Audacious Water
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Audacious Water

Peruvian Amazon. Credit: John Sabo

Is This the Future of Natural Resource Management?

Three ethnicities speaking three different languages in the Peruvian Amazon have held to a collaborative agreement over fish, hunting and other resources for more than a decade. Could it be a model for the world?

On a recent trip to one of the remotest parts of the Peruvian Amazon, my colleagues and I came upon what might be a scalable model for sustainable transboundary management of natural resources — a model few Westerners know exists.

Author in foreground. Credit: John Sabo

To get to this region, you first have to fly to Iquitos and then take a cargo ship down river to nearly the border of Peru with Brazil and Colombia. It’s an amazing, remote place where the tributaries the feed the Amazon come down from Colombia — with fauna ranging from river dolphins to anacondas, caiman, arapaima (called paiche in Peru) and more. (There are at least a dozen species of catfish at least six feet long here.) It’s the world’s biggest river and the world’s biggest patch of remaining rainforest, with communities of indigenous peoples made up of three different ethnicities.

These ethnicities speak three completely different languages — but they live in close proximity and collaborate to manage natural resources in a way that sustains their fisheries, their hunting grounds and the timber harvest they use to construct their houses and boats.

Three observations about their collaboration:

First, the fact it exists at all is striking. Imagine anywhere else in the world: three different countries aligning on their natural resource goals. These communities have. They depend on the forest and river for food and almost everything important in their lives: transportation, food, water, crafts, their small businesses. And they’ve aligned and jointly managed those resources in an apparently sustainable way for more than a decade.

Second: the tools these communities are using are ones academics write about in economic journals, and that NGOs and governments struggle to execute elsewhere. They’re very sophisticated. For example: they use a reserve system to manage their freshwater resources — each village manages two lakes on either side of the river, and they each ban fishing in one each year to allow that lake’s fishing stocks to fully recover. It’s similar to a crop rotation system in agriculture or a conservation marine reserve system, and it’s completely homegrown.

The question of the moment: With development in the Amazon accelerating, how do you develop the Amazon in a way that you preserve some of the necessary ecological functions — like carbon management and freshwater resources?

They also have take shares for animals they hunt, and they monitor those shares closely. A community gets a certain number of tapir, or a certain number of monkeys per year, and they have natural resource managers who check on the takes closely to ensure the bushmeat harvest remains sustainable.

Third: I think this model of natural resource management is scalable. And if it is, it could successfully scale the conservation of freshwater and forest resources together as one system, especially among potentially competing parties. Such scaling would have potentially interesting implications for carbon management.

Let me explain. In terms of development, the Amazon is 30 years behind the Mekong, which is at least 30 years behind the Mississippi. But the speed at which the Amazon basin is being developed is accelerating and without much plan.

The question of the moment: How do you develop the Amazon in a way that you preserve some of the necessary ecological functions — like carbon management and freshwater resources?

But if this system could be replicated across the Amazon, it could yield massive benefits. One could start to think about how to conserve both language and culture along with freshwater biodiversity and carbon management across the region — because the Amazon is filled with cultural treasures as well as ecological ones, and culture can be marshalled as a mechanism to preserve ecological function.

You could start to say: “These are the resources, and we need to protect them both from development within and from upstream harm.” I think that could be a powerful mechanism for generating sustainable development in the basin.

Peruvian Amazon. Credit: John Sabo

Making the model scale will require funding, both on the private and public sector sides. It will also require science to evaluate the benefits these communities are receiving from their agreements, to determine precisely the dynamics that make them work, and just how scalable the successes are to other contexts. ASU’s Future H2O will be at the forefront of those evaluation efforts.

Could this model eventually inform diplomatic efforts around natural resource cooperation? We need more information and validation. But what I saw on my trip looked promising.

For more information about ASU Future H2O’s work and research on creating opportunities for global water abundance, visit our website and subscribe to our newsletter.

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Bob Lalasz

Founder & principal, Science+Story. Guiding researchers to become public experts & research organizations to share their expertise publicly.