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 Stories for April 15, 1998

Brazilian Government Honors Environmentalist Sternberg

by Robert Sanders, Public Affairs
posted Apr. 15, 1998

A long-time defender of the Amazon against environmental despoliation, geographer Hilgard O’Reilly Sternberg, has been awarded the Great Cross of the National Order of Scientific Merit by the government of Brazil.

The insignia and diploma of the order will be conferred April 16 by President Fernando Henrique Cardoso during a ceremony at the Palácio do Planalto in Brasília. The award honors Sternberg for his contributions to the scientific development of Brazil.

Sternberg, 80, is a Brazilian native and former chair of Geography of Brazil at the University of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro, where he founded the Center for Research in the Geography of Brazil. He joined the Berkeley geography faculty in 1964 and became an emeritus professor in 1988.

He has explored and studied the Amazon for half a century, writing about its physical geography, ecology and anthropology as well as its history and politics. His emphasis has always been on how human society affects the environment, such as the impact of improper use of soil, water, flora and fauna, or the concentration of resources in the hands of a few people.

He has written and lectured worldwide on deforestation and other ecological problems in the Amazon, many of which he has documented with photographs.

During his career, Sternberg has never shied away from indicting those he sees as responsible for environmental disasters in the Amazon, whether the culprit is government policy or private greed. He strongly opposed a recent plan to channel the Paraná and Paraguay river systems, which would severely affect a vast and precious wetland known as the Pantanal. Last month the Brazilian government seemed to back away from the project, which many environmentalists have vigorously opposed.

Sternberg also has criticized the government’s reliance on large dams to relieve the effects of recurrent drought in northeast Brazil.

He currently is studying the causes and significance of forest fires in the Amazon, such as those that have spread a canopy of smoke over the region in the wake of the El Niño drought. Sternberg recently finished work on a new edition of an earlier book about human societies and environment on the flood plain, focusing on an area where the confluence of the Solimões and Negro rivers form the Amazon. It is to be published by the Goeldi Museum in Belém later this year.

A member of the Brazilian Academy of Science and a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Sternberg also received Brazil’s highest honor, the National Order of Merit, in 1956.

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