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Virginia Tech News / Articles / 2015 / 07 

Scientists work to help save the Amazon rainforest and its biodiversity

July 8, 2015

A man and a woman standing in a dense tropical forest
Senior Research Associate Kirsten Silvius, right, works with Brazilian government agencies to improve the livelihoods of forest-dependent peoples and ensure the boundaries of protected areas remain intact. Also pictured is her colleague, L. Flamarion de Oliveira of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro. Photo by José M. V. Fragoso, Stanford University.

The Amazon Basin’s vast tropical rainforests, rivers, and soils are rich ecosystems vital to the basic functioning of the planet. They churn moisture into the atmosphere, sequester global 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 and ranching, illegal logging, unmitigated mining, and exploitative commercial fishing practices.

Scientists from Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment — economists, fisheries and wildlife biologists, and international policy experts — are deeply engaged in the region, working in the Amazon’s critical ecosystems to understand and help reshape the daily land-use and natural resource management decisions that are currently driving deforestation, over-fishing, water degradation, and social inequity.

For almost two decades, economists Frank Merry and Gregory Amacher have been at the forefront of land-use change modeling in the Brazilian Amazon. Their work, in partnership with Brazil’s Federal University of Minas Gerais and the Woods Hole Research Center in Massachusetts, on simulated rent models, which forecast land use in logging, ranching, and agriculture, have led the way in the design of climate-related policies, including important international issues such as the U.N.’s REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) Programme.

Furthermore, Merry, a 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, along with graduate students, have long been seeking to address the problems faced by poor marginalized settlement families on the forest frontier. Similar to the Homestead Act in the U.S., Brazil is settling families in the far reaches of its territory, often in tenuous circumstances.

With past and ongoing work focusing on settlement families along the TransAmazon and Cuiabá-Santarém highways, and 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.

“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, albeit resource-rich, conditions,” said Merry. “We try to inform the Brazilian decision makers about their plight and present viable development alternatives.”

Building on his research, Merry also serves as the administrative director of the Brazilian nonprofit Aliança da Terra, which focuses on improving resource management on private lands in the Brazilian Amazon and Cerrado biomes. This work includes voluntary, fully transparent supply chains for major commodities, including soybeans and cattle, as well as protecting private and public forests from fire.

The firefighting program at Alianca da Terra is a long-standing partnership with the U.S. Forest Service’s International Programs and includes training in Brazil by the agency’s world-renowned smokejumpers. More than 630 local volunteer firefighters have been trained to date.

Beyond the cleared soybean fields and cattle pastures, Virginia Tech scientists work deep in the rainforests and its rivers with indigenous hunters and fishermen — people who have a deep knowledge of the ecosystems and of local subsistence strategies. Their insight helps guide fisheries and game management decisions.

Senior Research Associate Kirsten Silvius, a wildlife ecologist who focuses on expanding and improving the protected area network throughout the Amazon, works with indigenous hunters in Amazonian Guyana to understand game population densities and hunting behavior to guide sustainable wildlife management. She says that kind of participatory monitoring and management is a “bottom-up approach” to resource management.

“Participatory monitoring initiatives enable data collectors or their communities to effect change based on monitoring results,” she explained.

In Silvius’ three-year study in Guyana, the data were collected by 335 locally recruited and trained indigenous technicians who walked 2,000 kilometers a month recording data on animal observations and signs, forest structure, even fruit abundance — reporting rarely observed mammals like tapirs and paca.

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.

Leandro Castello, assistant professor in the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, recruits community-based fishermen to guide fisheries management, leveraging local knowledge of habitat and ecology for the conservation of arapaima — a 400-pound, air-breathing, bird-eating top-predator fish species so relentlessly fished its localized extinctions have rewritten what has been long believed about the self-balancing nature of fisheries management.

“Many, many fishing communities are developing their own management strategies,” Castello pointed out. “They are the ones asking scientists and governments to better manage fisheries.”

Now is the time to reverse current trends, according to Castello.

“In Brazil’s Amazonas State — an area of about 1.5 million square kilometers — there have been significant strides,” he said. “The arapaima fishery there is coming back, whereas it was going under 10 years ago.”

In other places things are not looking as promising, 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, beyond these examples of our work, many Virginia Tech scientists are playing an important role in understanding the pressures facing this vital resource.”

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