José Márcio Ayres

2002 Laureate, Environment
Brazil, 1954-2003

Project Goal

Combine the protection of the Amazon forest with the human need for sustainable income

Location: Brazil

Ayre's Amazonian Legacy

The world over, the start of June every year is World Environment Week. In Tefé in north-west Brazil, however, the event is especially important — that is also when this small town (population 70,000), about 500km from the city of Manaus, celebrates the life and work of one of the most highly respected figures from the entire Amazon Basin — José Márcio Ayres.

Ayres, a specialist in the ecology of tropical forests who died on 7 March 2003 at the age of 49, campaigned for over 15 years for conservation that fully involves the local people in managing the rich natural resources of the Amazon region. "He was the first person here who understood that to protect the environment in a sustainable way we also needed to take into account the human beings living there," says Ana Rita Alves, who runs the Sociedade Civil Mamirauá (SCM), the non-governmental organisation that Ayres founded in 1992. "That's why people in Tefé and in the reserves spend a full week every year discussing what Márcio achieved at Mamirauá and talking about the future of the project."

Protecting a Refuge
Situated on the outskirts of Tefé in the heart of the tropical forest, the Mamirauá ecological station, which was set up in 1990, extends over 11,240km² of várzea, a mosaic of over 3,000 lakes and branches of rivers that is flooded for six months of the year. This lush world, dominated by water and forest, is home to a wealth of biodiversity: uakari monkeys and countless species of birds such as harpy eagles share the canopy, while caiman, pink dolphin, manatee, turtle and over 300 species of fish swim among the tree trunks. Many endangered species such as the giant otter, squirrel monkey and wattled curassow have found refuge there.

However, despite Mamirauá's official status as a protected area, illegal deforestation and intensive fishing were exhausting its resources until 1996, when Ayres established, within the ecological station, a sustainable development reserve covering 2,600km² — the first of its kind in South America. There he applied an innovative conservation strategy making local people responsible for protecting the local flora and fauna, while ensuring they have ways to earn a living that respect the natural environment. As a result, more than 60 communities of ribeirinhos — river people — are able to remain in the Amazon instead of leaving their homelands to look for work in Brazil's big cities. This tour de force earned Ayres a Rolex Award in 2002, enabling him to extend his project to the adjacent area — Amanã Reserve — thereby creating a protected corridor of tropical rainforest extending across 57,600km² — the most extensive in the world.

Continuing a Legacy
"I was beside him during his last days," Ana Rita Alves says of Ayres. "Even though he was very ill, he kept telling me: 'Please keep the reserves going. Don't stop.' His project was one of his key concerns, right up to the last moments of his life.”

His colleagues remain faithful to his ambitious goals. Since 2004, they have extended the sustainable development reserve to the whole of Mamirauá, an area of 11,240km². The 158 villages there are now involved in the project, as are the 3,500 residents of the Amanã reserve. In all, 12,500 inhabitants are actively working for the preservation of the tropical rainforest.

Measurable Results

At the centre of this vast network, the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Institute plays a key role. Founded in 1999 by Ayres and located in Tefé, it is now largely financed by the Brazilian government and accommodates almost 150 researchers devoted to studying and monitoring the biodiversity of Mamirauá and Amanã. On the basis of the data collected by these scientists, who scour every nook and cranny of the flooded forest, action plans are drawn up to protect the species at greatest risk from human activities such as fishing, hunting or deforestation. To promote the regeneration of fish stocks, for example, fishing is authorised only in certain areas and at clearly defined times, and each fisherman undertakes to respect a catch quota. The work is already yielding concrete results: the stocks of pirarucu — a fish that can grow up to three metres long, weigh up to 200kg and is the most important source of income for local fishermen — have increased by 300 per cent. Egg-laying areas and the nests of various species of bird, river turtle, manatee and caiman are also protected.

Students and Scientists

In 2003, the Mamirauá Institute built a floating school on the lake near Téfé in order to raise public awareness about the need for these measures, especially among the younger generation. The school has already taken in over 1,000 students and 200 teachers from villages across the two reserves. "The aim of the school is to promote environmental education and to get the local people to understand how important our work is," says Alves. "Márcio was particularly keen on it." The students can listen to lectures by scientists, take part in guided excursions around the reserve and put on plays highlighting environmental issues.

In addition, members of the Institute broadcast a 30-minute radio programme twice a week, presenting, in accessible language, findings from their research and discussing the various problems encountered by the individual communities.

Environment and the Economy

All these activities are a great help in safeguarding the environment, but, in order to ensure the long-term success of a reserve like Mamirauá, the people who live there need ways to support themselves without adversely affecting their environment. This is the aim of the Economic Alternatives Programme that Ayres devised in 1998. The programme is now being expanded by his colleagues. "Márcio was always convinced that environmental protection and economic development could go hand in hand," Alves explains. "His strategy was to change the way in which natural resources were being exploited, to make them generate long-term socioeconomic and environmental benefits. We've continued along this path."

Therefore, the clearing of forest for lumber, for example, once carried out illegally and on a large scale by forestry companies from outside Mamirauá, is now handled by 20 communities living in the reserve who take into account the sustainability of the tree species — a first for the várzea. This kind of sustainable development has made it possible to increase the income from forest management by 100 to 150 per cent — a huge benefit for the community, as it is the only major work that can be done during the high-water season.

Benefits of Ecotourism

The development of ecotourism has also given local people tangible proof that they have everything to gain from preserving their environment. "Ecotourism was Márcio's brainchild," says Nelissa Peralta, who coordinates it. "It's not a traditional activity here, so it took him some time to make people understand what it was all about." At Ayres' request, an area of almost 40 square kilometres within the reserve was prepared. Now visitors can travel across the flooded areas in a dugout canoe (or, in the dry season, they can walk the forest paths) and observe the many endangered species that have found refuge in Mamirauá, like the white uakari, the squirrel monkey or the pink river dolphin. They can also go to fishing villages and meet the people who live there, or talk to the many researchers studying the biodiversity of the area.

In 2001 the SCM opened a lodge built on floating logs, putting seven local communities in charge of it. To minimise its impact on the environment, the lodge is equipped with solar panels and water collectors, and most of the food served is produced in the reserve.

Women from the village sell craft products, such as necklaces, using traditional motifs, and hand-woven baskets. To date, over 4,000 visitors have come to Mamirauá, most of them from the United States and Europe. The annual income generated by ecotourism amounts on average to US$90,000, half of which is reinvested directly in protecting the environment. Some of the money provides equipment for the volunteers who patrol the reserve to deter poachers. The other half is distributed among the seven communities and pays for community buildings and communication channels between the villages.

In 2003, only days after Ayres' death, the Mamirauá reserve was named the best ecotourism destination of the year by a leading American magazine.

Local Benefits and Larger Growth
These economic alternatives have greatly improved the living conditions for the families in Mamirauá and Amanã. Their annual income has almost doubled, and many villages have been able to modernise their sanitary infrastructure and organise the distribution of drinking water.

Today the sustainable development model underpinning the Mamirauá reserve is gradually gaining ground in Brazil, where it has already been adopted by nine other reserves in the states of Amapá, Pará and Tocantins. But it has also spread across the borders, into Argentina, Guyana and even as far as Tanzania, thanks to the contacts Ayres established during his lifetime and to the work of his successors. According to Nelissa Peralta, "thousands of people are benefiting today from the dream of one man who gave himself the means of making it come true. That's Márcio's legacy."

Francesco Raeli


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