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Last Updated: Thursday, 16 September, 2004, 10:32 GMT 11:32 UK
Brazil embraces sustainable idea

By Sue Branford
BBC correspondent in Brazil

All too often news on the environment is bad, but a revolutionary project in Brazil has been turning a sustainable idea into reality, which is a breath of fresh air for the troubled Amazon rainforest.

Amazon rainforest
The reserve is the brainchild of a visionary Brazilian primatologist
It is the nearest most of us get to paradise, to wake up early in the morning as dawn breaks over the Amazon forest.

Herons, macaws, parakeets and egrets fly across the river. River dolphins come up for air. In the distance monkeys roar. Apart from the sounds of the jungle, utter peace.

It felt somehow like the real world, and I began to feel that I was making a dreadful mistake, going there for just a couple of days to gather material for a radio programme.

I was in the west of the Amazon basin, in a big reserve, known as the Mamiraua Project for Sustainable Development, which has revolutionised environmental thinking in Brazil.

The reserve is the brainchild of a Brazilian primatologist, Marcio Ayres. He first came to this region 20 years ago to carry out research into monkeys. And one of the highlights of my visit this time was to catch a glimpse of the monkey he studied.

Known as the uacari, it is a strange, at first sight even ugly, little animal. Its tail is very short, so it cannot swing from branch to branch like other monkeys.

Indeed, local people know immediately if a band of uacaris is in the neighbourhood, because they can hear them crashing through the undergrowth on their hands and feet.

The uacari, with its bright red face, is widely known in the Amazon basin as the macaco ingles, the English monkey.

This, it seems, is because the early English explorers, who so loved to visit the Amazon forest, used to get their pale faces burnt red by the hot, tropical sun. But I am digressing.

Marcio's dream

Marcio Ayres was a visionary. When he first came to the region in the 1980s, he found that the small fishing communities that lived along the banks of the river were already protecting their natural resources.

With the encouragement of the Catholic Church - notably a Belgian priest called Falcon, who is still widely remembered in the region - they had set aside certain lakes for breeding, where all fishing was banned.

He would set up a new kind of nature reserve in which local people and scientists would work together
Even more remarkably, they had check posts on the rivers to stop commercial fishing boats from coming in and plundering their stocks.

Marcio Ayres was profoundly impressed. He decided to help these people. He would set up a new kind of nature reserve in which local people and scientists would work together.

It would be a win-win situation, he said, with the scientists benefiting from the local people's knowledge of the forest and the local people gaining institutional support.

There was, however, a problem.

Forest guardians

Under Brazilian law a nature reserve meant an area without people. Marcio argued - passionately - that these fishing communities were the best guardians of the forest and should stay.

What Marcio said made sense but it went against the dominant environmental thinking of the day. When I first visited the reserve in 1994, it was still illegal.

Amazon rainforest
There are now three reserves covering an area the size of Scotland
Now, 10 years later, much has changed. Marcio, a chain smoker, developed cancer and went to the United States for treatment.

When he realised he was not going to recover, he got friends to send him huge pictures of the Amazon forest.

He put them on the walls of his hospital room so that he could feel as if he was in his beloved reserve. He died in October 2003, at the tragically young age of 49. His work lives on.

Brazilian legislation has been changed, so finally the reserve has become legal. In fact, there are now three reserves, covering 60,000 sq km, an area the size of Scotland.

Local knowledge

And Marcio's dream of scientists working closely with local people? Deep in the forest, I met Ronald, a young Brazilian botanist who is studying the eating habits of the aruana, a local ornamental fish.

As I stood chatting with him in his makeshift laboratory, he went on cutting into the stomachs of the fish he had caught the previous night.

He suddenly discovered in one of the stomachs, not the normal mix of plants and seeds, but a strange yellow mixture that to me looked exactly like scrambled eggs.

I like working with these young scientists, but there is one thing that bothers me
Davino, local fisherman
Perplexed, he called in Dalvino, a local fisherman who is helping him with his research.

Dalvino explained: "The male fish keeps the eggs in its mouth to protect them from predators. But when it is disturbed, the male can swallow them. That is what has happened."

Ronald turned to me and said: "This happens the whole time. Without the knowledge of the local fishermen, we would not even know where to find the fish in the first place!"

And I asked Dalvino if he was happy with the arrangement.

He hesitated... "Yes," he said, "I like working with these young scientists, but there is one thing that bothers me.

"Before the project got going, I had a lot of spare time. Now I have to be here from dawn to dusk helping these youngsters. I miss my freedom.'

From Our Own Correspondent will be broadcast on Thursday, 16 September, 2004 at 1100 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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