20 years at Tanguro Field Station

For two decades, this research station has stood at the southern edge of the Amazon rainforest as a perfect natural laboratory to study the changing biome

Night sky over Tanguro Field Station.

photo by Mitch Korolev

Read the story in Portuguese.

The sky opens up just as our truck leaves the last stretch of paved road. Water Program Director Dr. Marcia Macedo squints to stay focused on what she can see between wipes of the windshield. Within minutes, our path is transformed from a dirt road into a riverbed of bright orange mud, rutted from the passing of heavy trucks carrying soy off surrounding farms. Macedo swerves to dodge bumps and dips, but pretty soon there are more of them than there is flat road. We brace for the puddles, peering out windows spattered with orange spray.

It’s a Monday morning in the rainy season at the edge of the Amazon, and we’re commuting to work.

Research area

video by Sarah Ruiz

Tanguro Field Station lies about an hour’s drive from Canarana, the nearest town, located in a region of Brazil sometimes referred to as the arc of deforestation. Several decades ago, agriculture began surging into the southern reaches of the Amazon rainforest here, carving out rectangular patches of farmland from primary forest. For most of our drive, we are flanked only by mega-fields of soybean or scrubby cattle pastures.

Macedo, who has been conducting research at Tanguro since 2007, remembers a time when the drive could be marked by crossing a threshold from the Cerrado—Brazil’s woody savanna biome—into the Amazon. Now, clearing near the road has obscured that natural transition. Eventually clumps of lush green loom closer out of the rain and we know we’re nearly there.

photo of road barrier between intact forest and soy field at sunset

A road running between forest and field at Tanguro.

photo by Mitch Korolev

Since its founding in 2004, Tanguro has offered researchers from around the world the opportunity to investigate big questions about how climate change and deforestation are affecting the Amazon. Macedo and her team have come to study Tanguro’s streams and reservoirs. 

We pull to a stop outside the research station, hauling suitcases wrapped in plastic trash bags out of the truck bed. Research assistant Zoe Dietrich, clutches several vital electronic components to her chest, ferrying them to a screened-in porch to keep them out of the rain. Postdoctoral researcher Dr. Abra Atwood starts digging out sediment core tubes from a pile of equipment. The clouds drift off and the work day at Tanguro begins.

Tanguro Field Station buildings.

photo by Mitch Korolev

I. The Founding

It was a controversial decision at the time. “The decision to set up on the Tanguro ranch almost drove a wedge through us,” recalls Tanguro founder, Dr. Daniel Nepstad. “We had a discussion that lasted two days.”

Fourteen years prior, Nepstad had established the Amazon program at Woodwell Climate (then the Woods Hole Research Center) in the state of Pará, studying the resilience of Amazon forests during long dry seasons. This work gave rise to a new research institute based in Brazil. In 1995, Nepstad co-founded the Amazon Environmental Research Institute (IPAM) in Belém to pursue policy-relevant science that could inform sustainable development in the Amazon. Woodwell Climate and IPAM began conducting simulated drought experiments and found that the rainforest, long thought to be immune to fire, lost that resistance during severe droughts. To investigate the implications of this, Nepstad realized, they needed a new experiment somewhere at the edge of the Amazon, where it’s drier year-round.

Nepstad had been spending more and more time in the state of Mato Grosso, fascinated by the expansion of soybean cultivation into the Amazon there. During his search for a new study site, Grupo Amaggi reached out with a remarkable invitation.

soy fields with forest in the distance

Dried soy fields awaiting harvest at Tanguro.

photo by Mitch Korolev

Grupo Amaggi was, at the time, the largest soy producer in the world, and soy was rapidly becoming environmental enemy number one, as hundreds of thousands of acres of forests fell to expand its cultivation.

