Feature Story | 8-Aug-2023

The quest for sustainable livelihoods in the Amazon

Linköping University

The journey on the grey and brown river from Tefé to the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve normally takes around three hours. But things are not normal. The extreme drought, which has caused the water levels to drop to record low levels, forces the boat to take detours. Instead, it takes eight hours to reach the destination deep in the heart of the Amazon.

It is autumn 2022. The effects of climate change are evident in Mamirauá, yet the group of scientists stepping ashore are filled with positive anticipation. Along for the trip are two students from the master's programme in Science for sustainable development at Linköping University, Sweden. Alejandra Leon Lavandera comes from Peru but has never been to Brazil before. Roksana Rotter from Germany has travelled in South America, but this part of the Amazon is a new experience, and she has suddenly realized how big Brazil is.

“First we flew to Rio, then took another flight to near São Paulo, then another to Manaus and then to Tefé and from there we went by boat up the river,” she says.

In total, the group consists of ten researchers from Sweden, Brazil and the UK, mainly natural scientists but also social scientists. The project leader is Professor Alex Enrich Prast from the Department of Thematic Studies – Environmental Change at Linköping University, Sweden. In his professional life, he has been involved in research from the Antarctica to the deep sea but has now decided to devote himself entirely to the Amazon and to biogas research.

“There was a moment when I said, ok, I´ve published - I don´t know - 80 papers. I decided that I would rather have less papers and do something that directly benefits society and has more tangible impact.”

The Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve is in northwestern Brazil. Local communities make a living from fishing, agriculture, and forestry, but that has become an increasing challenge. The naturally recurring dry periods have become more intense in recent decades. This autumn, some schools have been forced to cut back on teaching because the low water levels made it difficult to transport school meals.

The scientists from Linköping have come to start a project on sustainable forestry together with the state-owned Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development, the University of Rio de Janeiro, and Lancaster University. The Mamirauá institute has collaborated with the residents in the area for 25 years in developing sustainable management of natural resources. 

The Amazon is larger than Western Europe. Biodiversity is priceless and the ability of vegetation to absorb greenhouse gases is crucial for the earth's climate. But forestry is also an important means of livelihood for the riverine communities, so a key question is how to combine sustainable social and economic development with reduced climate impact. Perhaps the researchers can contribute an important piece of the puzzle.

The purpose is to deepen the understanding of the greenhouse gas fluxes from Amazon trees. The forest both binds and emits greenhouse gases, such as methane, but different trees have different properties. In the project, three tree species and their role in the cycle will be studied. Through measurements of gas flows, the researchers hope to determine which species have the most climate benefits and should therefore ideally be spared.

Logging also gives rise to forest waste, which then causes emissions of greenhouse gases when it breaks down. Therefore, Alex Prast wants to investigate whether the waste can be used to make biogas and environmentally friendly fertiliser. This would provide some of the tangible benefits for society he seeks in his research.

“Local communities spend around 30-40 percent of their income on gasoline to run their boats. If they could somehow generate their own biogas that would go down to zero,” he says.

The social scientists’ part of the project is to establish a rapport with community leaders and get permission to participate in activities and do interviews. As the project goes on, they will examine how people view their lives and the future, what their needs are, and consequently what actions are realistic to take. The work is led by Associate Professor Veronica Brodén Gyberg from the Department of Thematic Studies – Environmental Change at Linköping University.

“The communities’ needs have to be met, so it’s possible that one conclusion will be that it’s not realistic to stop using tree A, but maybe tree B. Together the results can help minimise climate impact and also improve livelihoods. Hopefully this will make the scientific recommendations useful more quickly.”

During their weeks in Mamirauá, the members of the research group live together on the boat and have time to share experiences and learn a lot from each other. For some of the scientists, the interdisciplinary approach is completely new, but interest is high.

Now it is spring 2023. Alejandra Leon Lavandera and Roksana Rotter are back in Sweden, struggling with their master's theses but the memory of their weeks in the Amazon lingers.

“What struck me was the relationship that the communities have with the Mamirauá Institute, how they are included and empowered, that´s something that I really liked,” Alejandra says.

And Roksana adds:

“What also impressed me is how welcoming the people are, both in talking about their livelihoods but also in general. They invited us to play football and said ´you should come more often´. So that was very nice to hear.”

In September, the team will return to Mamirauá for the project.

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