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Amazon community steps in to protect a reserve the government won’t

  • Established in 2018, the Lower Rio Branco-Jauaperi Extractive Reserve still lacks a management plan and the creation of a council with representatives of local communities.
  • While the reserve exists on paper, large-scale fish poaching in the Jauaperi River has depleted a key source of food for the area’s traditional communities.
  • With laws and court decisions to protect the reserve going largely ignored by the government, a local organization has taken on the task of protecting two iconic and threatened local species: the Amazon turtle and the arapaima.

Four years since the Brazilian government signed an executive order declaring a half-million-hectare sustainable-use reserve in the Amazon, the area remains protected on paper only — leaving it open to plunder and causing its residents mistrust in the effectiveness of the law.

The Lower Rio Branco-Jauaperi Extractive Reserve, or Resex, spans 581,173 hectares (1.4 million acres) — an area almost four times the size of the city of São Paulo — on the border of the states of Amazonas and Roraima. It was established in June 2018, following two decades of calls for a reserve where traditional communities could practice sustainable harvesting of forest resources safe from commercial exploitation.

Since then, however, this last conservation unit established in the Brazilian Amazon is in decline, and with it, the trust of the communities in the effectiveness of the law.

Under the terms of the reserve’s establishment, a deliberative council should have been formed to approve a management plan for the sustainable activities permitted in the area. But there’s no council to date.

The Lower Rio Branco-Jauaperi Resex is home to 15 villages, made up of some 200 families, or about 600 residents, whose main source of livelihood is making handicrafts using natural resources. To set up the deliberative council, representatives from each of these communities, plus officials from the relevant public agencies, would have to meet in an opening assembly. From then on, they would have to meet periodically to discuss and implement the management plan.

While this rule is clear, it doesn’t say where the money actually come from to transport residents to these meetings from their villages several hours — often days — away, in places where the only means of transportation are private boats whose expensive fuel is a luxury item.

Mongabay visited the resex and saw firsthand the challenges to creating the deliberative council without government support. It took us seven days of sailing on the river to cover 120 kilometers (75 miles), which covered visits to just four communities in the reserve.

Gathering açaí berries in the Marrau community, in the Lower Rio Branco-Jauaperi Resex. Image by Octavio Ferraz.

Predatory fishing

While the resex is ostensibly protected from exploitation, residents say the river on which they depend for their livelihood is being systematically plundered. A tributary of the Negro River, the Jauaperi was once full of arapaima, peacock bass, manatees, turtles and many other animal species, but it is now gradually losing this wealth of Amazonian wildlife.

In 2001, the year the riverside dwellers, or ribeirinhos, first requested the creation of the resex, a fleet of fishing boats arrived from the cities of Manaus and Novo Airão, both in Amazonas state. These, in addition to predatory fishing by some local community members, have since depleted fish stocks in the Jauaperi River to alarming levels.

Locals report constant activity by the so-called geleiros, or ice boats — fishing vessels equipped with cold storage, which allows them to operate for long periods before offloading their catch. Their trawl nets stretched from one bank to the other, sweeping the riverbed and catching everything in between. In the process, they deprive entire families of their staple food.

“Predatory fishing used to take place in and around our communities,” says Francisco Parede de Lima, president of the Association of Artisans of the Jauaperi River (AARJ), which was created in 2004 to promote handicrafts as a sustainable way of living off the forest. “Fish with no commercial value were discarded and washed up dead on beaches. Terrible scenes like that strengthened our desire to get the agreement approved.”

The agreement in question is a legal instrument under a 2002 instruction by IBAMA, the federal environmental protection agency. It facilitates community participation in environmental preservation management. In the Jauaperi area, it was signed in 2005, when local communities proposed to traditional and commercial fishers’ associations that they formally commit to cease activities until fish stocks had fully recovered. With fish numbers in the river very low at the time, the fishers signed the pact.

The agreement was supposed to last for three years, during which time only subsistence fishing would be allowed in the area. A scientific study would then follow, conducted by IBAMA, to determine if fish stocks had recovered. But that’s not what happened.

As soon as the aquatic life showed signs of recovery, the ice boats reappeared in the Jauaperi River. “Locals started fishing illegally in the first year of the agreement and opened the door for outsiders to break the pact,” Lima says.

After the end of the agreement’s initial term, and with IBAMA showing no interest in conducting the study or enforcing it, supposedly for lack of resources, an injunction from a local court banned fishing for commercial, ornamental and sports purposes in September 2009. The only exception was for subsistence fishing. The court prescribed a fine of 1,500 reais ($280) for violations, but there are no records that it was ever applied.

The ban affected a 120-km stretch of the Jauaperi, from its mouth in the Negro River to the last community on the edge of the Waimiri Atroari Indigenous Territory, which neighbors the present-day resex. Residents of the Indigenous territory also depend on the river, and voted in favor of the agreement.

Eight years later, in August 2017, a federal judge upheld the fishing ban and ordered IBAMA and the federal government to carry out the fish stock assessment within 12 months. This still hasn’t happened. The federal authorities appealed the decision, which is still awaiting a court ruling.

Even though the favorable court decision resulted in most of the Manaus-based ice boats leaving the area, predatory extraction of large amounts of fish and turtles by local fishers themselves and by boats from Novo Airão and Barcelos continues, both violating the ban and depleting the river’s resources. A single vessel can catch 5 metric tons of fish in a week and sell it off quickly on the black markets, says AARJ vice president Paul Clark.

Essentially, the commercial fishing ban has been breached for at least 17 years now, despite only subsistence fishing being allowed to reverse the impacts of the historical overfishing in the Jauaperi River.

