation in the context of planetary urbanisation impacts the periphery of capitalism.

Q. What motivated you to start doing work in this field? Will you always be interested in your field of research?

A. As an architect and urbanist, I have been interested in the urban and environmental fields since my undergraduate studies. I spent several years working as an architect in Belo Horizonte for the Environmental Agency of the State of Minas Gerais, where I was able to observe firsthand the impacts of mining activity and peripheral urbanisation since Belo Horizonte is a mining region. However, I moved to the nation's capital, Brasília, which is situated in the centre of this Cerrado, in 2017. I teach urban planning and landscaping at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of Brasília. This is the reason that the political ecology of the Cerrado is particularly intriguing to me.

Q. What are the biggest challenges in your research work?

Kalungas Quilombolas trialing native seeds for restoration (Source: Gomes, 2023). Note: Quilombos are ancestral areas formed by blacks who fled slavery and founded small villages for survival. Today these territories are demarcated as protected areas and the descendant population maintains an economic base of family farming, handicrafts with native products, eco-extractivism, gastronomy and medicine with the fruits, seeds and grasses of the cerrado.

A. The research faces challenges in both operationalization and contributing to the critical field. I travelled 6,000 km to different study sites in Central-Western Brazil, collecting information, taking photos, and observing the spread and changes of the agricultural frontier. In the meantime, I immersed myself in the experiences of key actors in Cerrado safeguarding, including quilombolas, women artisans, and family farmers, under the theory of Bruno Latour's actor network. These experiences became the foundation of the research, driving bottom-up transformations in the territory.

For an effective contribution, the research emphasises the need to collaborate with society and form a network with key actors and socio-environmental organizations. This collaborative effort aims to enhance protection, promote sustainable production and consumption, raise awareness, and exert political pressure for cerrado preservation. The research highlights the significance of public policies for ensuring economic sustainability, promoting professionalisation, generating employment and income, and fostering endogenous development. Public policy is also deemed crucial in addressing ecological fragmentation and water pollution in the Cerrado biome.

Q. How does the role of agribusiness shape the urban network in Brazil’s central-western cerrado?

A. Agribusiness creates an urban network that is moulded by external demands, with profits concentrated in the hands of a small number of people who are not native to the area. This agricultural front has been ascending through the Cerrado-Amazon transition forest and moving into the Amazon.

Instead of promoting the "Pollyannaish view" that agribusiness will vanish, the work seeks to emphasise the necessity for it to go through an ecological transition by implementing more sustainable practices and that the government must play a significant regulatory role in this process. For example, researchers at the University Federal of Mato Grosso found pesticides in mothers' breast milk in the agribusiness municipality of Lucas do Rio Verde, Mato Grosso (Palma et al., 2015).

Q. What other topics are you most passionate about researching in the future?

A. Research in urban and regional planning is crucial for Brazil, with researchers focusing on the centre-south, northeast, and Amazon regions. The centre-south, which is the dynamic centre of the economy, is studied in metropolises like São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, and Belo Horizonte. However, the central-western urban network is underexplored in national and international planning debates, despite its immense importance. This limited exploration highlights the need for my further scientific investigation in this area.

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Dr. Patricia Silva Gomes is Professor of Urban Planning and Landscape Architecture at the Faculty of Architecture and Urbanism at the University of Brasília, Brazil (FAU-UnB). She has a PhD in Architecture and Urbanism from the Federal University of Minas Gerais and Master's in Architecture and Urbanism from the Federal University of Santa Catarina. She is an architect and an environmental analyst and served as the Secretary of State for Environment and Sustainable Development of Minas Gerais. Currently, she is an Adjunct Professor at the School of Architecture and Urbanism of the University of Brasilia, affiliated to the research group Cidades Possiveis, working on the following topics: urban-metropolitan planning, social production of space and everyday life, political ecology, landscaping, cerrado, technical advisory services for social architecture and urbanism projects.

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