Extraordinary claims. Ordinary investigations.

Sugarcane Signs

[Aerial view of the Inn on Riolandia, Brazil. At right, poster for the movie “Signs” (2002)]

I blogged about it briefly shortly after the incident, and later updated it mentioning that “the event has been all the rage in Brazil. There are many news items about it, and I’ll sort and link them later”.

Now that things seem to have calmed down a bit, a more clear scenario can be presented.

In review: on January 20th, around two weeks after the movie “Signs” was shown on TV with very high ratings, the small city of Riolandia, Sao Paulo, became the epicenter of a very familiar phenomenon.

Big areas of sugarcane fields were suddenly found laying down, and the owner of the Inn located between the first areas claimed he saw a “big oval light” just above the place. Ufologists visited the Inn, gave some interviews to local newspapers and TV news, expressed how they thought it was unexplainable and UFOs could indeed be involved, then went back home. Apparently, there wasn’t much else to investigate.

But TV and high viewing ratings entered the scene again, as in the following weekend the incident made it to two Sunday evening programs. And on the following weekdays, it was also prominently explored by a daily show around noon. The case was promoted side by side with the story of a “stubborn donkey”, as just one more of the fun stories coming from the rural areas of Sao Paulo, the most industrialized state in Brazil.

After all the media attention, without much surprise, new areas of stamped sugarcane were found in many cities beyond Riolandia, and dozens of people came forward claiming they saw UFOs. Some even recorded them on video.

The ufologists were then asked to come back to the place. The mayor and the owner of the Inn even paid for their expenses. Accordingly, many ufologists visited the city, and they all assured it was a big mystery that should continue to be investigated. Reports were told retroactively, and many people started to claim they were seeing UFOs even before the initial event at the Inn.

You can read a very excited report of the events, by Brazilian UFO magazine editor Ademar Gevaerd, on Frank Warren’s blog.

I talked with Jorge Luis Nery, first and main ufologist to investigate the incidents, and can offer some critical comments after the jump.

The physical evidence

First and foremost, the physical evidence. The sugarcane. According to Nery’s report, no physical anomalies were found in any plant. Even though they couldn’t make radiological, or even more sophisticated chemical and biological tests, simple examination of the areas didn’t hint to any physical anomaly — besides the obvious fact that the plants were laying down.

Jorge Nery also lamented the fact that they weren’t able to capture, photographically, the alleged geometrical and meticulous perfection of the flat fields. The constant rain made aerial flights difficult and also contributed to disrupting the initial configuration of the areas.

Photos taken by Solange Ambrizzi in the Riolandia field just hours after the alleged formation, though, suggest that the areas were not so perfect even then:

Much was made about the “bent, not broken” sugarcane plants, echoing their British relatives. But Jorge Nery clarified that only some plants were bent on their stalks, most were bent near their roots. This can be produced by simple mechanical force, as this sugarcane field affected by hurricane Wilma shows:

Besides the sugarcane, there are some UFO videos. Only two of them were openly publicized so far, and they only show points of light in the sky. Each one of them should be investigated, but by themselves, and at first glance, they are not in any way extraordinary.

The interest here is their relation to the stamped sugarcanes, but we will look at that later.


The testimonial evidence

It’s difficult to criticize testimonial evidence without looking too pedant and close minded. Even if someone saw a real flying saucer with Grays inside disco dancing, the report that person would give would probably have some contradictions, which would grow as time would pass. Finding such flaws on a testimony should not discard it completely, and the task must be done carefully for it not to become an ad hominem attack. Or simply name calling.

In Riolandia and all the sugarcane brouhaha that followed, though, the testimonial evidence is indeed more contradictory and suspect than one would expect. From a real unknown phenomenon, that is.

Mauricio Silva, owner of the inn, for instance, first and main witness, initially told newspapers how he was “completely scared” of the big light, “which wasn’t a saucer, but oval and kind of long, large. I couldn’t tell the color of it, but it had a yellowish light“.

But more recently he has been saying that the light was “the most beautiful thing in the world” and how there were “three balls of this size, one besides the other, well aligned and bright”.

