The largest reservoir of biodiversity on the planet, critical to regulating the earth’s climate, the Amazon Rainforest plays a key role in local, regional and global ecosystems. Tropical forests are also a rich source of food, medicine and timber for more than 90% of the world’s poorest people. Their livelihoods depend on it.
The Amazon Rainforest is also facing a crisis. Commercial interests, population growth, climate change and reduced environmental regulations are threatening biodiversity, indigenous heritage and community identity.
Our research is being used as a long-term baseline for assessing these transformations and is facilitating and incentivising sustainable land use.
Supported by a range of funders, our teams have been exploring and documenting the forests’ rich cultural and environmental history. We’ve demonstrated that native populations did not passively adapt to the forest, but rather transformed it, practising soil fertilisation, closed-canopy forest enrichment, limited clearing for crop cultivation and low-severity fire management, attaining long-term food security and nutritional diversity that was resilient to climate change and broad social upheaval. These systems supported larger populations than are present today and this knowledge is now helping to shape successful, sustainable subsistence strategies for the future.
We’ve also been working with the authorities, traditional communities and the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research to produce detailed digital elevation models using Lidar technology. These 3D maps help to shape flood mitigation strategies and route planning, and identify areas rich in resources, such as palm fruits that can be harvested for commercial markets via the traditional community’s village cooperative. The production of a carbon map from the Lidar data can precisely quantify the carbon stored in the forest, which can be translated into carbon credits that incentivise activities that reduce or prevent production of harmful greenhouse gases, securing the long-term future of the forest.
A key element of our work has been educational, hosting workshops to connect the Itonama indigenous Community of Versalles in Bolivia with their forgotten heritage, linking the modern forest and crop production to past forest enrichment, and demonstrating its economic value through the development of pathways for cultural and environmental bio-cultural ecotourism.
We’ve also raised public awareness through creative outputs such as a series of media features, including a three-part documentary aired on Channel 4 in the UK and the Discovery Channel in the US.
Another University of Exeter project is working with the NGO Instituto Ouro Verde (“Institute of Green Gold”) to plant trees in deforested rainforest land, giving economically poor Brazilians a sustainable source of food and income while also improving the soil.
Inga trees take nitrogen from the air and lock it in the soil, keeping it fertile for the long term.
Professor Toby Pennington, - University of Exeter Global Systems Institute and Department of Geography
Despite these successes, there remains much more to be done to protect and preserve the Amazon Rainforest. A recent study conducted by researchers from our Global Systems Institute in collaboration with INRAE and the University of Oklahoma forcefully illustrated this point. It found that over the past decade, the Brazilian Amazon released more carbon than it stored, with forest degradation the primary cause.
With so many challenges being faced by one of the world’s greatest natural resources, the importance of research to influence policy and human behaviour has never been greater.