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Exploring the Varzea

WWF has been working in the Amazon's Varzea floodplain since the mid-1990s - it's an important area for biodiversity and people's livelihoods, and we've been helping local communities protect their environment from threats like overfishing and habitat destruction.

In February 2011, WWF-UK’s Damian Fleming spent four days in the Varzea - three of them on a boat - to catch up with the local people and our projects in the area. Here’s his diary of the trip…

Arrival - getting the scale

As the plane manoeuvres ready for touchdown in the city of Santarem all you can see out of the window is water. What looks like a vast ocean is actually the confluence of the Amazon river with the Tapajos. The scale of everything in the Amazon is truly extraordinary.

Confluence of Tapajos River with Amazon

Earlier on the first leg of our flight from Brasilia we crossed vast untouched swathes of rainforest stretching as far as the eye could see in any direction.

Only after we changed planes in Manaus, and followed the course of the Amazon river to Santarem, did we really see the impact of people on the landscape. This huge waterway provides access into the rainforest, and the result has been deforestation and occupation pretty much the whole way along its banks.

Still reeling from the amazing views from above, we were taken to dine at a local fish restaurant which had recently struck a deal with one of the Varzea communities to sell fish sustainably harvested as part of the project.

While we tucked into a pirarucu steak we were told of the fish’s great cultural and economic importance here in the Varzea floodplains. The pirarucu is one of the world’s largest freshwater fish and can measure over 2m in length and weigh over 100kg. It’s highly prized, but with growing human populations and increased activity from commercial fishers, its populations are in decline.

Pirarucu at Rayana restaurant in Santarem

Sustainable fishing, viable communities
Day 2. Sunday morning was anything but lazy at Santarem pier. In front of us people were running back and forward loading and unloading boats - including ours, which would be our home for the next three days.

On the pier itself was the fish market which, even on a Sunday, was busy with traders and full of many exotic species.

The Amazon river and tributaries are home to over 3,000 known species of fish, by far the richest freshwater biodiversity of any river on earth, and also the main source of protein for local communities.

As we set sail from the south shore of the Amazon I was once again taken aback by the scale of the river ecosystem. The Varzea floodplain communities that our project supports are not, as you might expect, situated on the river banks, but are in fact a mosaic of islands and lakes situated right in the middle of the Amazon river.

At this point the river measures an incredible 55km across from Santarem on the south shore to the town of Alanquer on the north shore.

Houses on islands in the middle of the Amazon River

The first community we stopped at was Centro do Arapiri, home to around 24 families. Raimundo, one of the community pirarucu monitors, told us how surveys of fish populations allow communities to set more sustainable catch limits, which have already seen fish populations rebound.

Raimundo became motivated to take on his role after attending a training session hosted by WWF and local partner IPAM in 2009.

It was also great to hear it was actually this community that brokered the deal with the fish restaurant we had eaten at last night. Last year, pirarucu fish sales to the restaurant raised over £800 for the local community.

As part of the Varzea project, individual communities are grouped together into Agro-extractive Settlements called PAEs, which develop common sets of environmental regulations.

Janelson Noquera de Siquera, the secretary of the PAE that includes Centro do Arapiri, explained that bringing together members of different communities to draw up agreements has been a positive experience. People began to realise that they all faced similar issues, and by working together they had a more powerful voice.

It was great to hear that working in this way had helped in pressuring the municipal council to provide local schooling up to year 8. It was also interesting to learn that inter-community meetings usually terminated in a game of bingo…

Community meeting in the village of Centro do Arapiri

Saving turtles, building homes
Day 3. Incredibly I managed a good night’s sleep in the one of hammocks strung out across the upper deck of the boat. We’d managed to find a peaceful spot in the centre of a large lake in the middle of one of the river’s many islands.

Early morning we set out for the community of Agua Preta where we met with Manoel Fransisco, who’s been the local environmental lobbyist for as long as anyone could remember - earning him the nickname of Chico Rabeta after Chico Mendez the famous Brazilian rubber tapper killed campaigning for the protection of the forest (‘rabeta’ is portuguese for motorboat, referring to the boat Chico uses to patrol the local lakes).

As part of the project with IPAM and WWF, Chico started monitoring pirarucu, caiman and turtles in Agua Preta in 2007. The monitoring highlighted big declines in turtle numbers due to hunting and habitat loss.

