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Brazilian Conservationist João Campos-Silva

Rolex Awards For Enterprise 2019 spotlight: Brazilian conservationist João Campos-Silva.
The Rolex Awards 2019 laureate wants to save the arapaima fish population in the Amazon. Is it an uphill challenge?

By Terence Lim
Published in November 2019icon-clockTime to read: 2min 28s

Looking at João Campos-Silva, three words — big, friendly, giant — come to mind. The Brazilian conservationist and fisheries biologist, who was one of the five Laureates unveiled at the Rolex Awards for Enterprise (RAE) 2019 ceremony held in Washington in June this year, is tall and burly but always speaks in a calm and collected manner. (The other four laureates include French medical scientist Grégoire Courtine, Ugandan IT specialist Brian Gitta and Canadian entrepreneur, Indian conservationist Krithi Karanth and molecular biologist Miranda Wang.)

In his usual mild-mannered way, he presented his case at the National Geographic Explorers Festival held in conjunction with the RAE awards ceremony to fellow explorers and conservationists among many others in the environment and sustainability spheres. Referring to the arapaima, the largest scaled freshwater fish in the world, he said: “It’s very large — up to 3 metres — and can reach 200 kg. It has played a central role in feeding Amazonian people since the development of the first human society in the region.” But due to overfishing, habitat fragmentation and various human impacts, the arapaima's population is dwindling and Campos-Silva wants to save it as well as the livelihoods, food supply and culture of rural communities in Amazonia who depend on the region’s rivers for their survival.

The RAE is a biennial initiative to support enterprising individuals helming exceptional projects to conserve our cultural heritage and protect the environment. For the first time in the history of the awards, the awards finalists were required to pitch for their projects at the Explorers Festival because of Rolex's enhanced partnership with National Geographic Society. The awards and the extended alliance between both organisations, together with the watchmaker's support for marine biologist Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue project, come together to form the basis of the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative.

Campos-Silva's plan is not a pipe-dream. He has tasted success on a local level — on the Juruá River in the western Amazon, small, river-connected lakes were closed to fishing, and coupled with careful fishery management by local people, the arapaima numbers has jumped by 30-fold, a spectacular increment given that the population was close to zero before the implementation of his model. The next step? He wants to extend the conservation plan to 60 communities living across 2,000km of the Juruá River and increase arapaima populations fourfold in three years.

The benefits of running such a management model are plenty. Not only is the arapaima saved from extinction, other endangered species such as manatees and giant otters receive a lifeline too. With the fish numbers under control, the local communities can manage the yield for consumption and trading — the fish population stay healthy, while the people earn enough to support their families. According to Campos-Silva, each lake now yields an average of US$9,000 in extra annual income for local communities. Life has improved in general. “I believe that community-based management of arapaima is the most powerful tool that we have to ensure a sustainable future for the Amazon floodplains,” he said, adding that by maintaining a healthy arapaima population will help the people break out of the poverty cycle.

When asked how he secured the buy-in of the local communities, Campos-Silva said: “Actually, the vision for the arapaima management model is really consolidated because this model was created by the local communities. So, it was not like a top-down strategy. It was in fact from bottom up. So, the engagement is much easier.”

The vision for the arapaima management model is really consolidated because this model was created by the local communities. So, it was not like a top-down strategy. It was in fact from bottom up. So, the engagement is much easierJoão Campos-Silva, Brazilian conservationist and 2019 Rolex Awards for Enterprise laureate

As part of his plan, Campos-Silva will tag and radio-track 30 specimens of the giant fish, with the intention to study the movement, ecology and population dynamics. He will also educate 40 fishermen and women in poacher surveillance and arapaima census techniques to manage their fish populations and lakes while spreading the word among the young through environmental education workshops. “It's a full time [job] of surveillance and patrols to protect the lakes and protected lakes work like social security for the community. They are also like islands of biodiversity.”

If his management model succeeds on this even larger scale, then its basis can be replicated across different communities and cases. “Yes, it's important for this model to be created by locals. We can effectively use the model to increase the size of the habitat protected, which will then better the preservation of the Amazonia and the well-being of local communities,” he said with a glimmer in his eye.

Compared to his usual mild-mannered demeanour, Campos-Silva is all fired up and bullish in saving the arapaima population — just like how a big, friendly giant would do in a fairy tale. That his enthusiasm will consequently help to elevate the quality of life of local communities is exactly what the Rolex Perpetual Planet initiative is all about — finding solutions to the pertinent problems on planet earth.

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