“But Grupo Amaggi, a Brazilian company, wanted to get out in front of the issue,” says Nepstad. The prospect of losing a major market in Europe raised questions about the best way forward. In 2002 they set up the first system for tracing the forest practices of the farmers who sold them soy. And in 2004 they extended an invitation to Nepstad to study the forests on their newly acquired Tanguro property— an amalgamation of previously-cleared cattle ranches they were in the process of converting to soy fields. 

The hope was that the research would demonstrate to the world what was really happening in these massive soy farms in the Amazon, providing data that could contribute to conversations around sustainable soy.

“Twenty years ago there were lots of discussions about environmental preservation and agriculture,” says Grupo Amaggi’s ESG, Communications and Compliance Director, Juliana de Lavor Lopes. “Could those two create a symbiosis? I think we knew [they] could work together, but could we prove that?”

 For Nepstad, the invitation was also the perfect opportunity to run a controlled fire experiment in an ideal location. After much debate, IPAM decided to accept.

south america map with tanguro , amazon and cerrado located

map by Christina Shintani

“There were a lot of folks worried that this would ruin our reputation, undermine our credibility with grassroots organizations— a lot of NGOs felt like we were selling out,” says Nepstad. “Some people accused us of being bought off by Grupo Amaggi.”

But Nepstad was very clear on the terms of the partnership. They would accept no money from the company other than what Grupo Amaggi invested in the buildings on the research station campus. And they would only support the farm’s activities as far as the science allowed. The research would accurately report the impacts of agriculture on the forest, with no restrictions on publication. 

So in 2004, barely funded, but accompanied by a dedicated team of field technicians and researchers from the drought experiments in Pará— some of whom are still employed at the field station today— Woodwell and IPAM set up camp at Tanguro.

The Tanguro cafeteria building.

photo by Mitch Korolev

II. Life at the Station

Muddy boots start lining up outside the door to the cafeteria at 11:50am. Dona Lúcia sets lunch out promptly at noon. 

Maria Lúcia Pinheiro Nascimento preps for a meal in Tanguro's Kitchen.

photo by Mitch Korolev

Maria Lúcia Pinheiro Nascimento has run the kitchen at Tanguro for over 16 years, cooking filling meals for hungry scientists and field technicians three times a day. Lunch and dinner usually involve some slow-cooked or grilled meat, rice, beans, and a fresh salad or roasted vegetables. Today there’s abóbora, a green-skinned pumpkin, and leftover sausage and brisket from last night’s churrasco. Breakfast is a lighter affair— pão de queijo, eggs, fresh bread, fruit, and coffee— set out and scarfed down before work starts at 7 am.

Visitors to Tanguro help themselves to lunch in the cafeteria.

photo by Mitch Korolev

Many of the technicians who live and work here five days a week say Tanguro is like a second home, their peers a second family. For Dona Lúcia, as she’s called by staff and visitors alike, cooking for the research station isn’t just like cooking for family. It is cooking for family. Her husband, Sebastião Nascimento, “Seu Bate”, was one of the original field technicians working on the drought experiment in Pará. He flew down to join the crew at Tanguro a year after it was founded and brought his family down a year later, including his son, Ebis Pinheiro de Nascimento, who also joined as a field technician. A third technician from Pará, Raimundo Mota Quintino, known as “Santarém”, joined the family when he married Dona Lúcia’s daughter.

“I’m with my family,” she says. “It gives me joy.”

Tanguro visitors and field techs gather to celebrate Research Assistant Zoë Dietrich's (second from right) birthday.

photo by Mitch Korolev

Related or not, the team at Tanguro works together like a family. Cooperation and respect are essential in a place as remote and disconnected (wifi only extends 60ft from the cafeteria building) as Tanguro. 

“We joke that it’s like “Big Brother”,” says Field Manager, Darlisson Nunes da Costa. “But we are really united and we respect each other. That’s a wonderful environment to work in.”

