In the Amazon, a giant fish helps save the rainforest
CARUARRI, Brazil (AP) — Even in the world’s most diverse rainforest, the piraruku, also known as arapaima, stands out.
First, there is its mammoth size. it can weigh up to 200 kilograms (440 lb), the largest of the Amazon’s 2,300 known fish species. It is found mainly in floodplain lakes along the Amazon basin, including the Medio Jurua region.
Second, the giant fish almost disappeared from Jurua in the recent past as vessels swept the lakes with large nets. Due to illegal and unsustainable fishing, the river and indigenous communities struggle to catch their staple food. And it left the pirruku as endangered unless the fish trade is tightly controlled under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
But now something remarkable has happened. The fish has returned to the lakes of Medio Jurua. The story of how people from different backgrounds work together on different levels. a vision of what’s possible that Amazon veterans say they haven’t seen anywhere else in the vast region.
The change began in the late 1990s. Aided by a Dutch Catholic priest, the rubber bushmen organized and led a campaign to persuade the federal government to establish the Medio Jurua Extractive Reserve. They suggested that riparian communities can draw from the forest and its lakes up to a certain point and into protected areas.
It worked. Now local communities produce acacia, vegetable oils and rubber, and they leave the forest standing. The most successful of all was the management of pirarucu.
The settler communities along the river, organized into associations, have also come to an agreement with their neighbors the native people of Dan, who have previously suffered from rubber snares and fishing raids. They are now entering a managed fishery for piraruku, which has improved relations between natives and non-natives.
Managing the return required social organization, cooperation, and complex logistics. Illegal fishing has been drastically reduced. Pirarucu is blooming.
The virtuous cycle takes place in the Karauari region, which stretches 650 kilometers (404 mi) along the Jurua River and is home to 35,000 people.
To see how things could have gone, look no further than the neighboring Javari Valley, where British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira were killed last June.
The background to that tragedy is a decades-long dispute between indigenous communities and former rubber bushmen hired by local businessmen to carry out illegal fishing, mainly for the Piraruku. Two local fishermen confessed to the crimes.
Illegal fishing is rampant in Brazil. According to the data, it is the second most frequent environmental crime on protected lands, after deforestation academic study based on official data. Brazil’s conservation agency has issued 1,160 infringement notices for illegal fishing over the past five years, a quarter of all infringements.
“Javari is the image of what Medio Jurua was like in the 1980s,” Manoel Cunha, the main leader of the local rubber laureates, told The Associated Press during a boat trip to San Raimundo, one of his home communities. participation in regulated fishing; “We managed to get rid of fishing companies and invasive fishermen through monitoring and management. You have been on this river for days and you have not seen any fishing boats except our organizations. There is no place for them here anymore.”
Pirarucu fishing is done once a year in September, during the lowest water period. Fishing quotas are made possible by another remarkable feature of piraruku. it is one of the few fish species in the world that can be seen breathing. He does this with a big lip, sticking his red tail out of the water.
A local fisherman and a researcher from the nearby Mamirarua region developed a way to take advantage of this and count the fish as they stay underwater for no more than 20 minutes. The government now recognizes this method of calculation.
The survey is carried out once a year by certified fishermen after passing a course. According to the law, only 30% of piraruku in a certain area can be caught the following year.
This controlled fishery has led to population growth in the areas where it operates. In San Raimundo County, there were 1,335 pirarucus in nearby lakes in 2011 when the managed fishery began. Last year, according to their records, there were 4092 samples.
The number of Piraruku in the Karawar region increased from 4,916 in 2011 to 46,839 ten years later.
The AP team accompanied the first of seven days of fishing in San Raimundo. Imagine dozens of houses with running water connected by well-maintained wooden bridges through açai palm trees. Thirty-four families call it home. Most belong to the extended Kunya family, whose ancestors arrived in the region from the impoverished and drought-ravaged northeast during the rubber boom to work as tappers.
“Our piraruku is so delicious, everyone who eats it falls in love with it and wants more,” Rosilda da Cunha, Manoel’s sister, who lives in San Raimundo, told the AP.
Piraruku brings money to the community, he said. This year the goal is to buy a solar panel system instead of a diesel generator. Another portion of the money goes to community members participating in fishing. Women’s and men’s salaries are equal.
To catch piraruku, fishermen use special, stronger nets that they weave themselves. The holes are large enough to allow smaller specimens to pass through, as taking fish under five feet is prohibited.
When the fishermen catch one, they pull the net and hit the fish on the head. Then they put it in their little boat. When it is very heavy, two or three men are required to do the work.
The pirarukus are then transported from the lakes to a large boat near the Jurua River. There they are gutted, a task mostly performed by women, and placed on ice. All produce goes to the Carauari Village Producers Association, known as Asproc, the region’s umbrella organization, so fishermen are never at the mercy of middlemen.
Founded by rubber tappers who wanted to free themselves from slave-like working conditions, Asproc has become one of the most important grassroots organizations in the entire Amazon. It runs projects on everything from sanitation to community markets to higher education, innovating along the way. It now sells piraruku to major cities in Brazil, including São Paulo and Brasilia, a complex undertaking that involves several days of transport by boat and road and usually takes more than two weeks.
Asproc’s success has attracted a number of partnerships. One contradicts. The United States Forest Service, which supported the creation of the brand, Gosto da Amazônia (Amazon Taste), which promotes pirarucu nationwide, and the Agency for International Development (USAID), which helped fund the warehouse. fish processing in the town of Karauari, where piraruku is cut, frozen and packaged.
“This project is unique because it requires a strong governance structure,” Ted Gehr, USAID’s mission director in Brazil, told the AP during his first visit to the San Raimundo community. “Everyone agrees that they may have to make sacrifices and not be able to catch all the available pirraku, but knowing that more of them will reproduce and that they will be more valuable in the long run.”
The Medio Jurua region is blessed with remoteness. It has no road exit. So far, it is free from the deforestation and fires that have been devastating elsewhere in the Amazon. But the smoke that left the sky gray in September is a reminder that devastation is not far off. The challenge is to have a strong organization and economy to prevent future threats, says Cunha.
“If we hadn’t organized through fisheries management to protect our environment and take our fish instead of others taking it from us, we could be in the same situation as our colleagues in Javari,” says Cunha, who heads Medio. Jurua Extractive Reserve, a position usually held by government officials. “If they had organized themselves sooner, they could have saved the lives of those two friends.”
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