Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia

The Scope of the Experiment

caption LBA sites span the Amazon from the headwaters in the Andes, along the river and its tributaries in the Amazon Basin, to the River’s mouth in coastal Brazil. (Source: Map courtesy of LBA science team, adapted by Robert Simmon; NASA)

The Large-scale Biosphere Atmosphere Experiment in Amazônia (LBA) is the largest program of international scientific cooperation to be focused on the Amazon region. It is the largest global change science project to ever have taken place in Brazil, where the majority of the research is focused. It is an environmental science experiment focused on understanding the role of the Amazon in global environmental change, including how land-use affects global change and how global environmental change affects the region.


The LBA was created with the intention of informing decision making under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) as well as national-level Brazilian policies bearing on environmental conservation. In the context of widespread concern about high deforestation rates in the Amazon region, a group of Brazilian, American and European scientists proposed the LBA in the hope that it could simultaneously advance basic scientific understanding and preservation of Amazonian ecosystems. The LBA was also centrally propelled by scientific interest in a continuation of research carried out in the Amazon since the 1980s, such as the Brazil-U.S. collaboration on the Amazon Boundary Layer Experiment (ABLE 2B) and the Anglo-Brazilian Amazonian Climate Observations Study (ABRACOS), among others.


The LBA involves integrated, multidisciplinary research modeled after the Boreal Ecosystem-Atmosphere Study – a previous science program focused on the role of Northern, boreal forests in planetary processes – and, to a lesser extent, a similar program in the Sahel in Africa( called Hapex Sahel. Brazilian and American scientists conceived of the LBA after having collaborated under these other scientific programs. They obtained U.S. National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA) and European Union support for a major part of the field experiments and associated infrastructure development. American scientists managed to stimulate NASA interest in the LBA’s two basic questions because the latter fit NASA’s institutional emphasis on remote sensing technologies. Advances in satellite technology had developed the ability to detect deforestation. The growing concern about tropical deforestation and the fact that Brazil was the only country gathering extensive satellite information on the phenomena made collaboration interesting to NASA. Collaboration was also facilitated by the fact that NASA previously had sponsored research experiments in Brazil (e.g., ABLE 2B) and had a history of collaborating with the Brazilian Space Research Institute (INPE). INPE was centrally involved in the conceptualization and planning of the LBA and coordinated the LBA the first years of its existence.

Current Status

Scientific activities under the LBA were at their height in the years between 1998 and 2006. During this first, most intense phase of its existence, the LBA was an international program co-funded by the U.S. National Aeronautics Space Administration (NASA), the European Union and Brazil. NASA is expected to continue to support collaborative synthesis activities through 2008. In late 2004, the Brazilian government decided to continue the LBA as a national program in which non-Brazilian scientists would participate in a more limited fashion and under greater control by the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology. This second, lower-intensity phase of the LBA began in 2005.

The two basic research questions guiding the the LBA during its international phase were:

  • How does the Amazon currently function as a regional entity?
  • How will changes in land use and climate affect the biological, chemical and physical functions of the Amazon, including the sustainability of development in the region and the latter’s influence on global climate?

The LBA has involved active collaboration among researchers and institutions from the global North and South at numerous field sites in the Amazon and around associated data. The program has subsumed more than 120 research projects involving about 1,700 participants (990 of whom are Brazilians) from 63 Brazilian and 143 non-Brazilian institutions. It has involved collaboration between predominantly Brazilian, American and European environmental scientists and institutions.

The LBA has been pioneering in terms of developing scientific capacity and minimizing long-standing practices of “scientific colonialism,” which is to say, use of less developed countries’ human and material resources in ways that minimally benefit the poorer host countries in terms of intellectual, human, and material gains. Brazilian law requires that Brazilian scientists serve as principal co-investigators in international scientific projects on Brazilian soil. Brazilian LBA scientists, supported by non-Brazilian LBA architects, have insisted that the law be observed not only on paper but in spirit. This has encouraged the formation of friendships and strong collaborative relations between junior and senior Brazilian scientists and their American and European counterparts. These personal and professional ties are likely to engender continued collaboration and exchange after the formal end of the LBA, just as the LBA was an outgrowth of collaboration around previous scientific experiments such as ABLE2B, ABRACOS, BOREAS and HAPEX-Sahel. Moreover, the LBA has institutionalized and emphasized free-of-charge data sharing and mutually beneficial scientific collaboration between Southern and Northern researchers in which the former are not merely support staff but full collaborators. The LBA has also put in place an elaborate infrastructure of scie ntific instruments, research camps, laboratories, vehicles, and skilled people. At the end of the first phase of the program, much of this infrastructure was turned over to Brazil to use as it sees fit. The capacity building component contributes to the LBA’s goal of advancing sustainable use of natural resources in the Amazon.

The LBA enjoyed annual budgets on the order of approximately US$ 12 to 15 million for the years 1998 to 2004. These costs were shared mainly by Brazil and NASA, with Europe contributing a smaller part. Brazil is estimated to have contributed at least half of the funding for the LBA during this first phase when factoring in also indirect funding in the form of facilities made available to the LBA as well as salaries of LBA-involved Brazilian scientists and student scholarships.

Political and Legal Issues

caption A Landsat Image of the Amazon River, Brazil, on November 30, 2000. (Source: NASA;; Center for Global Change and Earth Observations, Michigan State University)

Brazilian political leaders have been ambivalent about the LBA. The LBA was approved to take place on Brazilian soil because some Brazilian political leaders considered it beneficial to Brazil through its advancement of scientific understanding of the Amazon and through the in-built, innovative processes of scientific capacity building. However, important factions within the government and in Brazilian society were suspicious of the LBA. The latter manifested itself, among other things, in a suit brought by a group of Congressional representatives in 1999. The suit targeted Brazilian officials responsible for approving the LBA, including the Ministers of Science and Technology and of Foreign Relations and, even, the then-President Fernando Henrique Cardoso. They were accused of threatening national sovereignty by authorizing the LBA, which, the representatives charged, caused grave injury and demoralization of the country and opened it to possible loss of Brazilian heritage. Though not founded on known instances involving the LBA before or after 1999, key concerns were biopiracy and the possibility that surveillance data collected under the pretense of scientific research might be used by foreigners to scout and subsequently exploit Brazilian natural resources.

The legal basis for the suit was that international actions and decisions with important bearing on natural heritage need to be approved by the Brazilian Congress. The debatable point was whether the LBA in fact was a threat to national heritage. The administration under F.H. Cardoso had decided that the LBA was not such a threat, and as such did not submit it to Congress for approval before authorizing its implementation. The suit remained unresolved at the end of the first phase of the LBA, but the Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Ministry of Science and Technology sought to meet the underpinning concerns by instating controls over the data and knowledge produced and disseminated under the LBA, especially with regards to campaigns to collect environmental data by means of low-flying airplanes.

Further Reading

  • Lahsen, Myanna, 2005. "Tattered or Armed by Science? Science and Sovereignty in Brazil." Discussion paper, Science and Democracy Network Workshop, Harvard University, Cambridge, USA.
  • Lahsen, Myanna and Carlos A. Nobre, 2007. "The Challenge of Connecting International Science and Local Level Sustainability: The Case of the LBA." Environmental Science and Policy, 10(1):62-74.
  • LBA Science Planning Group. 1996. The Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia (LBA): Concise Experimental Plan.
  • Siqueira, Frank. "Soberania Sobre a Amazônia É Posta Em Xeque." O Liberal (Pará, Amazonas), 23 April 2004.



Lahsen, M. (2008). Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in Amazonia. Retrieved from


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