Scientific and projects coordinator, Leonardo Maracahipes-Santos straddles a rainforest stream.
photo by Mitch Korolev

It can also be a physically challenging environment, with long days in the heat and humidity, navigating safety concerns in a forest full of snakes and jaguars, territorial wild pigs and terrain that could easily twist an ankle. All the while ensuring the scientists get the data they need.

Every field technician has to be adaptable and multi-talented, because aside from meal times there is no day-to-day routine. Your morning might involve slashing vines to find a path to a hidden stream, selected from satellite imagery as a sampling location. The afternoon could be spent troubleshooting errors at one of the carbon-monitoring towers. 

“We can’t say we have a fixed job,” says Seu Bate. “We do a bit of everything.”

Seu Bate cuts aluminum for use on a methane monitoring chamber.

photo by Mitch Korolev

All the same, the technicians have each developed their specialties over the decades. Santarém still uses waterman skills from his previous job as a fishing guide in the port city in Pará that gave him his nickname. He takes the canoe out on the reservoirs often, helping researchers pull sediment cores. Seu Bate can build whatever you need— whether it’s the aluminum base for a floating methane-monitoring chamber, or a custom collar to hold unwieldy soil core tubes while you sample them, just give him 20 minutes and some power tools. Nunes da Costa keeps the team’s field activities organized each week and can effortlessly cut a clear path through the forest. Ebis enjoys data collection, especially when it involves sampling the water or fishes in Tanguro’s waterways. For the station’s Scientific Projects Coordinator, Dr. Leonardo Maracahipes-Santos, climbing the 118 ft carbon tower is just like walking.

Laundry hanging on the line.

photo by Mitch Korolev

Outsider visits to Tanguro fluctuate. Sometimes weeks pass with only the field techs in residence, and sometimes the station’s small cabin-style houses and cheerful cafeteria are crawling with guests.

This spring has already been a busy one. Maracahipes-Santos handles day-to-day operations and organizes the rotating cast of visitors. In a few short weeks, he went from touring  a crew of Brazilian journalists around the study sites, to working with collaborators from the Max Planck institute on routine maintenance to the carbon towers, to coordinating conversations between visiting researchers and Grupo Amaggi representatives about removing several dams on the property. 

Nunes da Costa (left) and Abra Atwood (right) collect temperature samples from a stream.

photo by Mitch Korolev

And even during slow weeks, there is plenty of science left to do—collecting samples for ongoing studies, running data analyses, checking on equipment. A day off is hard to come by at Tanguro, but at least it’s never boring.

“It’s very interesting, because we are part of a grand thing, which is to set up experiments in the field together with scientists,” says Nunes da Costa. “And we feel a little bit like scientists, because this whole business all starts on the ground. We can start from a piece of wood placed on the ground, and get all the way up to a scientific article. I feel very proud. Not only of me, but of the whole team.”

Dietrich gives a presentation on her self-built methane monitoring chamber.

photo by Mitch Korolev

For her part, Dona Lúcia takes great pride in feeding the science at Tanguro. 

“I’m very proud to be in a company like this, today,” says Dona Lúcia. “Nowadays, to work in a company like this, you need a degree, and I don’t have one. I don’t have a culinary degree. I don’t have any degree. But I learn every day.”

III. A Natural Laboratory

Field work wraps up at 4pm, leaving Macedo, Atwood, Nunes da Costa, and me sweaty and exhausted from an afternoon spent trudging through uneven wetlands to find stream channels. Atwood was dropping temperature loggers every 500 meters above and below reservoirs. She’s interested in the impacts these small water bodies have on the watershed, and how far downstream those impacts extend. But Amazonian streams often twist through impassable segments of marsh, so finding the sample sites requires vigorous hiking and a good machete. 

After our hike, we rendezvous with the group of visiting journalists at the Darro Reservoir. One of the largest reservoirs at Tanguro, the Darro provides water to the research station for showers and cleaning. On especially hot days, it also makes a great swimming hole. 

