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Saving Brazil's biomes

How science and ancient knowledge can save the Amazon

Author: Ellen Nemitz

"I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity."

The Guaribas (Red Howler Monkey) can be typically spotted high up in trees at the Mamirauá Reserve. They play a vital role in seed spreading and thus support forest regeneration.

Amushide is a word used by indigenous Deni people in Brazil; it means "all the good things." In conversation, it is used to express positive feelings and thoughts. Pha'avi Deni uses this word at the end of a conversation with FairPlanet, expressing his joy of talking about the Roots of Purus project: an initiative that has been helping his and five other communities protect the areas of the Amazon Forest they inhabit. 

The project supports the sustainable management of the Pirarucu fish and various other forest products, such as nuts and açaí, along six indigenous lands covering a total extension of 2 million hectares in the State of Amazonasm, which are home to the Deni, Apurinã, Paumari and Jamamadi peoples.

The result is remarkable: in 2021 alone, the deforestation prevented in this region allowed 265,125 tons of equivalent carbon dioxide to remain out of the atmosphere, according to Rogério Ribeiro Marinho, a climate and environment specialist at the Federal University of Amazonas. This is equivalent to 114 million standing trees or the annual emission of 2,820 cars. 

Pha'avi Deni explains that deforestation is not a problem in his territory. "We live in the middle of the forest, where we protect our biodiversity," he affirms, adding that miners' invasions have also not been reported in that region. Illegal fishing, on the other hand, is a constant threat, and so is hunting. People come to the area from Itamarati, a nearby city, to catch fish in the rivers and capture mainly chelonians. 

Roots of Purus provides support for the communities to watch over the rivers and bushes and deter invaders. With financial assistance form the initiative, five communities organise themselves to go on field surveillance every 15 days. The mere presence of the teams in the waters tends to scare off potential invaders, Deni says. 

The first sustainable management project for the fishing stocks was established in 2009, but only properly took off in 2017. Since then, local indigenous communities had their lives improved through the benefits of catching the Pirarucu in sustainable levels, while preserving the forest for the future generations. "Management brings a lot of unity to us, good people and friends," Deni says.

"Through management, we also hold several meetings for planning, evaluating and counting the fishery. We do this every year, and this is very important for the Deni people to remain united." 

As Pha'avi Deni speaks, kids can be heard laughing in the background. Joy is also noticeable in Deni's voice, as life has drastically improved for his people since the establishment of the partnership. 

Squirrel monkeys, locally known as Macaco-de-Cheiro, are a petite and incredibly fast species living mainly on treetops. 

growing Bees to restore a forest

In a beehive, each bee plays a role and, together, they make the system thrive.

Meli Bee - an NGO founded by Ana Rosa de Lima, an engineer who was born in the Amazon region of Brazil and currently works in Germany - is inspired by this seamlessly interconnected system of bees. The network of communities - indigenous, quilombolas (descendants from former slave settlements) and peasants collaborating with different professionals - is working to regrow the Amazon.

Founded a year and a half ago, Meli Bee's core principals are community engagement, regeneration and uplifting the voices of people. Honey breeding and agroforestry are some of the activities supported by the organisation, which gathers around 25 communities and 40 families. 

Illustrating the success of the coalition, de Lima brings up the example of a Mali Bee's project that aimed to plant 4,000 trees but ended up planting 7,000 trees. 

"We do not only plant the trees," de Lima says, stressing that the most successful projects were those involving the community. In such projects they held a storytelling workshop and involved the school or created a vegetable garden, for example, among other actions. In other words, the community became the protagonist.

Jonas Guajajara, one of Meli Bee's partners, carries in his words the hope of changing the current reality in his territory. The agroecology technician and beekeeper is the son of the cacique - an indigenous leader - in the demarcated territory of Arariboia in Maranhão. "My goal is to show to Brazil and the world that we have a solution for Arariboia to recover and get improved; to take advantage of the richness we have... carry out sustainable and agroecological work," he told FairPlanet.

The challenges, of course, are numerous. Guajajara says that loggers and hunters often invade the territory and that fires also pose a constant threat both to the environment and indigenous houses. "My struggle is to look for a way to help the Arariboia community. I strongly believe in creating stingless bees, which helps in reforestation by producing saplings. Bees are important for the forest, as they pollinate plants."

Bees were also given to peasants from the Landless Workers' Movement (MST) in Pará. Reni Lourenço de Amorin, a local worker and coordinator of the reforestation program in partnership with Meli Bee, points out that the communities face a fundamental barrier to making the saplings grow: water scarcity.

"Our dream is to have water from an artesian well, for example; to have a forest and also our little crops that feed us. However, without water, especially in the dry season, the saplings die and people are not interested in planting them again," she said, adding that the government was asked to provide conditions for supplying water to their region, but did not respond. 

Lourenço de Amorin and her countrymen - about 10 people - live in a small area where they plant food for their own consumption and as well as native trees such as cocoa, açaí, heart of palm and others. Despite the limitations of the property - over which ownership was officially given to them, she says - the community cherishes having a standing forest. In order to make it thrive, however, they need water. "Our slogan is 'no poison, no fire, no tractor,' and we want to spread our words worldwide."

