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Using candy and jam to protect Brazil's Amazon rainforest

Dimitri Selibas
June 21, 2022

With young Indigenous people leaving the Amazon in search of jobs the rainforest is losing one of its best lines of defense. Could ensuring they have economic opportunities at home help protect biodiversity?

Luiz Henrique Lopes Ferreira with cashew products in Brazilian Amazon
Luiz Henrique Lopes Ferreira produces a cashew liquor made from fruit collected in the Tapajós Arapiuns Extractive ReserveImage: Projeto Saude e Alegria

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 makes and sells sweets, jams, and liqueurs 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 protection and prevent deforestation.  

He lives in the Tapajos Arapiuns Extractive Reserve, which spans over 640,00 hectares (1.58 million acres) almost 90% of which is covered in forest. It is home to over 370 different types of bird, 99 species of fish and around 13,000 people, mostly Indigenous and mixed heritage caboclo communities.  

Amazon rainforest
The Amazon rainforest is rich in biodiversity but many species are now under threat Image: Espresso Media

Identifying himself as Indigenous, Ferreira says that although he was born in Manaus, the capital of Amazonas State, the forest has been his real home since his family arrived there 15 years ago. 

"The Amazon is a spectacular place to live...here in nature," said Ferreira. "Everything is very magical. But we also have threats that surround us and knock on our door."

Using the fruits of the forest to fight illegal logging 

The extractive reserve was created in the late 1990s after local communities had spent almost two decades mobilizing against the encroachment of logging companies. The protective area aims to help conserve nature by allowing people to use the land for subsistence agriculture and sustainable extractive activities like hunting, fishing, and harvesting wild plants.   

Today, Ferreira says deforestation is their biggest threat. Para State, where the extractive reserve is located, experienced the highest levels of deforestation in Brazil between 2001-2021. Since President Jair Bolsonaro came to office in 2019, the country's Amazon has seen the worst deforestation levels in 15 years as the government systematically weakened environmental protections. 

Luiz Henrique Lopes Ferreira, a young Indigenous man living in Brazil’s Amazon
Luiz Henrique Lopes Ferreira says that deforestation is the biggest threat to his way of lifeImage: Projeto Saude e Alegria

Ninety-nine percent of deforestation in Brazil's Amazon is illegal. Caetano Scannavino, coordinator of the Brazilian NGO The Health and Happiness Project (PSA), explained this makes it more difficult for farmers and timber producers trying 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," said Scannavino.  

PSA has been operating in Para State for 30 years and it currently works with over 30,000 people, providing training and financing so communities can legally make a living through permaculture and agroecology. 

Ferreira worked with PSA and his business now benefits 40 families, providing them with food security from the crops they grow as well as incomes from the products they sell. He says that while some young people might leave and find work in logging companies or in urban construction, he sees increasing numbers now trying to stay and work with the forest. 

Infografik Abgeholzte Waldfläche im Amazonasgebiet EN

PSA conducts workshops and provides training to community and indigenous cooperatives so they can transform forest products like cacao, honey, acai, and tropical fruit into products such as oils and butter that can bring a higher income for communities.  

"We have to help to create better conditions of life, otherwise the young people are going to leave and go to the city," said Scannavino, adding that an empty rainforest provides opportunities for miners and loggers. 

Saving the forest by respecting Indigenous rights

"What we know is that when these Indigenous peoples and local communities — or extractive communities as they're called in in Brazil — manage their forest and have rights over the forest area, deforestation rates are much lower," said David Kaimowitz, chief program officer at the Tenure Facility, an NGO focused on securing land rights for Indigenous peoples.   

Locals collecting honey in the Brazilian Amazon 
Honey is one of the products produced by communities in the Tapajós Arapiuns Extractive Reserve Image: Projeto Saude e Alegria

Kaimowitz led a UN investigation that reviewed more than 300 studies over the last 20 years and argued that Indigenous and tribal communities in Latin America and the Caribbean are the best guardians of forests, in a large part due to their cultural practices and traditional knowledge. To ensure this he says these communities need functioning economies and an environment where young people want to stay.  

"All of those things are part of the model of what works in the Amazon," said Kaimowitz. "Where those things exist, the forests are staying intact."

While Tapajos-Arapiuns Extractive Reserve has maintained a deforestation rate close to 0.5% since 1985, deforestation in the rest of the Amazon means the rainforest is dangerously near a tipping point, where it will permanently transform into a dry savannah.  

Residents in Brazil’s Amazon learning about producing seedlings 
Residents from the extractive reserve take part in a workshop to learn about producing seedlings for planting Image: Projeto Saude e Alegria

Since the 1980s in Para State's Santarem region, close to where Ferreira lives, there has been a 34% decrease in rainfall during the dry season, a more than 2 degrees Celsius (35.6 Fahrenheit) rise in the average temperature and a massive increase in wildfires that have destroyed more than a million hectares of forest.   

Preventing pandemics at the source  

Ensuring the Amazon forests are protected could have repercussions for human health as well as the climate.  

In April 2022 experts, led by Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health, released research arguing that mitigating Amazonian deforestation is critical for preventing pandemics.   

The Amazon is one of the world's most biodiverse regions, particularly for bats and primates which host a high diversity of viral zoonoses. Keeping forests standing reduces the chance of new infectious diseases spilling over from wild animals to domestic animals and people.  

Deforestation in the Amazon
Tackling deforestation is now seen as critical to preventing pandemicsImage: SOS MATA ATLANTICA/AFP

The research argues that better surveillance, wildlife and hunting management, and forest protection provide a blueprint to prevent future pandemics from emerging. Additionally, these actions aid carbon sequestration, protect biodiversity, and create new jobs.  

"The key point here is if we were living on a planet with a stable climate and an intact biosphere, we might be able to afford waiting until disaster happens and trying to contain it," said Aaron Bernstein, lead author of the report.

"But the reality is we don't. And to operate on that premise is one of the greatest pieces of folly of modern times."

Edited: Holly Young

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