The water is warm—warmer than nearby streams, Atwood’s temperature data has confirmed—but still cooler than the muggy air. It’s also glassy clear. Our feet are visible treading the band of colder water down below. Billowing white reflections form on the surface, a perfect mirror of the clouds above.

swimmers floating in the blue reservoir of darro

Visitors to Tanguro swim in the Darro Reservoir.

photo by Mitch Korolev

Water is everything in the Amazon. It’s what makes the lush forests possible. It’s what connects a soy farm in Mato Grosso to estuaries at the yawing mouth of the Amazon River. And it’s what connects this region to the global climate. The clouds clustering above Darro grow heavier and darker with rain while we swim. Although much of that rain will fall back to Earth here, a large portion of it gets pushed out from the tropics to fall in other places.

“Water does two things,” says Woodwell Tropics Program Director, Dr. Mike Coe. “One: it’s rainfall somewhere else. Two: water is energy. It takes a huge amount of energy to evaporate water and that energy gets released somewhere else when it rains. So the energy from the sun that falls here gets transported around the world. That’s huge. That drives climate.”

Which means that, through water, changes here have the potential to cause major changes across the globe. Tanguro’s location in a region of the Amazon that underwent intense deforestation for agriculture just a few decades ago makes it an ideal place to study that cause and effect.

“Once you remove forests from the landscape, you change some things fundamentally that you can’t really undo,” says Macedo. “You change the amount of water in streams, you change the rooting depth of the plants on the landscape, you change the entire hydrological cycle.” 

Giant raincloud forming over soy field

Thunderstorm falling over soy fields.

photo by Mitch Korolev

Tanguro is pretty representative of the changes experienced across the region. It’s a patchwork of natural forest, soy and cotton fields, and some planted eucalyptus groves. Some of its watersheds lie completely within the bounds of the forest, others run completely through agricultural land. Some streams have well preserved forests along their banks, while others are in the process of restoration. Amazonian species mix with those from the Brazilian savanna. It’s becoming hotter and drier as the climate changes. For the climate scientists and ecologists at Woodwell and IPAM, it’s the perfect natural laboratory. 

map of south america with deforestation overlaid ontop of the amazon, showing the location of tanguro
satellite imagery of farm and forest around tanguro

maps by Christina Shintani

As the first research project launched in that laboratory, the fire experiment garnered much fanfare.

“Grupo Amaggi had mobilized society, there were journalists and newspaper reporters and firefighters. People from the company and people from the local towns,” recalls Nepstad. It was new territory, intentionally burning the forest to learn how it changed the landscape. “It was really exciting.”

With each new year of burning, insights revealed themselves. One particularly hot, dry year, the forest burned even more than predicted. Nepstad recalled seeing flames, shin-high, still burning at 2 am the next morning. Tree mortality afterward jumped from its usual 6% up to 50%.

“That was tragic for that patch of forest,” says Macedo. “But it has yielded really important insights. Almost prescient. Just look at 2023: it was an incredibly dry year in the Amazon, and all of a sudden we saw fires in the very middle of the rainforest—areas that used to be much too wet to burn can now burn during a big drought.” 

With the fire experiment underway, there was still nearly 200,000 acres of land available to study, so Nepstad invited researchers like Macedo, Coe, and Dr. Paulo Brando, who worked with Nepstad in Pará, to explore what other stories Tanguro might be able to tell about the Amazon. In its 20 year history, over 180 papers have been published from research at the station, ranging in topic from hydrologic changes, to the climatic limits on productive agriculture, to the degradation of forest carbon, to the value of tapir poop for restoration. Brando attributes the station’s prolific results to the knowledge of its staff.

leo maracahipes-santos stands in front of the mechansim that controls the carbon tower and gestures towards the camera

Maracahipes-Santos explains the mechanism that operates the carbon monitoring towers.

photo by Mitch Korolev

“Part of Tanguro’s magic is to learn from the people who have been working for 20 years in the forest. They have an intuitive sense of what is happening with these forests’ health,” says Brando.

