Rain Forest Expert Saves His Amazon "Neighborhood"

Sharon Guynup
for National Geographic Today
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.

Economic management has also paid off. Since the purchase of a large freezer boat, residents have tripled their income by selling premium fish directly to buyers downstream. A growing ecotourism business generates additional cash, along with selective logging in designated areas of the reserve.

The standard of living in is now higher than most areas of rural Brazil, the infant mortality rate is half what it was in 1994, and wildlife populations are flourishing.

Safe Haven

But Ayres knew that if the region's amazing biodiversity was to be safeguarded, they would have to increase monitoring: Each agent from IBAMA, the Brazilian environmental agency, must police about 30,000 square miles (77699.6 square kilometers) of forest.

So they built a network of floating stations outfitted with radios, and trained over 100 volunteer wardens. The result: hunting, poaching, and illegal logging is a much smaller problem than in traditional reserves.

"Mamirauá is a refuge for animals that are exploited in other areas," said Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez, an ecologist at Columbia University's Center for Environmental Research and Conservation who brainstormed with Ayres on Mamirauá's original management plan 15 years ago.

And those animals include over 300 bird species, about 50 types of mammals, 400 species of fish, plus innumerable plants and trees—and Ayres says there's still much that remains undiscovered.

Ayres: Saving His "Neighborhood"

Ayres discovered his direction at the age of 19, while still a college student. On a research visit to German zoos, he glimpsed his first uakari and saki monkeys, species indigenous to Brazil.

Although he grew up in Belen, near the mouth of the Amazon, he had never seen the monkeys in the wild—and realized that almost nothing was known about them.

In 1977, Ayres moved into the Amazon interior to study them. He quickly accomplished what many biologists dream of, discovering not one, but two new species: the black squirrel monkey and the Rio Maues marmoset. Ayres' primatology studies triggered his conservation work. A year into his research, he petitioned the government to protect the habitat of the white uakari. Mamirauá Ecological Station was born, and his vision for the region has continued to expand since.

Citing studies that animals from manatees to jaguars migrate over large areas to find food or mate, Ayres lobbied for conservation of a larger tract of rain forest.

In 1997, the Brazilian government created the Amana Sustainable Development Reserve, connecting Jaú National Park and Mamirauá. It created a 22,000 square mile (56979.7 square kilometer) swath of unbroken, protected habitat—an area larger than Costa Rica—called the Central Amazonian Corridor.

Vasquez attributes Ayres' conservation coup to the fact that he is a native Amazonian. "He grew up there, he knows the ecosystem, and he understands the social landscape. He's managed to work with local people because he's from there—and he's respected by everyone: local fishermen, big ranchers, even the president of Brazil."

Ayres still dreams a bigger dream: to see sustainable reserves linked into wildlife corridors across the Amazon, using Mamirauá as a model. In 1997 he designed a proposal for five ecological corridors in the Amazon and two more along the Atlantic coast.

"If we had 20 more Marcios, we could save the entire Amazon," said Taber.

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