Combining ecology, traditional knowledge, and social needs in a framework for riparian forest restoration

By Claire Salisbury and Danielle Celentano (Photo credit: Claudio Farias)

A new project to design restoration strategies in riparian forests is being led by Brazilian researchers in collaboration with local communities. The researchers, from the Maranhão State University (UEMA) and Federal University of Maranhão (UFMA), have combined interviews with biodiversity surveys to develop a holistic plan to restore the degraded forest in the headwaters of the Pepital River.

The Alcântara municipality sits on the northern Atlantic coast of Brazil, at the eastern limit of the Amazon region. The relocation of 23 coastal communities in the early 1980s, to make way for a Brazilian Space Agency project, resulted in a number of new settlements being placed in the headwaters of the Pepital River, the primary source of water for Alcântara. These headwaters, once forested, are now highly degraded as a result of slash and burn agriculture over the last decades. Forest degradation has led to water shortages, prompting communities to seek help in finding solutions that will have both social and environmental benefits.

The researchers have interviewed 79 households from seven villages about their livelihoods and wellbeing, their perception of and relationship with their environment, and how these have changed over time. Ethnobotanical information about native tree species has been gained with the help of local specialists, who identified species with specific uses or which were strongly preferred by the community. This information was then combined with biodiversity surveys of existing ‘reference’ forests, in order to develop a strategy of reforestation that could meet both social and environmental needs.

The majority of respondents practice slash and burn agriculture, recognising that this activity is directly responsible for the degradation of their water supply, but seeing no alternative options available. As one interviewee responded, “We know that cutting this forest is wrong, but when we need to feed our family we don’t think about it”.

Clearly, addressing the livelihood needs of the communities will be paramount to the success of any restoration project. The authors propose a successional agroforestry approach to do just this, incorporating crop and tree species of both social and ecological value to be harvested in the early stages until the forest matures. They emphasise the need for this approach to be designed collectively in a participatory way with the community, and with the involvement of agronomists, soil scientists, anthropologists and ecologists. In combination, they hope that this will make it possible to overcome the socioeconomic and ecological obstacles in the way of restoration.

Further reading:

Perceptions of environmental change and use of traditional knowledge to plan riparian forest restoration with relocated communities in Alcântara, Eastern Amazon: http://www.ethnobiomed.com/content/pdf/1746-4269-10-11.pdf

Impacto da degradação sobre o estoque total de carbono de florestas ripárias na Amazônia Oriental, Brasil: https://acta.inpa.gov.br/fasciculos/45-3/PDF/AA-2015-0043.pdf

La macrofauna del suelo como indicadora de degradación de bosques ribereños en la amazonia oriental brasilera: http://www.agro.unlp.edu.ar/revista/index.php/revagro/article/download/73/172

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