Another unique aspect of Tanguro’s location is where it sits in relation to the larger ecosystem. The hundreds of small streams that criss-cross Tanguro form the headwaters of the Xingu River—a major tributary to the main stem of the Amazon. Tanguro is just 60 kilometers from the Xingu Indigenous Territory, through which the river of the same name runs. Any upstream disturbances to nutrients, sediments, or stream outflow have the potential to ripple down to the reserve, impacting the livelihoods of Indigenous communities within. 

“The headwater streams that we’re studying here at Tanguro drain into the Xingu reserve. So, these scientific questions of how water quality is being impacted by agriculture are important to understand as a cross-boundary issue,” says Macedo. “Water connects everything.”

Flooded rainforest floor.

photo by Mitch Korolev

IV. Connecting to the Community

When Tanguro General Coordinator, Dr. Ludmila Rattis, started her postdoctoral research at the field station, Canarana was a different town—small and male-dominated enough that a female environmental scientist had no hope of staying anonymous. Rattis would see her name written on bar tabs as “IPAM’s girl.” She went for runs and felt the stares.

It was a hard place to be, she recalls. “I felt watched all the time. I couldn’t do anything without bringing with me the name of an institution. And the internet connection was less than one megabyte, so Netflix was a challenge,” Rattis says. “Opening an email was a challenge.”

Working for an environmental non-profit in a farm town that owes its very existence to deforestation is sometimes tricky to navigate. But agriculture is woven into the DNA of Tanguro Field Station. Climate scientists may flinch to see bulldozers pressing into the undergrowth, but ultimately the proximity to agriculture here is what has yielded some of the station’s most valuable insights. 

“By being here in this place for a long time, we’re able to observe changes as they happen, and say something much more confidently about what the broader impacts are on the Amazon,” says Macedo.

bulldozer standing on the edge of the forest after clearing a road

A bulldozer clears a tract of forest to widen a road on the Tanguro property.

photo by Mitch Korolev

The partnership with Grupo Amaggi has also helped connect science to big decisions in the soy sector. In 2012, when debates over the future of Brazil’s forest code were roaring away, Nepstad was invited to join a field trip to Tanguro with the main lawmakers shaping the new code—including Senator Blairo Maggi, an owner of Grupo Amaggi. Seeing firsthand the experiments with forest restoration at the station helped demonstrate the feasibility of implementing the new protections. The forest code was revised and most of its restrictions on forest clearing are still in place today.

“It was really the science that opened these doors,” says Nepstad. 

Rattis’s research, in particular, has gone a long way toward strengthening partnerships with farms around the region. She spent her year in Canarana talking with farmers about their experience of climate change—rainy seasons starting later, crop yields dropping—and asking what information they might find useful from climate models. Slowly, as she came back to them with her results, showing them rainfall and temperature predictions and keeping a dialogue open, she built a rapport that not only strengthened her relationship with the community, but helped guide future research. 

“The farmers will tell you whether something looks right or not, and 90% of the time they’d say ‘wow, can you please send me that graphic? I want to show my neighbors,’” says Rattis. One new study even began after conversations with a farm manager hinted at a connection between forests and crop production. “I said we were wondering if the crops would produce more closer to the forest, and he said, ‘that makes sense because the cotton plants are bigger closer to the forest edge.’”

a tapir walks in an agricultural field

A tapir walks among agricultural fields.

photo by Mitch Korolev

Researchers at Tanguro have also built connections with residents of the nearby Xingu Indigenous reserve, partnering with villages to study the downstream impacts of recurring fires. A professor with the Federal University of the Amazon (UFRA), Dr. Divino Silvério, who conducted his doctoral research at Tanguro, has led much of this work. 

“The main idea was to integrate the scientific knowledge we had at Tanguro, with the traditional knowledge of the Indigenous people, to better quantify the impacts of fire on species that are used by them for food, construction, and medicine,” says Silvério. 

