Two years ago, as part of my PhD research in Amazon region of Ecuador, I studied if and how conservation areas, owned by Indigenous communities, are monitored and what role local people played in monitoring activities. The communities in which I did my research all received a financial incentive from the government to protect parts of their forests against intrusion, the conversion to agricultural land or illegal logging. I spent many weeks in remote communities, an experience that fundamentally changed my way of thinking about forest conservation and the role of local people. Afterwards, I published a paper on the topic of participatory forest monitoring.
Because of my research and work on participatory monitoring, I was invited to take part in an International Seminar on Participatory Monitoring for the Management of Biodiversity and Natural Resources which took place from the 23rd to the 26th of September in Manaus, Brazil. The seminar was organized by the Brazilian Ministry of Environment (MMA) and the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), with the financial and technical support of a range of other organizations and foundations – for more information click here.
When I arrived in the heat of Manaus, which lies on the banks of the Rio Negro at the heart of the Brazilian Amazon region, the first thing I disappointingly noted was that Manaus is an average South American city. Unevenly distributed wealth, large problems with urban sprawl and a lack of planning, very few green spaces or parks and instead of towering trees and the sound of insects and birds, you find luxury 20-story apartment and office buildings and the sound of cars, lots of cars. With 2 million inhabitants traffic is bad. Walking is only an option if you are determined and accept the unavoidable workout in Sauna conditions under the merciless sun. Yet, there is something special about the city, whether it is its remote location surrounded by rainforest, or the Rio Negro that joins the Rio Solimões just a few kilometers east of Manaus to form the Amazon River.
And here we were. We met around 200 representatives of monitoring initiatives from countries such as Colombia, Ecuador, Mexico, Australia, Madagascar and Brazil, Indigenous and representatives of other traditional peoples, as well as scholars. Over the course of the seminar, lectures and presentation were given and in the afternoons we discussed each day’s theme in small roundtables. The objective of these roundtables was to debate and brainstorm in small groups and come up with a list of recommendations on how to incorporate locally driven participatory monitoring for the better and more sustainable use of natural resources and biodiversity.
But why this topic, why would it be interesting to get people from all over the world together to discuss participatory monitoring? The answer is straightforward. In the past decades, several initiatives for monitoring biodiversity and natural resources have emerged around the world in an attempt to protect nature and to use resources more sustainably. Many of these initiatives rely on the involvement of people who use the natural resources, who live in and who participate in the management of areas in which monitoring is being developed, these are often indigenous communities. Nowadays, there is an increasing realization among conservationists, protected area managers and decision-makers in government, that successful and long-term viable conservation requires knowledge about the use and extraction of resources (for example fish and wood) and the state of the ecosystem. This knowledge will not be gained without the active involvement of local people. They often have the right to use natural resources and to hunt for their subsistence. Moreover, because they live in and around the resources they use, they are most often more knowledgeable and skilled when it comes to carrying out biodiversity monitoring.
Nevertheless, a main point of discussion during the workshop was the kind of participation that is desirable and should be the goal. Participation takes many different forms and the term is quite ambiguous. But true participation, in the form of people being able to make their own decisions as empowered citizens, is still often missing. The goal should not be to have local people simply as a source of information or data providers in monitoring initiatives, but to admit them the rights and responsibilities to carry out the monitoring of a resource of their choice, and with that knowledge, to construct their own management plans. Thus, it is essential to understand that monitoring needs to be meaningful to people. It has to be connected to the contexts of their lives. As such, monitoring is an activity that needs to be seen as a process towards the empowerment of local people, to integrate young and old community members and to learn new skills with the goal of sustainably managing a natural resource or a specific area.
After three days of intense meetings and discussions, I left Manaus with numerous insights and ideas, new knowledge, a renewed motivation to keep working on the issue of communities and local sustainable resources management. I met a range of fascinating people who share my convictions and whom I will hopefully meet again in the future, be it in the Amazon region of Colombia or the Brazilian Pantanal.
An example of how new technology and easy to use software can be used by people to learn about destructive resource exploitation and provide timely data about illegal activities in the Congo rainforest (Source: Extreme Citizen Science – ExCiteS – http://www.ucl.ac.uk/excites)
One of the largest freshwater fish in the Amazon, the Arapaima or Paiche is increasingly over exploited for its meat, many locally driven monitoring activities are under way to manage the fish stocks more sustainably (Photo: de Oliveira)
East of Manaus, the black water of the Rio Negro meets the brown, sediment rich water of the Rio Solimões to form the Amazon river.