Tapirs, jaguars and giant armadillos are some of the 430 species of mammals that share a home with Luiz Henrique Lopes Ferreira in Brazil’s eastern Amazon.
Ferreira produces and sells sweets, jams and liqueurs made from more than a hundred varieties of local fruit trees. The 22-year-old is part of a new generation showing how forest communities with economic opportunities can help promote biodiversity conservation and prevent deforestation.
It lives in the Tapajos Arapiuns Extractive Reserve, which extends over 640,000 hectares (1,581,474 acres), almost 90% of which is covered with forest. It is home to over 370 different species of birds, 99 species of fish and around 13,000 people, mostly indigenous and mixed heritage Caboclo communities.
The Amazon rainforest is rich in biodiversity, but many species are now threatened
Ferreira describes himself as indigenous and says that although he was born in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas state, the forest has been his true home since his family arrived there 15 years ago.
“The Amazon is a spectacular place to live…here in nature,” Ferreira said. “Everything is very magical. But we also have threats that surround us and are knocking on our door.”
Using the fruits of the forest to combat illegal logging
The resource reserve was created in the late 1990s after local communities had spent almost two decades mobilizing against intrusion by logging companies. The sanctuary aims to help conserve nature by allowing people to use the land for subsistence farming and sustainable extractive activities such as hunting, fishing and harvesting wild plants.
Today, Ferreira says deforestation is her biggest threat. The state of Para, where the resource reserve is located, experienced the highest level of deforestation in Brazil between 2001 and 2021. Since President Jair Bolsonaro took office in 2019, the country’s Amazon region has seen its worst deforestation in 15 years as the government systematically weakened environmental protections.
Luiz Henrique Lopes Ferreira says deforestation is the biggest threat to his way of life
Ninety-nine percent of deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon is illegal. Caetano Scannavino, coordinator of Brazilian NGO The Health and Happiness Project (PSA), said this makes it harder for farmers and timber producers to operate legally. They struggle to compete with the low price of illegal production.
“We have to change the culture [of illegality] and to change the culture we have to be persistent,” Scannavino said.
PSA has been operating in the state of Para for 30 years and currently works with over 30,000 people, providing training and funding so communities can legally make a living through permaculture and agroecology.
Ferreira worked with PSA and his business now benefits 40 families by providing them with food security from the crops they grow and income from the produce they sell. He says some young people may be leaving and finding work in logging companies or urban development, but he sees more and more now trying to stay in the forest and work.
PSA conducts workshops and provides training for community and indigenous cooperatives so they can transform forest products like cocoa, honey, acai and tropical fruits into products like oils and butter that can bring increased income to communities.
“We have to help create better living conditions, otherwise the young people will leave the city,” Scannavino said, adding that an empty rainforest offers opportunities for miners and loggers.
Saving the forest by respecting the rights of indigenous people
“What we do know is that when these indigenous peoples and local communities — or extractive communities, as they’re called in Brazil — manage their forest and have rights over the forest area, deforestation rates are much lower,” said David Kaimowitz, director program officer at the Tenure Facility, an NGO focused on securing land rights for tribal peoples.
Honey is one of the products produced by communities in the Tapajós Arapiuns Extraction Reserve
Kaimowitz led a UN investigation that reviewed more than 300 studies from the past 20 years and argued that indigenous and tribal communities in Latin America and the Caribbean are the best stewards of forests, in large part due to their cultural practices and traditional knowledge. To ensure this, these communities need functioning economies and an environment in which young people want to stay.
“All of these things are part of the model of what works in the Amazon,” Kaimowitz said. “Where these things exist, the forests remain intact.”
While the Tapajos-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve has had a deforestation rate of nearly 0.5% since 1985, deforestation in the rest of the Amazon means the rainforest is dangerously close to a tipping point where it will permanently transform into arid savannah.
Residents of the resource reserve participate in a workshop where they learn how to produce seedlings for sowing
Since the 1980s, in the Santarem region of Para State, near where Ferreira lives, rainfall during the dry season has decreased by 34%, the average temperature has risen by more than 2 degrees Celsius (35.6 Fahrenheit) and wildfires has increased massively which have destroyed more than a million hectares of forest.
Preventing pandemics at the source
Protecting the Amazon forests could impact both human health and the climate.
In April 2022, experts led by Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health released research arguing that curbing Amazon deforestation was vital to preventing pandemics.
The Amazon is one of the most biodiverse regions in the world, particularly for bats and primates, harboring a wide variety of viral zoonoses. Forest conservation reduces the likelihood of new infectious diseases spreading from wildlife to domestic animals and humans.
Tackling deforestation is now seen as crucial to preventing pandemics
The research argues that better surveillance, wildlife and hunting management, and forest protection offer a blueprint to prevent future pandemics from occurring. In addition, these measures contribute to carbon sequestration, protect biodiversity and create new jobs.
“The key point here is that if we lived on a planet with a stable climate and an intact biosphere, we could afford to wait for a catastrophe to strike and try to contain it,” said Aaron Bernstein, Lead author of the report. “But the reality is we don’t do that. And to operate on that premise is one of the greatest follies of modern times.”
Edited by Holly Young