CARAUARI, Brazil – Even in the most biodiverse rainforest in the world, pirarucu, also known as arapaima, stand out.
First, there’s its mammoth size: it can weigh up to 200 kilos (440 pounds), by far the largest of the 2,300 known species of fish in the Amazon. It is mainly found in floodplain lakes in the Amazon Basin, including the Medio Jurua region.
Secondly, not so long ago, the giant fish almost disappeared from Jurua, as ships swept the lakes with large nets. Illegal and unsustainable fishing has left rivers and indigenous communities struggling to catch their staple food. And he left the pirarucu designated as endangered, unless the fish trade is tightly controlled by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora.
But now something remarkable has happened. The fish has returned to the lakes of Medio Jurua. The story of how people from different backgrounds cooperate on many levels – a vision of what is possible that veterans of the Amazon say they have seen nowhere else in the vast region.
The change began in the late 1990s. With the help of a Dutch Catholic priest, rubber tappers organized and led a campaign to persuade the federal government to create the Medio Jurua extractive reserve. They proposed that local communities could draw from the forest and its lakes – up to a certain point – and from protected areas.
It worked. Now local communities produce acai, vegetable oils and rubber, and they leave the forest standing. Most successful of all was the management of pirarucu.
Neighboring settler communities, organized into associations, have also reached an agreement with neighboring Deni indigenous peoples, who have suffered in the past from invasions by rubber tappers and fishermen. Now they are part of the managed pirarucu fishery, which has improved relations between indigenous and non-indigenous people.
Managing the start of the school year required social organization, cooperation and complex logistics. Illegal fishing has been greatly reduced. Pirarucu are booming.
The virtuous cycle is playing out in the Carauari region, which stretches 650 kilometers (404 miles) from the Jurua River and is home to 35,000 people.
To see how things might have turned out, look no further than the nearby Javari Valley, where British journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous expert Bruno Pereira were murdered last June.
The backdrop to this tragedy is a decades-old dispute between indigenous communities and former rubber tappers who have been hired by local businessmen to conduct illegal fishing, primarily targeting pirarucu. Two local fishermen confessed to the crimes.
Illegal fishing is rampant in Brazil. It is the second most common environmental crime on conservation lands, after logging, according to an academic study based on official data. Brazil’s conservation agency issued 1,160 violation notices for illegal fishing – a quarter of all violations – over a recent five-year period.
“Javari is a portrait of what Medio Jurua looked like in the 1980s,” Manoel Cunha, the main leader of the local rubber tappers, told The Associated Press during a boat trip to Sao Raimundo, his community. of origin and one of those who take part in the regulated fishery. “We have been successful in getting rid of invading fishing companies and fishermen through monitoring and management. You’ve been on this river for days and haven’t seen any fishing boats except those of our organizations. There is no more place for them here.
Pirarucu fishing is practiced once a year, around September, the lowest water period. Fishing quotas are possible because of another remarkable characteristic of the pirarucu: it is one of the few species of fish in the world that surfaces to breathe. He does this with a big splash, flashing his red tail out of the water.
A local fisherman and a researcher from nearby Mamirarua have developed a way to take advantage of this and count the fish since they don’t stay underwater for more than 20 minutes. The government now recognizes this method of counting.
The survey is carried out once a year by certified fishermen, after completing a course. According to the law, only 30% of pirarucu from a certain area can be fished the following year.
This controlled fishery has led to an increase in its population in the regions where it is employed. In the Sao Raimundo region, there were 1,335 pirarucus in nearby lakes in 2011 when managed fishing began. Last year there were 4,092 specimens, according to their records.
In the Carauari region, the number of pirarucu rose from 4,916 in 2011 to 46,839 ten years later.
An AP team accompanied the first of seven days of fishing in Sao Raimundo. Imagine a few dozen houses, with running water, connected by well-maintained wooden walkways amid acai palm trees. Thirty-four families live there. Most belong to the extended Cunha family, whose ancestors arrived in the region from the impoverished and drought-ravaged northeast during the rubber boom to work as tappers.
“Our pirarucu is so tasty that everyone who eats it falls in love with it and wants more,” Rosilda da Cunha, a sister of Manoel who lives in Sao Raimundo, told AP.
Pirarucu brings money to the community, she said. This year, the goal is to purchase a solar panel system to replace the diesel generator. Another part of the money goes to community members who participate in the fishery. Salaries for women and men are equal.
To catch pirarucu, fishermen use special, stronger nets that they weave themselves. The holes are large enough to allow the passage of smaller specimens, as it is forbidden to take fish under five feet.
When fishermen catch one, they bring up the net and hit the fish on the head. Then they put him in their little boat. When it is very heavy, two or three men are needed to do the job.
The pirarucus are then taken from the lakes to a large boat by the Jurua River. There they are gutted, a task that is mostly done by women, and put on ice. All production is purchased by the Association of Rural Producers of Carauari, known as Asproc, the region’s umbrella organization, so fishermen are never at the mercy of middlemen.
Founded by rubber tappers who wanted to free themselves from slave-like working conditions, Asproc has become one of the most important grassroots entities in all of the Amazon. It runs programs on everything from sanitation to community markets to higher education, innovating along the way. She now sells pirarucu to major cities in Brazil, including Sao Paulo and Brasília, a complex undertaking that involves several days of transport by boat and road and usually takes more than two weeks.
Asproc’s success has attracted several partnerships. One is counterintuitive — the United States Forest Service, which supported the creation of a brand, the Gosto da Amazônia (Amazon Taste), which promotes pirarucu nationwide, and the Agency for International Development (USAID), which helped fund a fish processing warehouse in the town of Carauari, where pirarucu are cut, frozen and packaged.
“This project is unique because it requires a strong governance structure,” USAID Brazil Mission Director Ted Gehr told the AP during his first visit to the Sao Raimundo community. “Everyone agrees that they may have to make sacrifices and not be able to fish all the pirarucu available, but knowing that they will spawn more and in the long run they will have more value.”
The Medio Jurua region is blessed with remoteness. It has no road access. So far, it is free from the deforestation and fires that have devastated elsewhere in the Amazon. But the smoke that left the skies gray in September is a reminder that destruction is not far off. The challenge is to be a strong organization and economy to ward off future threats, Cunha says.
“If we hadn’t organized ourselves through fisheries management to protect our environments and take our fish, instead of others taking them from us, we might have been in the same situation as our colleagues in Javari” , says Cunha, who heads the Medio Jurua Extractive Reserve, a position usually held by government officials. “If they had organized earlier, they could have saved the lives of these two comrades.”