Side by Side: Earthwatch and Local Communities Conserve the Amazon

Julie Hudson, head of Sustainability in Equity Research at UBS, recently embarked on a two-week expedition aboard a riverboat in the Amazon with Earthwatch scientist Dr. Richard Bodmer and his team of volunteers to work with local communities on his long-standing rainforest conservation effort.

Julie shared with us a firsthand account of how this community of people is assessing the human footprint on the plants, animals, land, and waterways in this region, and taking steps in the name of conservation.

Conservation Efforts in the Hands of the Local Community

Both in my professional and personal life, I have felt a pull towards conservation. This has taken me to some far-flung places on Earthwatch Expeditions. It worries me that in some places, conservation gets a bad name. This may be because seemingly bossy individuals come to developing countries and tell them what’s good for the environment, disregarding local traditions. The refreshing thing about Earthwatch Expeditions is that scientists and volunteers work together with the local community, implementing field experiments and trying out new approaches.

copyright: Julie Hudson

Local experts teaching volunteers

Volunteers board a riverboat in the Amazon to work alongside a biologist, a local field expert in wildlife, local ecology students, and other Earthwatch volunteers at the largest protected floodplain in the Amazon. This floodplain (an area next to a river) is home to thousands of people who live along its banks, and houses a diversity of plant and animal life. Some of the human residents of the forest are leading conservation work throughout this area, and our Earthwatch team arrived on a restored riverboat to aid in that mission with the help of Dr. Richard Bodmer and his research team. As many others before us, we came to support of these community-based conservation efforts by collection information on the plants and animals here.

The team setup of a scientist, local expert, students and volunteers, allows for great multitasking. The local expert is the most likely to spot better-disguised animals, the volunteers’ many pairs of eyes make data collection easier when the wildlife in question won’t sit still, while the scientist makes sure the data are properly collected, and students serve as the scientists of the future. Earthwatchers, briefed and trained in the field, bring several pairs of hands to lighten the workload of gathering data.

The amazing thing about this particular area of the rainforest is that locals in the community have been given ownership of wildlife management plans, and continue hunting for food without putting vulnerable species at risk. These local experts work together with conservationists to identify species that are resilient to hunting, and then create resource management processes to protect the vulnerable. The local hunters using these processes are able to keep records indicating how the species are doing. Success can be assessed when locals and scientists work together to make changes based on the feedback collected. Scientists turn this data into standardized units to understand what is happening to animal populations.

A Day in the Life: Volunteers Assist in Efforts

Throughout our time aboard the boat, the team worked on both water and land, focusing on fish, dolphins, birds, monkeys, and the alligator-relative caiman to evaluate the abundance of each species. Field work here is a rich experience. Birds, monkeys, and dolphins are counted, caiman are measured and returned to the water, and fish are caught by self-sustaining methods, counted and thrown back in, or occasionally put on the dinner table. We work side by side with the local community to ensure data collection on this expedition is as non-invasive as humanly possible.

For us new arrivals, what is caught on fishing trips is an experience in itself – we found local species of ancient cat fish with an exoskeleton, a large numbers of piranhas, and even a replica of the prehistoric lung fish that took the first steps on dry land millions of years ago.

Not only were the sights incredible, but the sounds and smells were something you can’t even imagine. One morning, we heard what sounded like a football crowd in the distance, which turned out to be hundreds of red howler monkeys. Another day the sound of large raindrops falling on leaves was actually thousands of cormorant wings beating off the water as they fed on fish.

copyright: Julie Hudson

Birds feeding along the waters of the Amazon.

Earthwatch Volunteers Support Invaluable Amazon Conservation Initiatives 

Earthwatch scientist Dr. Richard Bodmer explained to volunteers that the most important factor in creating these conservation plans for communities combines planet and animal biology with the economic reality of the region.

The Amazon River, ten times larger than any other, is the most powerful river system in the world. Scientists suspect that climate change may be disrupting this system and the impact of changes in rainfall patterns from thousands of miles away could be catastrophic for the plants, animals, and humans here. In years to come, we may see ourselves responding to an environment that is changing so rapidly that vital resources of food and water would be compromised. Collaborative conservation in which plant, animal, and human priorities are balanced, has never been more urgently needed.

copyright: Julie Hudson

A sunset along the Samiria River banks.

A big thank you to Julie for sharing her expedition story with us and for boating along the Amazonian Rainforest with Earthwatch to better understand local conservation efforts. Want to have a hand in this collaborative conservation effort? Donate to Earthwatch or better yet, go on this expedition with Dr. Bodmer and see firsthand how this river feeds everything it touches.

Aside from being head of ESG & Sustainability at UBS, Julie Hudson is a Visiting Business Fellow with the Smith School of enterprise and the Environment, Oxford University. Publications co-authored with Paul Donovan, a senior Economist at UBS: From Red to Green? How the Financial Credit Crunch Could Bankrupt the Environment (Earthscan, 2011) and Food Policy and the Environmental Credit Crunch, From Soup to Nuts (Routledge, 2013).