Perhaps he may be embellishing his initial story, which could be taken more seriously. But even the first story is slightly bizarre. Silva claims he woke in the middle of the night to drink water, heard some cracking noises and saw the light above the sugarcane. Terrorized he… went back to his room to sleep. He didn’t call his wife, he didn’t call the police or the other guests at his inn. He allegedly waited until morning to check everything.

If that’s slightly strange, it can be multiplied by two. Because two guests of the inn, stationed on a trailer beside the house, also claim they heard the noises and saw the light above the sugarcane. They also didn’t call the police or any authorities. They didn’t call Silva or the other guests. They also waited until the morning.

And the first thing they did in the morning was to… photograph the flat field. Why Solange Ambrizzi didn’t even try to photograph the lights as they were above the sugarcane field and a couple of dozen meters away from them is a question without an answer.

All the other reports of lights associated with the sugarcane came after the media explored the event. One individual claimed he filmed UFOs and tried to sell the tape for around US$10.000. With the mayor paying for the expenses of all the ufologists, some people even claimed they were ufologists just to eat for free. Such was the situation in Riolandia.


Invisible Gorillas attack again

What was responsible for the flat sugarcane fields, then? Contrary to what most skeptics, including me, would first guess, the answer seems to be natural. Literally.

In the past week, real experts, in fields like meteorology and agronomy, as well as sugarcane specialists (we do have them here), have come forward explaining the phenomenon [Portuguese news item]. Many factors can make the sugarcane lie down, naturally, such as strong winds from microbursts, or even problems with the fertilization of the soil.

But if these natural causes could explain the flat sugarcane fields, how one would explain the sudden appearance of so many mysterious areas in the past few weeks? The mayor of Riolandia and many ufologists were alarmed with the “hundreds” of affected areas being discovered almost daily on dozens of cities, all over the state.

Invisible Gorillas, of course. As it turns out, large areas of flat sugarcane are very common, and a quick Google search for the fields in São Paulo, by fellow Marcelo Domingues, revaled many areas just in the city of Pirassununga, famous for producing a top quality “cachaça” — a typical alcoholic beverage:

These aerial images were most certainly taken before January 20th, possibly even years ago.

Fellow researcher and historian Rodolpho Gauthier also investigated the phenomenon, in loco. That’s because it reached his own city of Araraquara, where a sugarcane field was found flat and for some unexplainable reason, among all the others, ended up being news on the most viewed daily news report in Brazil, “Jornal Nacional”.

Gauthier cautioned that he only managed to visit the field six days after the event, and as such, “it was impossible to make a really scientific evaluation”. But even then, he managed to collect and quote many opinions. Including that of the owner of the field, who thinks the sugarcane was indeed affected by the wind, as he had already seen such things many times before in the 16 years he has been working in the area.

Two sugarcane specialists also assured Gauthier that flat sugarcane areas are very common after heavy rain. It was raining in Riolandia when the first areas were suddenly found.

This is just one probable explanation, though. After all the media frenzy, some areas may have been hoaxed, artificially. One curious detail found in many areas, including the first one in Riolandia, can be seen in this photo by Solange Ambrizzi:

The flat areas conveniently end up on roads. They actually narrow down before it, and the width is exactly the width a common person would leave when stamping down the sugarcane with a plank.

Pyschosocial phenomena may also better explain all the reports of UFOs in the region. If you suddenly start to look at the sky, you are bound to find UFOs.

In all, the Brazilian Sugarcane Signs Fever may be an adorable example of psychosocial phenomena. A suggestive movie on TV creates an alien interpretation for a natural phenomenon. Media exploitation of the subject fuels more reports, which fuel more media reports. Everything reaches a climax, around a month later, when the bubble is burst by the very same media, that finally starts to air scientific, orthodox explanations for the events. In the past few days, the “hot spot” for UFO phenomena seem to have been cooling down.

Of course, there could be real unexplained phenomena happening there. Ufologists must collect samples and analyze them, UFO videos and photos should be analyzed individually until an explanation for each of them is found.

But without any real physical anomaly, all we have are sweet invisible gorillas.


[With thanks to Jorge Nery, Eustaquio Patounas,
Rodolpho Gauthier
and Marcelo Domingues for their help]

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