 During the study, Silvério and his research team visited the Xingu reserve to discuss the research and share insights. They also provided scholarships to several Indigenous students to help in the data collection and visit Tanguro for a knowledge exchange. 

“Indigenous people have been managing the forests well for centuries,” says Silvério. “But now we have climate change. It’s becoming really urgent to have these kinds of conversations, to come up with some solutions to mitigate the impacts of climate change on the livelihoods of these people.”

Rattis also believes Tanguro has a role to play as an education hub. Over the last year she has been working to create an essay prize for local students, honoring an IPAM employee who championed environmental education in the 2000s.

“The Tanguro we have today is the legacy of the many people that have worked there,” says Rattis.

marcia macedo and santarem sitting in the back of a truck talking

Macedo and Santarém chat while working out in the field.

photo by Mitch Korolev

V. What does the future look like?

Maracahipes-Santos has climbed this tower a thousand times. Today he’s climbing it once more, to anchor a back-up belay line to one of its top struts. If one of us passes out mid-climb, at least they’ll be able to lower us down gently. If all goes well, we will be climbing the 118 feet up and back under our own power, anchored to the center of the tower with a mechanism that locks like a seatbelt under sudden downward force.

The tower itself is essentially an overgrown ladder, with various gas and weather analyzers strapped to spindly poles at the top. There are three of them stationed around Tanguro to monitor the movement of carbon dioxide, water vapor, and other gasses into and out of the landscape. This particular tower is a 15 minute hike into a section of intact forest that was used as the control site during the fire experiment. 

view ip the central triangular mechanism of the carbon tower

The central structure of one of Tanguro’s carbon monitoring towers.

photo by Mitch Korolev

After checking and rechecking my tethers, a shout from Maracahipes-Santos, already at the top, signaled it was time to start the climb.

One hand up a rung, then the other. Feet to follow. Step, step, breathe. You’re supposed to lean back, let the harness hold you and push your weight up with your legs, but an unshakable instinct makes me pull tight to the ladder, so when I reach the top my forearms are shaking. Sweaty, breathless, flushed, but above the canopy at last. Maracahipes-Santos smiles and attaches my safety hook to one of the struts. Up here, we are taller than the trees.

Rain falls on the horizon over the rainforests at Tanguro.
photo by Mitch Korolev

From the top of the tower, you can read the history and future of this place, just by turning your head. Forest stretches to the horizon in one direction, an unbroken mosaic of deep green. In another, you can see massive rectangles of red dirt and uniform carpets of pale green soy cut into the landscape. Somewhere hidden behind a copse of planted eucalyptus are the corrugated metal roofs of the research station. Rain is falling on the horizon. 

Not too many decades ago, this was all forest. Just another impossibly thick cluster of living organisms breathing and dying and growing anew in one of the most densely biodiverse ecosystems on the planet. Now, the vigilant scientific instruments whizzing away up here document its decline. 

Research at Tanguro is driven by one big question: “What is the future of the Amazon?” But the answer to that question will depend — on scientists continuing to come to Tanguro to understand how this ecosystem is changing, on the field technicians making it possible to conduct science in the forest safely, on farmers taking pride in caring for the forests that stand on their land, on government officials building policies that reflect science, and on the decisions of people thousands of miles away to reverse climate change.   

“When you’re doing research on this forest, you realize it is an amazingly tough system that is now being faced with tougher and tougher stresses and disturbances. So it needs help, and it needs to be given a chance, but it will continue,” says Nepstad. “And I think Tanguro has a big role to play in that.”

The past 20 years at Tanguro have done much to point the Amazon towards a more hopeful future. What will the next 20 bring?

“My hope,” says Rattis, “is that in 20 years we won’t be dealing with deforestation anymore. ‘Remember that time when we had to convince people not to cut down the forest? I’m so glad we’re past that.’”

Author Sarah Ruiz