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In the Amazon, Brazilian Ecologists Try New Approach Against Deforestation and Poverty

CARAUARI, Brazil — In a remote corner of the Amazon, Brazilian ecologists are trying to succeed where a lack of governance has proved disastrous. They’re managing a stretch of land in a way that welcomes both local people and scientists to engage in preserving the world’s largest tropical forest.

The goal is ambitious, counter the forces that have destroyed 10% of the forest in less than four decades and create something that can be replicated in other parts of the Amazon.

It began with a four-month expedition along the Juruá River in 2016. Researchers visited some 100 communities that at first sight looked similar: rows of wooden homes on stilts along the water. But they were struck by contrasts in the living conditions.

To understand what they saw, it’s important to know that 29% of the Amazon, an area roughly three times the size of California, is either public land with no special protection, or public land for which no public information exists, according to a study by the Amazon Institute of People and the Environment.

These areas have been shown to be more vulnerable to deforestation. Land robbers drive traditional communities off the land and then clear it, hoping the government will recognize them as owners, which usually happens.

“It’s very unequal. Inside protected areas, there are many positive things happening, but outside, they seemed to be 40 years behind,” João Vitor Campos-Silva, a tropical socio-ecologist, told The Associated Press.

The researchers were aware that the part of the river known as Medio Juruá, near the city of Carauari, has remarkable social organization and people manage its fish and forest products, such as acai, sustainably. The land designation here is “extractive reserves,” public lands where residents are allowed to fish and harvest some crops.

But outside these reserves, in many places, people take orders from self-appointed landowners, Campos-Silva said. Entire communities are denied access to lakes, even to fish to feed their families. People don´t own the land, and they don’t know who does.

“We started thinking that it might be interesting to design a conservation model based on a basin scale,” where communities could harvest forest produce and fish and protect the forest, instead of moving to the city or resorting to illegal activities, such as unlicensed logging and overfishing.

So they created the nonprofit Juruá Institute and purchased 8 miles of rainforest property along the Juruá River. It includes about 20 lakes, some with good potential for raising prized pirarucu, the world’s largest freshwater scale fish, which can reach up to 440 pounds.

The goal, Campos-Silva said, is to promote high-quality science, grounded in working together with the region’s people.

In the vicinity of the Institute’s land there are 12 communities of former rubber-tappers. Brazilians call them “ribeirinhos,” or river people, as distinguished from Indigenous residents.

In the past, the chance to make a living from rubber trees drew their grandparents to the Amazon. Nowadays the main revenue comes from pirarucu. Controlling that fishery has proved to be sustainable, reviving a species that was in decline and generating income without the need to clear the forest, with all that means for loss of biodiversity.

The Amazon rainforest, covering an area twice the size of India, also holds tremendous stores of carbon and is a crucial buffer against climate change. Driven by land-robbers, deforestation surged to a 15-year high in recent years while Jair Bolsonaro, who left office in January, was president. Destruction in the eastern Amazon has been so extensive that it has become a carbon source, rather than a carbon sink.

To involve the riverine communities in governance, the institute set up a steering committee and launched a series of public meetings called “community of dreams,” where people could prioritize the improvements they want most.

The president of the river communities’ association, Fernanda de Araujo Moraes, said the main purpose is to prevent river people from moving to Amazon cities, where unemployment among low-skilled people is rampant and violence is widespread, thanks to drug-trafficking.

On the scientific front, the institute has built a houseboat and a wooden house for as many as 20 researchers to spend seasons along the Juruá River. One is studying the uakari monkey. Others are looking at what makes social arrangements successful in the region. They created a program, Forest Scientists, to train local high school students in field collection, data systematization, and how to prepare reports.

The initiative is led by Carlos Peres, an Amazon-born professor of tropical conservation ecology at the University of East Anglia, in the United Kingdom. In April this work, begun as an experiment, got some recognition from a Swiss nonprofit when he and three other scientists won the Frontiers Planet Prize, which comes with $1.1 million. The money will be reinvested in the project.

Peres, the Institute’s scientific director, says it hopes to inspire solutions across the Amazon region, by integrating traditional knowledge with the science of Western models.

“We do not have all the answers,” he said. “But we have the audacity to try to advance on these issues.”

Source : The Pantagraph