The fact that many of the illegal fishers are connected to residents of the communities, including neighbors and even relatives, complicates the problem: people are less likely to tell on their close associates. In addition, the few complaints that end up reaching the Novo Airão office of ICMBio, the Ministry of Environment agency that oversees conservation units, are rarely investigated. The office has a single boat to monitor two national parks and two resex, and the few investigations that are initiated often don’t result in sanctions. In the rare case they do, the sanctions are seldom enforced.

A notice of violation filed by IBAMA and seen by Mongabay showed that, in 2011, the agency seized 900 kilograms (nearly 2,000 pounds) of fish, 60 gillnets, eight fishing spears, and four small motorboats in the community of Itaquera alone. Residents said the fine resulting from to this operation was never paid.

“In all these years that I’ve been here, I’ve only seen one effective inspection operation,” Lima says. “But everything was soon back the way it used to be, because the inspections are not frequent and nobody believes violators will be punished.”

Porto de Novo Airão, on the banks of the Negro River. Image by Octavio Ferraz.

Turtles and arapaimas

With laws and court decisions ignored, the AARJ is working to save two iconic and threatened local species: the Amazon turtle (Podocnemis expansa) and the arapaima (Arapaima gigas).

Project Bicho de Casco emerged from the activism of Scotland-born Paul Clark, whose mission has been to engage ribeirinhos in the struggle to preserve the environment and their traditional foods since he settled in Jauaperi with his Italian wife, Bianca Bencivenni, about 30 years ago. In addition to teaching local schoolchildren how to read and promoting environmental education, they started preserving the Amazon turtle’s nesting beaches in 2003.

The aim is to protect the species from wildlife traffickers by collecting the eggs and leaving them for 90 days to hatch in sandboxes stored in safe places. They then release the hatchlings into the wild as soon as their shells are hard enough.

Six communities participate in the project on seven beaches along the Jauaperi River. The volunteers get paid 4 reais (about 75 U.S. cents) from private donations for each turtle released, in an attempt to provide an economic incentive.

“After the work started, I started to see small turtles I didn’t use to see. I hope it recovers well in five years,” says João Soares, who lives in an isolated house in the Marrau community.

The community is the closest in the resex to the Waimiri Atroari Indigenous Territory, whose inhabitants — neighbors and friends of Soares — also help in turtle conservation where the government is absent, he says.

“If the tartarugueiros [turtle poachers] appear, I call the [Indigenous] chief and they come to defend us,” Soares says.

Amazon turtle hatchlings before release. Image by Octavio Ferraz.

The communities return some 3,000 turtle hatchlings to the Jauaperi River each year. Despite this, the turtle population has been hit hard by the poachers, who plunder the spawning grounds and sell adult turtles for around 1,000 reais ($190) on the black market in Novo Airão and Manaus.

“Right now, ribeirinhos are responsible for 90% of predation, including trafficking in turtles and illegal fishing,” says the AARJ’s Clark, a personal friend of Soares. “Our challenge is to reach out to these people and convince them of our cause.”

He says politics is the main obstacle to fully implementing the resex.

“The local ICMBio office helps us a lot, but they have funding issues coming from higher levels and they can’t do their job,” Lima says. “After four years, we are struggling to form the deliberative council. There is a lack of resources and political will.”

ICMBio did not respond to Mongabay’s questions.

Another important AARJ project is the conservation of arapaima, also known as pirarucu, one of the largest freshwater fish in the world. The program kicked off recently in the Samaúma community and receives support and training from the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Institute and the Unini River Extractive Reserve, where community members participate in similar projects with relative success.

The proposal came from a petition presented after a resident, Orlandina Peres de Menezes, spotted residents of neighboring communities poaching in the area. The request was forwarded to the local ICMBio office, which recognized and authorized the project even without the resex’s management plan required by law.

Sustainable management requires zoning the “lakes,” as fishing areas in the river are called, and monitoring fish stocks. The next step is counting juvenile and adult arapaimas — specimens longer than 1.5 meters (5 feet) — and recording them on a form. Finally, catch quotas are defined, up to a maximum of 30% of the population, based on the annual assessment of the fish stock.

“We started in August with four community members working to guard the protected lakes,” says Divina Menezes, the daughter of Orlandina Menezes daughter and president of the Samaúma community association. “The perspective is that more resources will come in and we’ll see some return in the future, but we need the ICMBio to enforce the law, and we also expect signposts for the project and the beginning of the first workshops to establish the deliberative council, promised for September.”

Paul Clark with a basin of kuntze seeds. Image by Octavio Ferraz.

However, two other projects are still on hold.

The first project focuses on reusing dead wood left over from the largest ever fire in the area, which burned vast areas within the reserve in 2016. The idea is to use the wood to build houses and produce sustainable handicrafts promoted by the AARJ. ICMBio has not responded to the request, made in 2019.

The second project is in its operational capacity assessment stage and aims to build a mini plant to process kuntze seeds (Pentaclethra macroloba), whose oil is used in facial creams. If the project gets off the ground, it is expected to benefit Brazilian nuts as well and generate income at fair prices, cutting out the middlemen.

“Our goal is to create 100 jobs and have an adult population with a sustainable income that guarantees inflow of money to halt predatory activities,” Clark says.

With their feet on the ground and many plans in their minds, Clark and Lima cling to the activism they’re instilling in community members to dream of a real and sustainable extractive reserve — one that effectively changes the commercial relationship with the Amazon Rainforest.

The reporting for this story was a collaboration between the Transnational Law Institute at King’s College London and Mongabay. It funded in part by TLI’s Laws of Sustainable Development project. A longer English version with all references cited can be found on the project website.

Banner image of the Jauaperi River, Amazonas state, by Octavio Ferraz.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Sept. 21, 2022.

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