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If you want to experience the Amazon, understand the challenges of living and conducting conservation work in the region, and learn about one of our planet’s most incredible places, Mamirauá in the Brazilian state of Amazonas serves as a perfect location. I recently visited the area and have been reflecting on the importance of this special place.

A rich part of the Amazon’s history, Mamirauá is in the varzeas of the Solimoes River in the middle Amazon region. The varzeas are flooded forests that are fed by the so-called “white” water rivers from the nutrient-rich Andean slopes. The other two predominant river types in the Amazon being the “black” water rivers, poor in sediment that flow from the Guyana shield, and the “clear” water rivers, also nutrient-poor that flow from the Brazilian Highlands in central Brazil. Mamirauá is a dynamic hydrologic area where water levels can vary some 12 metres between the high (May-June) and low (September) water seasons. Water and sediment are constantly destroying and building islands and shores.

Due to their richness in natural resources, the varzeas traditionally are well used by local people. The varzeas support life and livelihoods through farming, fishing and forest products. People here vote, go to church, raise children and have fun. The river provides the only transportation route in the region and local communities live in relative isolation.

But modern life is making inroads. Some want better cell phone coverage; others contemplate job opportunities in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas. And although livelihoods are provided for by the abundance of nature, life in Mamirauá doesn’t come easy. There’s no grocery store or other conveniences, and while the floods—and the natural riches they bring—return each year, one can never be sure exactly when and how much water will come.

Mamirauá also is significant for the work of renowned primatologist Márcio Ayres who came here in the 1980s to research the endemic uacari, a striking white monkey, with a red bald head. To pursue his dream and protect the area, Márcio focused on research, policy, fundraising (including from and with WWF) and extensive negotiations with local communities.

Initially, Márcio convinced the federal government to create a very restrictive “federal ecological station” with an area of 200,000 hectares. There were challenges initially. Local communities were concerned about not having access to the area, and the initial size was not sufficient to conserve the area’s immense biodiversity. So, a much larger 1.1 million-hectare “state sustainable development reserve” (SDR) was established, making it Brazil’s first SDR. This step was crucial to protecting plants and wildlife, but Mamirauá and others knew long-term and sustainable success meant going further. Specifically, Márcio knew that local people must not only be respected but also must be viewed as playing a critical role in understanding how to realize meaningful conservation results. Mamirauá thus provided a blueprint for this type of protected area in the Brazilian protected area system. And Mamirauá’s vision reflects WWF’s approach in which conservationists work in consultation with local people to find solutions that meet both livelihood and conservation goals in a sustainable manner.

The crucial ingredients to success: traditional knowledge and scientific knowledge. At the time, researchers lacked sufficient information about local people, their culture and traditional knowledge, as well as information about the natural resources and biodiversity of Mamirauá. Ultimately, established what came to be known as the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development was established to address this gap in knowledge and to secure, manage and deploy public and private sector resources. This was Marcio’s dream.

Through the Living Amazon Initiative, WWF continues to build on the passion of leaders like Marcio and others to protect critical areas in the Amazon.

Claudio C. Maretti
WWF Network Living Amazon Initiative, Leader