Brazilian ecologists fight deforestation in the Amazon with a new model of land ownership

  • At least 10% of the Amazon rainforest has been destroyed in less than 40 years.
  • Some Amazonian public holdings lacking governance, where self-proclaimed landowners can deny communities access to lakes and fisheries, are more vulnerable to deforestation.
  • A recently created non-profit organization in Brazil has purchased a stretch of the Amazon along the Juruá River, where scientists and local communities can work together to raise living standards in the area and ultimately preserve the largest tropical forest of the world.

In a remote corner of the Amazon, Brazilian ecologists are trying to succeed where lack of governance has proved disastrous. They are managing a tract of land in a way that invites both local people and scientists to commit themselves to preserving the world’s largest tropical forest.

The goal is ambitious, to counter the forces that have destroyed 10% of the forest in less than four decades and to 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. The researchers visited about 100 communities that at first glance looked similar: rows of wooden houses on stilts along the water. But they were struck by the contrasts in living conditions.


To understand what they saw, it’s important to know that 29 percent of the Amazon, an area about three times the size of California, is either public land without special protection or public land for which no public information exists, according to a study by the. Amazonia Institute of People and the Environment.

These areas have proven to be more vulnerable to deforestation. Land thieves drive traditional communities off the land and then clear it, hoping that the government will recognize them as owners, which they usually do.

“It’s very unequal. A lot of good things happen inside the protected areas, 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 considerable social organization and people manage its fish and forest products, such as acai, in a sustainable way. The land designation here is “extractive reserves”, public lands where residents can fish and harvest some crops.

But outside these reservations, in many places, people are taking orders from self-proclaimed landowners, Campos-Silva said. Whole communities are denied access to the lakes, even for fishing to feed their families. People don’t own the land and they don’t know who owns it.

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

The man maneuvers the boat in Brazil

Jose Alves de Morais, who watches for intruders, maneuvers a boat in Carauari, Brazil on Sept. 1, 2022. Morais said projects like the Juruá Institute’s conservation model have never existed before in the Amazon. (AP Photo/Jorge Saenz)

So they created the non-profit Juruá Institute and bought an 8-mile rainforest property along the Juruá River. It includes about 20 lakes, some with good potential for breeding the prized pirarucu, the world’s largest freshwater fish, which can reach 440 pounds.

The goal, Campos-Silva said, is to promote high-quality science, founded on collaboration with the people of the region.

There are 12 communities of former rubber collectors in the vicinity of the Institute grounds. Brazilians call them “ribeirinhos”, or river people, to distinguish them from the indigenous residents.

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

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

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

To avoid potential gender and age bias, they worked in three groups: women, youth and men, Campos-Silva said.


The president of the river communities association, Fernanda de Araujo Moraes, said the main aim is to prevent river populations from moving to Amazonian cities, where unemployment among low-skilled people is rampant and violence is widespread, thanks to traffic of drugs.

In her own community of Lago Serrado, where 12 families live in stilt houses, both women and men have listed 24-hour electricity as their top priority. He is currently only available three hours a day. The young men chose fishing training.

Moraes believes this type of collaboration is the fastest way forward. “We want to improve people’s lives and the Institute wants the same thing,” she said, sitting on the floor of her house, caring for her baby. The government, she said, is not always on the same page.

“This is something that doesn’t exist here in the Amazon, it doesn’t exist anywhere in Brazil. If it works, and it will, it will attract the attention of many people,” said resident José Alves de Morais, in an interview by the lake just behind the community.

Morais works as a lake keeper, watching for intruders who might catch fish or cut down trees. His family hopes to take part in the management of the pirarucu fishing institute, which awaits federal approval.

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 into what makes social arrangements successful in the region. They created a program, Forest Scientists, to train local high school students in field collecting, systematizing data, and preparing reports.


The initiative is led by Carlos Peres, an Amazonian-born professor of tropical conservation ecology at the University of East Anglia, UK. This work, which began as an experiment, gained recognition from a Swiss non-profit organization in April 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, which has already received support from Synchronicity Earth, National Geographic and Rolex under the Perpetual Planet Project.

The winning study used data collected during that 2016 trip. Co-authored by Campos-Silva et al, found communities living within protected areas enjoy better access to health care, education , electricity and basic sanitation, as well as a more stable income, than communities in non-designated areas. They found that only 5% of adults within protected areas aspire to move to a city, compared to 58% of adults in unprotected areas.

The article argues that in tropical countries with limited resources it is possible to achieve conservation and at the same time benefit local communities by placing more power in their hands.

Peres, the institute’s scientific director, says he hopes to inspire solutions across the Amazon region by integrating traditional knowledge with Western model science.

“We don’t have all the answers,” he said. “But we have the audacity to try to move forward on these issues.”


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