11 May 2023

How the other half live: the prize-winning research exploring life in protected areas in the Amazon


    Prof Carlos Peres has been awarded one million Swiss Francs (around £900,000) as one of three International Champions in the inaugural Frontiers Planet Prize.  

    Peres, Professor of Conservation Ecology in the School of Environmental Sciences, was also named UK National Champion for research he led on communities in protected areas (PAs) in rural Amazonia.  

    His article, Sustainable-use protected areas catalyze enhanced livelihoods in rural Amazonia, was chosen by a jury of 100 leading sustainability scientists, as a breakthrough with potential to help stabilise our planet’s ecosystem.  

    The project was principally funded by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs’ Darwin Initiative for the Survival of Species grant and was published in the journal PNAS.  

    It brought together researchers from the University of East Anglia and Anglia Ruskin University in the UK, the Norwegian University of Life Sciences, and three universities in Brazil: the Instituto Juruá, Manaus, Universidade Federal do Rio Grande do Norte, Natal, and Universidade Federal de Alagoas, Maceió. 

    Data was collected from more than 100 rural communities located across 2,000km of the Juruá River, a major tributary of the Amazon.  

    Researchers then used this data to explore how the livelihoods of residents in sustainable-use protected areas (PAs) - a joint initiative sponsored by government agencies to expand protection of the Amazon rainforest in Brazil - compare with those in unprotected areas.  

    Here is what they found: 

    Better access to services and commodities 

    Prof Peres and his team discovered “a clear divergence between communities inside and outside PAs in terms of key services and commodities”. 

    This included better healthcare, digital communication, primary education, electrification, trade posts, and large cargo boats to transport local products.  
    Meanwhile, some critical infrastructure, including basic sanitation, was only found in the communities within the PAs. 

    More participation in formal economic systems 

    All communities within the PAs were “empowered to harvest natural resources for subsistence and establish extractive natural capital value-chains through formal associations,” enabling them to create an income by harvesting and selling resources.  

    In comparison, 67 per cent of communities outside the PAs were not empowered in the same way, with most practicing “subsistence livelihoods at the periphery of the market economy”.  

    The remaining 32.8 per cent of communities outside PAs were found to have wide access to natural resources but lacked the sociopolitical organisation required to join existing value-chains.  

    Wealthier households 

    Findings from the study indicated that those living within PAs were likely to be wealthier, with an average household wealth of $1,253 (£1,005), compared with $916 (£734) outside.  

    Households inside PAs were also more likely to own otherwise unaffordable manufactured goods, such as fridge-freezers, gas stoves and other household appliances that improve quality of life.  

    Desire to stay in the community 

    Most people living within PAs wished to remain in their community, researchers found.  

    Only five per cent of adults living inside PAs voiced a desire to leave in the future, compared with 58 per cent of those living outside.  

    A similar but weaker trend was observed among 13- to 17-year-olds in these communities, where 31 per cent of those living inside PAs and 58 per cent living outside said they would like to move to an urban centre to enhance their prospects. 

    This serves to stabilise the long-term demographic problem of rural-urban migration across Latin America. 

    Reasons for optimism 

    It has long been thought that biodiversity conservation and human welfare improvements are “at best difficult to deliver in the same package and at worst irreconcilable,” Prof Peres says. 

    But these findings “challenge assumptions by showing that successfully empowered local communities can decentralise top-down natural resource management, creating opportunities for self-development".  

    The paper acknowledges that “most tropical PAs are poorly implemented, understaffed, and underfunded” but argues that "highlighting conservation bright spots can boost optimism”. 

    This is, it continues, “a fundamental currency to address contemporary socioecological challenges, that is often in short supply, particularly in megadiverse developing countries”. 

    What next? 

    Prof Peres will work with Instituto Juruá, a nonprofit conservation NGO he co-founded in Brazil, to continue to implement integrated conservation-development programs across the Jurua and other river basins in the Amazon.  The prize fund will be used to support his ongoing research.