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Saving the Amazon


A fisherman walking in a river carrying a very large fish on his back The arapaima, a 10-foot-long fish that can weigh more than 400 pounds, has been fished to extinction in some Amazon Basin communities. Photo by Sergio Ricardo de Oliveira

Scientists take a multi-faceted approach to sustaining the Amazon’s biodiversity

Feb. 15, 2016 – The Amazon’s vast rainforests, rivers, and soils are rich ecosystems vital to the basic functioning of the planet. They churn moisture into the atmosphere, sequester carbon, regulate climate patterns, and house much of the world’s biodiversity. But those extensive, interconnected ecosystems are increasingly fragmented and degraded by unsustainable agriculture, exploitative commercial fishing practices, and other practices.

Scientists from several fields in the college are deeply engaged in the region, working in the Amazon’s critical ecosystems to help reshape daily land-use and natural resource management decisions.

For almost two decades, economists Frank Merry and Gregory Amacher have been at the forefront of land-use change modeling in the Brazilian Amazon. Using computers to generate models helps decision-makers see what short- and long-term impacts will result from different proposed land uses. Merry and Amacher’s work on models that forecast land use in logging, ranching, and agriculture has led the way in the design of climate-related policies, including the UN-REDD Programme.

Furthermore, Merry, a former research associate professor in the Department of Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation, and Amacher, the department’s Julian N. Cheatham Professor of Natural Resource Economics, have long been seeking to address the problems faced by poor settlement families on the forest frontier.

“These households are the equivalent of the U.S. nonindustrial private forest landowner, yet they are largely excluded from the formal economy and struggle to survive under difficult, yet resource-rich, conditions,” Merry said. “We try to inform Brazilian decision-makers about their plight and present viable development alternatives.”

In conjunction with local partners like the Amazon Environmental Research Institute, Virginia Tech researchers have conducted more than 6,000 household interviews and brought these issues to the forefront of Brazilian policy design.

Merry serves as the administrative director of the nonprofit Aliança da Terra, which focuses on improving resource management on private lands in the Brazilian Amazon. This work includes a voluntary registry in which farmers commit to meeting select environmental, social, and production criteria on their properties. In return, their products are entered in the organization’s Producing Right Platform, enabling manufacturers and consumers to trace a product’s origin and evaluate how sustainably it was produced.

In a long-standing partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, Aliança da Terra established a firefighting brigade to help protect private and public forests. More than 630 local volunteer firefighters have been trained to date by the agency’s world-renowned smokejumpers.

Senior Research Associate Kirsten Silvius, a wildlife ecologist, works with indigenous hunters in Amazonian Guyana to understand game population densities and hunting behavior. The information gained helps guide management decisions to ensure that wildlife populations remain healthy and thrive over the long term. That kind of participatory monitoring and management, involving data collectors, decision-makers, and community residents, is a “bottom-up approach” to effect change that can meet multiple objectives, she says.

In Silvius’ three-year study, 335 locally recruited and trained indigenous technicians walked 2,000 kilometers a month recording data on animal observations and signs, forest structure, even fruit abundance. Silvius now works closely with Brazilian government agencies to improve the livelihoods of forest-dependent peoples and ensure the boundaries of protected areas remain intact.

Assistant Professor Leandro Castello of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation recruits community-based fishermen to guide fisheries management. He leverages local knowledge of habitat and ecology for the conservation of arapaima — a 400-pound, air-breathing, top-predator species fished to extinction in some communities. “Many fishing communities are developing their own management strategies, asking scientists and governments to better manage fisheries,” he said.

Now is the time to reverse current trends, according to Castello. “In Brazil’s Amazonas State there have been significant strides,” he said. “The arapaima fishery there is coming back, a far cry from 10 years ago.” Things are not looking as promising in other locations, but Castello says his research “has the primary goal of influencing policy, not just creating knowledge. I think there is evidence with the arapaima that it has helped.”

“There is no doubt the Amazon rainforest and the peoples and animals that depend upon it continue to be under tremendous pressure,” Merry concluded. “Fortunately, many Virginia Tech scientists are playing an important role in understanding the pressures facing this vital resource.”

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