Brazil indigenous people
Indigenous people in Brazil's Amazon contribute with research in the rainforest. Photo: Marcus Schmidt, ISA.

Technology and Indigenous knowledge combine to protect the Amazon

Like his ancestors did thousands of years ago, Juvêncio Baniwa starts his day by observing the Brazilian Amazon forests in the Rio Negro basin daily. But his methods are a bit different: he relies in technology to track the ecosystem.

Rio Negro is the seventh largest river in the world and home to a plethora of biodiversity. Baniwa ―Juvêncio’s Indigenous group as well as his surname― starts his day by carefully observing the size of the fruits, the appearance of the tree trunks, and the water level.

He also takes note of any animals. The stark difference from what his ancestors did centuries ago is that, after the observation, Baniwa takes out his tablet and fills his findings into electronic forms in ODK (Open Data Kit), an offline data collection app.

This technology is helpful to the observation practices done by Indigenous researchers as it helps archive and organize their data. The Baniwa live in the border region between Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela. Their main activities are the cultivation of wild manioc and fishing and are also known to be excellent artisans.

In the Rio Negro basin, there are 23 Indigenous people and more than 700 villages with these different groups living in the territory for at least 2,000 years. Along with 50 other Indigenous peoples of the Rio Negro basin, Baniwa and the Baniwa Indigenous group are a part of the Environmental Management Indigenous Agent (AIMA), launched in 2005.

Indigenous Environmental Management Agents (Aimas) recording and measuring sorva, for the forest survey of the species. Sorva (Couma utilis) is used as raw material in the production of Kumurõ, the Tukano bank. The research aimed to study the density, distribution, phenology and regeneration of the species, to then evaluate the impact of the exploitation of this wood for the commercialization of Kumurõ, Trovão community, Igarapé Castanha (AM). Image credit: Marcus Schmidt, ISA.

Neither the ODK nor environmental management apps are new, but the inclusion of the AIMA is. Scientists customized the ODK extension they use to encompass Indigenous knowledge from the Amazon rainforest.

Indigenous knowledge

This ODK extension contains, among others, the seasons they recognize, the Indigenous astronomic calendar, and the classification of animals. In addition, the app includes the Indigenous classification of forest landscapes, which is more numerous than scientific classification.

One of the biggest efforts is the calendars of annual cycles based on astronomical observation. They are associated with the rainfall and drought patterns and the variation of the level of the waters of the rivers.

From this, the Indigenous people mark the best times for pantry, preparation of the land, and harvesting. Several other cultural rituals depend on the calendar. The diet of the community is also based on it.

“We [Indigenous peoples] know the interaction of the sky with nature’s phenomena. Local experts mark the time when a constellation vanishes in the West,” Baniwa said, adding they observe all throughout the year. “The local experts are able to anticipate that three to five days later, it will rain. They know how many days the Saúva ant flock will take place.”

Every day the AIMA input their observations into the ODK apps. The Indigenous who do this work, meet at least three times a year to discuss the data they have collected. The exchange of information between different Indigenous peoples of the Rio Negro basin helps to have a broader view of the region.

Afterward, the agents will present the data to the elders before meeting the scientists. The Socio-environmental Institute (Instituto Socioambiental or ISA), an NGO focusing on preserving territories in Brazil, organizes the meetings.

“We are children of these [Indigenous] leaders who have always observed and made the right decisions,” said Baniwa. “Now, we go to universities, so we continue observing in a way that reaches more people.”

Indigenous leaders, Indigenous Environmental Management Agents (Aimas) and students from the Eeno Hiepoli School during the I Solar Water and Energy Home Treatment Workshop promoted by ISA and the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development (IDSM) in the Canadian community, Ayari River, Alto Rio Negro Indigenous Land (AM). Image credit: Natalia C. Pimenta, ISA.

Intercultural research

The AIMA initiative is a collaboration between ISA and FOIRN, the Federation of Rio Negro’s Indigenous Organizations. Aloisio Cabalzar, anthropologist and deputy coordinator of the Rio Negro Project at ISA, said that the AIMA project is intercultural collaborative research.

Beyond accumulating data, “the project proposes the recognition of Indigenous knowledge in the Amazon as more accurate than any other knowledge system,” explained Cabalzar. He adds that the crucial point is to communicate good Indigenous practices.

“We create a discussion platform, bringing scientific knowledge in, but not in the sense of validating Indigenous knowledge,” said Cabalzar. “A translation of this [Indigenous] knowledge is needed. Indigenous people are not the dominant group, so this knowledge needs to be taken to non-Indigenous people.”

Research has shown that Indigenous-led management is the most beneficial to nature and these groups do more to protect the environmental. In 2016, Juliano Franco de Moraes published a study that found that Indigenous practices have increased the abundance of species and native forests are more biodiverse.

In March 2021, a UN report pointed out that Indigenous peoples have been preventing deforestation in Latin America. Indigenous peoples practice what they call ‘World’s Handling’, which includes everyday experiences, sacred rituals, rules on health, food, hunting, fishing, and others. World’s Handling is a sophisticated set of knowledge and preservation practices, holistic wisdom about the ecosystem built over thousands of years.

But, due to climate change, Indigenous people now face unknown situations. “Summer did not happen when expected. In 2018, a very hot year, the fruits burned on the trees. This year, there was a flood,” said Baniwa. “Our ancestors didn’t see these things. They aren’t natural.

In 2021, INPE, the space research institute, recorded the largest deforestation in the Amazon in six years. A study from the University of California, published in 2020, points out that the officially demarcated Indigenous lands have a 66% lower rate of annual deforestation compared to other areas, between 1982 and 2016.

“That is why the methodology of AIMAs is important. It allows us to communicate what we know to the rest of the world. We are not alone. Our struggle is not only to protect our land but to stop global warming. It is possible to live without destroying [the forests], and we know exactly how,” Baniwa added.

This story was originally published by One Earth, as part of our Local Solutions Reporting Fellowship.

Marcela Maria Martins de Souza
Marcela is a journalist, based in Brazil, with special interest in the environment and climate change. Currently, she is a reporter and TV presenter at Rede Minas, and a Public Science Communication postgrad student at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. For the past seven years, she’s been covering environmental issues, with a focus on mining impacts, and she’s produced dozens of reports about themes such as traditional and indigenous knowledge and conservation projects. She’s also the director of a short film, “Amazon Rainforest TV”, and a writer, author of the novel “O nome do Lobo” (The wolf’s name).