When we spoke later in the day, Lourenço de Amorin sent a picture of her son, a small child with a large, beautiful smile, and called him "her future." He is, in fact, the future of the Amazon, and deserves better conditions so he could, one day, live and work in a prosperous forest. 

Over 1,300 species of birds are found in the Amazon - 28 of which are endemic to the region.

the queen of trees

Protecting the Amazon involves locals, scientists, NGOs, enterprises and governments. It requires the halting of deforestation and reconstruction of areas already damaged by logging, mining or agriculture.

Many miles away from Pha'avi Deni, Jonas Guajajara and Reni Lourenço de Amorim, FairPlanet visited the Mamirauá Reserve in the very heart of the Amazon Forest. There, deforestation is not widespread.

As the plane descends over the small airport in Tefé, a seemingly endless expanse of forest reveals itself: massive green centenary trees contrasting the mud-coloured sinuous rivers, which are used as travel route by people who live in the Amazon and need to get from one region to another. 

Down by the river, in a boat towards the Uakari Lodge - a floating inn designed for sustainable, community-based tourism - we learn that the tallest tree emerging among others used to be more common once. The Sumaúma is considered to be the queen of trees and can reach up to 70 metres high. Decades-long exploitation removed adult Sumaúmas from the forest. 

Now, Mamirauá is a 1,124,000 hectare preserved and protected area, where 177 communities with a total of 11,532 inhabitants live. These people take turns watching over the rivers and deterring invaders. Meanwhile, the Mamirauá Insitutive gathers scientists to conduct research about the Amazonian Jaguar and river dolphins, among other species, and develops sustainable fishing programs; the pirarucu management is a reported success story, as it allowed the sustainable catch of this species and provided an income source for riverines. 

Walking among the trees or paddling a traditional canoe is also a adventure through various sounds and sights: the powerful Guariba monkey with its loud vocalisations, racket crickets, a party of colourful birds singing different melodies, river dolphins commanding one's attention here and there. Together they compose a unique symphony: life is full in the Amazon, at least in this protected sanctuary. 

The partnership between scientists and riverines has brought satisfying results for people and the forest, both of which live in gradual harmony with one another. When tourism is well managed, a win-win relationship is forged: tourists get a chance to experience the world's biggest tropical forest while nature is preserved and local peoples make a decent living. Meanwhile, the queen of the forest can keep growing and retaking its place.

The endangered Jacaré-Açu is the largest alligator species. Found across all rivers and lakes of the Amazon Forest, it can reach up to 6 meters in length and 300 kilos in weight.

A standing forest can be profitable 

Even though the Brazilian government often fails to protect the Amazon, there are multiple laws, in addition to national and international surveillance efforts, to guarantee its preservation.

In the 1970's and 80's, however, enacted policies aimed to integrate the Amazonin to the rest of the country's developing economy: deforestation was not only allowed, but encouraged, says Dione Torquato, Secretary-General at National Council of Extractivistic Populations.

It was in this context that seringalists - people who make a living by extracting rubber from trees - tried to save the forest and their homes. Chico Mendes, murdered in 1988, was one of the most renowned names in this movement. "We did not want to own the land, Chico used to say. We wanted to be allowed to live in it," Torquato recalls. 

In 1990, the first conservation units under Mendes' legacy of Ecological Land Reform were created. It constituted the beginning of the Extractivistics Reserves, which nowadays occupy over 15.7 million hectares in more than 96 units, according to WWF.

"Since then, a territory as a way of protecting the forest and maintaining the lives of these populations became a reality. There are some conflicts inside these conservation units, but we can keep the forest standing under local people's governance," Torquato assesses, referring to the nearly 5 million people whose work involves extracting non-wood products from the forest, such as nuts, seeds, fruits or fisheries. Of these people, more than 1.5 million live in the Amazon alone, and are of mixed backgrounds - indigenous, riverines, quilombolas and others. In an economic system designed to generate quick profits, respecting cycles of nature - and earning a living from what it has to offer in each season - is a counter-discourse defended by forest people. 

Several organisations work to make sure their rights are respected and that their well-being is protected. Currently, according to the Secretary-General, a cooperation project involving the Federal Public Prosecutor's Office, the German Technical Cooperation (GTZ) and the Brazilian Traditional Populations Network, which encompasses more than 28 civil society entities, is working to create a platform relying on GPS data and imagery in order to provide information for governmental bodies and inform future land concessions for ventures such as hydroelectric power plants or mining. 

Chico Mendes once said: "At first I thought I was fighting to save rubber trees, then I thought I was fighting to save the Amazon rainforest. Now I realise I am fighting for humanity." So is everyone who is out in the Amazon now, working to keep it standing.

To quote another martyr of the Amazon, Dorothy Stang, who was murdered in 2005 for defending it from loggers: "The death of the forest is the end of our life."

Images by Ellen Nemitz. Teaser image by Neil Palmer/CIAT