As a response, Manoel’s work also includes controlled release of turtles back into the environment and work to conserve the turtles breeding grounds. Last year 3,000 turtles were successfully released back into the local lakes. Manoel told us that he’d loved to see turtles when he was a kid and it was extremely important to him that his kids would see them too.

Chico Rabeta in his boat

After lunch we were taken to Costa do Aritapera to see new houses that had been built as part of the project.

All Varzea floodplain island inhabitants live in incredible houses constructed on stilts - a necessity when the river water can rise by up to 12m in the flood season.

As we were there in February the waters were at about half the peak flood level, so it wasn’t much of a problem. But residents explained how in recent years severe floods were becoming more frequent and that their houses were continually being inundated.

Dona Maria’s new house alongside her old house now lived in by her brother

We were taken to Dona Maria’s house where she proudly showed us her new home, raised much higher above the ground, built with sustainable timber and fitted with eco-friendly sanitation systems and freshwater capture.

Alongside we could see her old house that had been repeatedly flooded in the last few years and was now occupied by her brother’s family. 100 new houses like Dona Maria’s have already been built and, as part of the agreement with government around 4,000 families covered by the project are eligible for new homes.

Dona Maria and family on the steps of their new home

From here we crossed a vast lake to the community of Igarape da Costa, one of the communites worst hit by the 2009 floods. Arriving there it was not hard to see why, since the houses are bunched on a small area of raised land flanked by another huge lake across the other side.

We’ve worked here with local residents to help them become better adapted to floods. Primary school teacher Elise explained how with WWF and IPAM’s support, environmental education now occupies a significant part of the curriculum. And the kids go home telling their parents what to do.

Another important initiative here has been planting around 80 hectares of sedge grasses to help buffer the houses against the effects of the floods. Elise went on to explain that as well as providing better flood protection, the grasses provide food and habitat for manatees and local fish species. As a result populations of local fish species such as tambaqui and pirapitinga have been increasing.

Planting grasses helps shelter houses from the effects of the

Later, as our boat meandered through channels between river islands, a toucan flew across the bow. Here, unlike much of this riverine area, both sides of the channel were flanked with forest and there was nature everywhere. Quite an amazing sight.

As the sun set on another day, I reflected on how this project has not only helped protect fish and turtles but equally importantly is making the lives of the local residents better. By directly involving local communities in decision-making they have become stewards of their environment. The still night was broken around 2am with a mosquito attack which had everyone scrambling for mosquito nets in the dark!

Life on board

Changes, challenges, and concerns for the future
Day 4. Our last day on the water began with a visit to St Maria where we learned about some of the challenges that still lie ahead. Despite some great advances under the Varzea project, the community president, Amiridou, told us that he remained concerned about the future.

One of the biggest problems is that, despite new fishing regulations having been agreed, fishermen from outside are still coming in and illegally harvesting fish. Sometimes the illegal fishers come armed and confronting them can be dangerous.

Amiridou wants to see IBAMA, the government environmental protection agency, come more frequently to the area and help with enforcement. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the first time I had been told about this problem.

As we walked around the small village we were shown the school teacher’s house and a hut for the generator, both of which were built using money raised from pirarucu sales. Every November, the community of St Maria hosts a pirarucu festival where the annual catch is sold to visitors. Last year 46 of the huge fish were sold, raising significant funds for the community. The river was packed with docked boats and over 1,000 visitors came and went throughout the day, enjoying the fish but also music, dancing and cold Brazilian beer.

Amiridou in front of the generator hut built with money from the pirarucu festival

We boarded the boat for the last time and headed back to Santarem, passing the spot where the clear waters of the Tapajos river meet the brown sediment-laden waters of the main Amazon river stem. The three days out on the river have been an incredible experience. I feel completely in awe of the scale and the beauty of the place. I also thought about the many people I had met and the challenging life they lead, living in the middle of the world’s greatest river. But this was the life they knew and all of them wanted to stay.

The community hall in Santa Maria, home of the annual pirarucu festival

It’s been very rewarding to see our Varzea project helping them to take better care of their environment, on which all their futures depend. It’s also clear that challenges still remain, and we particularly need to work with the government there to encourage them to provide more support to local communities.

My final thought is a hope - that I might come back here one November and enjoy sustainably caught pirarucu at the St Maria Pirarucu festival.

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