Rain Forest Expert Saves His Amazon "Neighborhood"

December 17, 2002

In the Mamirauá Reserve, in the heart of the Brazilian Amazon, a spectacular and virtually pristine rain forest realm is thriving.

Pink dolphins frolic in the waters beside meter-long giant Amazonian turtles, 400-pound (181-kilogram) pirarucus—the world's largest freshwater fish; endangered Amazonian manatees swim with black caiman and electric eels. Macaws and harpy eagles soar above. Rare uakari monkeys, marmosets and umbrella birds move through the lush canopy foraging for food. During the dry season, jaguars prowl below.

Mamirauá preserves a unique ecosystem, the várzea, a seasonally flooded forest which is inundated during the rainy season by rivers that rise up to 40 feet, creating a watery world where only treetops rise above the water line. It teems with life—and it's part of the largest area of protected rain forest on Earth because of the visionary work of José Márcio Ayres, a forest ecologist with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and director of the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development.

In late October, he was named one of five recipients of the 2002 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, receiving a $100,000 prize which will fund research on the region's wildlife.

"Everybody talks about sustainable development," says Andrew Taber, director of WCS's Latin American program. "But Mamirauá is the only project I can point to and say it's really working."

A New Approach

Ayres pioneered a novel approach to conservation that balances the needs of all forest inhabitants—including humans.

Wildlife preserves traditionally ban human residents. But Ayres developed a radically different model, where local communities remain intact and serve a key role in the management of wildlife and natural resources. "Instead of seeing people as the problem, we realized it was better to make them part of the solution."

In 1990, he convinced the Amazonas state government to preserve Mamirauá, an area of nearly 4,400 square miles (11395.9 square kilometers), despite fierce opposition from logging and fishing interests.

An international team of scientists descended on the area to study its diverse flora and fauna. Armed with current data, these researchers provided recommendations for sustainable ways to use resources and conservation plans on how to best protect wildlife. In 1996, the Brazilian government declared Mamirauá a "sustainable development reserve," the first of its kind in Latin America.

Mamirauá's 12,000 human residents now co-manage the reserve with scientists. Most of the region's income is generated through strictly regulated fishing—and outside commercial fishing fleets are banned. The area's 3,000 lakes are divided up and managed among local communities. Residents fish some lakes commercially, while others are used for subsistence fishing, and some remain completely untouched. The system seems to be working: Fish populations are growing.

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