The protection of nature

The protection of nature must be done with the local communities.
At 36 years old, João Campos-Silva is on a mission to save the giant fish of the Amazon. And, with it, the whole ecosystem of the river.

By Bruno Lobo, Visão
Published in October 2020icon-clockTime to read: 1min 59s

Jonathan Baillie is not easily impressed, especially because he is responsible for assessing and supervising all projects that apply for funding from the National Geographic Society. He has seen it all, but when he talks about the work of João Campos-Silva, his enthusiasm is evident: “Approximately 15% of the Earth is protected and there is a plan to protect 30% by 2030. For the oceans, the amount is less (between 5% and 7%), but there are already enough studies to understand exactly what we need to do,” he explains. “But we know very little about fresh water systems. João’s project is the first model of success that we have had. It can also be easily adapted to other areas of the world, which is why its importance goes far beyond the simple preservation of the arapaima.”

Baillie is also one of the ten members of the jury for the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which last year rewarded the young Brazilian scientist for his work on the Amazon.

The arapaima, or pirarucu, as the Brazilians prefer to call it, is a huge freshwater fish that is found only in the Amazon basin. The larger specimens weigh almost 200 kilograms and play a central role in the diet of indigenous peoples. Over-exploitation of natural resources and poaching almost led to its extinction.

Interestingly, when biologist João Campos-Silva journeyed to the Amazon, about 13 years ago, the arapaima was far from being one of his priorities. “I wanted to learn which species of birds were more susceptible to extinction, given the high deforestation rates foreseen.” Only after living for some time in the jungle did he realise how impossible it would be to have “a sustainable Amazon in the future, without a deep alignment between biodiversity conservation and the well-being of local populations.”

Campos-Silva realised that he could not protect the arapaima by force, but only by transforming this mission into a task carried out in conjunction with the local communities. In fact, some were already prepared to do it, so João just systematised the process. “First, we had to establish a quarantine period of three years, to recover the number of fish in the river, and then we created community management of the fish, with a quota system where all profits are shared by the community.”

Thus, he managed to not only increase the number of arapaimas by about 30 times, but many other species also benefited from such protection, “including the freshwater turtles, porpoises and several other fish.” And even alligators…

“The arapaima project is a model that helps us to get a glimpse at a different kind of development for the Amazon — a development that combines the protection of nature along with the quality of life of the local communities, in which the forest generates much more value while standing. All the most important work is done by those communities. They deserve the spotlight much more than me,” he says.

In fact, community management has already made it possible to build schools and local health centres. The profits came to be shared by the whole community, and, for the first time, women have access to their own income, without relying on their husbands: “The arapaima has also contributed to gender equity.” Looking at all the achievements, we feel we are actually a bit like Jonathan Baillie: it seems impossible not to be enthusiastic about the project and João's determination.

Article published in the Portuguese magazine VISÃO, within the scope of the Ocean of Hope partnership, an initiative to give voice to the extraordinary individuals and organisations working to build a more sustainable planet and future.

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