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Brazil To Launch Amazon Monitoring System In One Year

Less than a year remains before Brazil's advanced electronic surveillance system in the Amazon is scheduled to be fully operational exposing the world's last wilderness to extensive monitoring for the first time ever. The surveillance system will be used not only to help stop illegal activities, such as drug trafficking, but to collect valuable environmental information.

Brazil's System for the Vigilance of the Amazon, or SIVAM, is a $1.4 billion project that is scheduled to be completed in August 2002. When finished, it will include 25 radar stations, aircraft with advanced monitoring equipment, floating weather sensors and a satellite communication system.

All this to increase monitoring and surveillance of the Brazilian Amazon. Many illicit activities from drug trafficking to illegal mining now go undetected. This will change when SIVAM becomes fully operational.

Aside from helping to curb these illegal activities, an important task for the SIVAM system will be to gather environmental information about the Amazon, and issue alerts about changes that might affect the tropical ecosystem. The U.S. company, Raytheon, is making and delivering the monitoring equipment for the SIVAM project.

Charles Fairman, head of Raytheon's operations in Manaus, tells us what's involved:

"Equipment like weather stations that will record a variety of weather conditions at all levels. Stations that will launch weather balloons, for instance, to monitor ozone and other parameters in the atmosphere. Surface weather stations that will monitor local rainfall and local temperature and wind conditions…we're also providing 200 environmental data collection platforms that will be located in the rivers at various points in the Amazon and report back water conditions such as oxygen content and so on," he said. In addition, specially outfitted aircraft will carry different kinds of sensors, including air-to-ground radars with very high resolution for environmental monitoring. They also will carry infrared sensors and multi-spectral scanners for mapping.

The information gathered will be transmitted to regional centers, which are being built in Manaus and two other major Amazon basin cities. There, huge computer banks will collect and analyze the data. Sivam's regional superintendent in Manaus, Air Force Colonel Carlos Jose Polhuber, says information related to the environment will be provided to Brazil's environment agency, IBAMA.

"SIVAM will provide information about water pollution, illegal logging, and illegal mining and all this will be given to IBAMA, as well as other information the agency might want. For example, planes with special remote sensors can spot different kinds of wood in the forest, and whether they are viable or not viable for logging. SIVAM's job is only to pass on this information, not to act on it that is up to each agency to decide," Mr. Polhuber said, speaking through a translator.

The information that SIVAM will gather is expected to expand the scientific knowledge about the Amazon which comprises the largest tropical rainforest in the world, and contains the widest biodiversity on the planet. Several hundred species of mammals, 1,400 kinds of fish and hundreds of bird species live in the rainforest.

The habitat of many of these animals is threatened by environmental degradation as thousands of kilometers of land are deforested each year. In the past 30 years, an estimated 15 percent of the Amazon was deforested some 550,000 square kilometers, an area larger than France.

But the hope is that the information provided by SIVAM can reduce this danger. Raytheon's Charles Fairman says the environmental data collected by SIVAM will benefit not only Brazil, but the rest of the world.

"I believe the world will benefit from this system. The weather systems that we're incorporating, some 80 weather stations that will be gathering data from all over the Amazon region, will change the models for weather prediction in the next ten years. Preserving the Amazon is critical to the world's environment and whatever we can do to provide data to the government of Brazil so that it can control the development of the Amazon in a way that does not destroy it, is critical I believe to everybody in the world," he said.

The Amazon rainforest parts of which are still unexplored will be less of a mystery once SIVAM is fully operational. It remains to be seen if Brazil's authorities will act on the information it provides to help stop the illegal logging and other destruction that threaten the Amazon's fragile ecosystem.