Conservation in the Amazon with Mr. Felipe Spina
As a student in the Global Ecology program at my high school, one would think that I quickly became well-versed in environmental conservation. Actually, it wasn't until my junior year and my internship at Kashmir World Foundation that I realized how multi-faceted the issue is. Many groups can be brought into the picture: environmentalists, technology specialists, policymakers, and more. At KWF, we value the involvement of local communities as well; it's essential that those who rely on those environments and have plentiful knowledge about it are empowered to protect it. As a result, we have partners worldwide, like Dr. Melania López-Castro from Pronatura Península de Yucatán and Mr. Felipe Spina, a Senior Conservation Analyst from WWF Brazil.
Mr. Spina was born and grew up in a tropical rain forest area in the southwest of Brazil. "I was a Boy Scout from when I was ten to around 19. Pretty much every weekend from when I was a child into my adolescence, I was camping in the wild with my Scouts friends and learning about the environment, the importance of the animals in the forest, and how we should conserve them. I was seeing the biodiversity up close and experiencing it because I grew up in Brazil and also saw the animals in the forest...so from a young age, I started to naturally pay more attention and care more about nature."
"By the time I got to University, I wasn't sure what I wanted to do, but I was sure I wanted to work in the field of Environmental Conservation. So initially, I started doing a degree in forestry at a well-renowned school in Brazil, the University of São Paulo, one of the oldest forestry courses here in Brazil. But after doing almost two years, I was really let down by the course in the University because at this time at the school, there was not as much of an emphasis on conservation, and the human aspect of the forest and on the millions of trees that we have in the tropical forest, it rather focused heavily in commercial forestry plantations. That was never my interest. I thought we would study the whole forest and not only two commercial tree species. After two years, I wasn't satisfied with the course anymore, and I dropped out and reapplied for biology at the same university. I then researched the ecology and natural history of animals like snakes, frogs, lizards, and biological studies of reproduction, feeding, conservation, so really more applied science."
"But after a while, I also got a little unhappy and desperate because there is a lot of basic science to study and I noticed that the animals I studied were disappearing because of deforestation. So I moved towards conservation and sustainability and did a Master's in sustainability and climate change. I started working more front lines with conservation and working with local communities to protect the forests. So to this day, I work with the same forest, but all of the forest, not just a few species, and to protect them and help the traditional communities close to this area to protect the area and generate their income in a sustainable way."
Like the Kashmir World Foundation, Mr. Spina is also very interested in the possibilities between technology and environmental conservation. "The way technology [in conservation] has evolved [since the early 2000s] is very impressive. One area that I really believe in is open source technology because that way, we can empower more conservationists and more people to use technology at a lower cost. With open source technology, hardware, software, 3D printers, and other things we have nowadays, I think this is the best way forward for conservationists worldwide. When you think about big countries that have a lot of tropical forests, these countries often don't have much resources to spend on conservation, so using open technology is a good way to ensure those areas where technology is most needed for conservation will be able to afford them. At University, I had more traditional tools such as camera traps and Wildlife tracking. We used to do it with radios. We didn't have GPS collars and stuff like that. But because of this experience, I really started to pay attention to the possibilities of tech in conservation."
"A few years later, with the advancement of mobile technologies and applications, I also got interested in how we can use mobile technologies for participatory science and empower local communities. In 2015, I moved to work in conservation in [the island of Príncipe], Africa, for an NGO from the UK called Fauna & Flora International (FFI). There, they had a big agenda about conservation technology, and it was becoming a big thing. I saw the initial movements turning into a platform called Wildlife Lab, where people who are conservationists and people who specialize in technology come together to find new ways to apply technology for conservation. Drones were becoming more popular and accessible too, so I decided to buy a DJI drone and start to try out how to use drones for conservation. I've become more interested and professional in using different technologies and using them to empower local communities with drones, camera traps, acoustic sensors, LIDER, mobile apps, etc."
One of the largest issues in Brazilian forests is land grabbing for agriculture and cattle ranching. "You see the same criminal cycle going on. Illegal land grabbers/loggers invade a protected or public area of the forest. They start by doing selective logging: extracting the valuable trees because they know they can sell those at a very high price. The second stage is starting to clear the area to be further occupied for some sort of economic activity. Normally, this is where the forest fires come in. They cannot grow food or graze cattle, so they burn the forest. Sometimes, they do it on purpose and sometimes they don't; it starts because of bad management. They don't control those burns because they're doing it illegally after the wrong time of day and date and not taking the necessary environmental requirements, preparation, or care. Those fires, in many cases, spread through the forest and create those huge forest fires. Sometimes there are just full-on criminal people that spread the fires with the intent to burn. Finally, after a few months when the forests are burned (normally they do that in the dry season), they will start the rainy season with the first rains, the first grasses will start to grow. They will invade the area and use it for cattle ranching or use it to do some agricultural stuff, like planting crops like sugarcane, or sometimes they just want to burn the forest to stake the land for them for illegal mining. It's very complex, but we usually see this cycle: logging, burning, cattle ranching or agriculture."
This isn't just to the detriment of the forest's plants and animals, but also the indigenous people who depend on the Amazon forest for survival. Their history is many centuries old, and their bond to the forest has remained strong. "We tend to think that indigenous people are all the same. I can say that's not the reality. In Brazil, around 1500, when we were discovered, but in reality, invaded by Portugal, we had more than 1,000 different Indigenous groups from very different cultures. We have to remember that those indigenous people have suffered a very great impact historically. They were killed because of diseases. They were enslaved by the colonizers. The forest got destroyed, places got robbed, and water got poisoned. So there was a lot of impact and their population greatly reduced. Today, we only have around 250 indigenous groups in Brazil, but they are still very diverse. In a way, they're all facing the same threats, especially right now in the Amazon: illegal deforestation of the forests, fires, the contamination of the water with heavy metals such as mercury because of gold mining. Indigenous people have lived in harmony with the forest for many generations, and they know much better than us that survival depends on the forest being healthy. All the trees provide food, like Brazil nuts. It gives us clean air to breathe and clean water for us to drink and fish in, so they know how to be sustainable with the forest. They defend it because they know they can only survive if the forest is also surviving, healthy, and conserved. It's crucial that not only indigenous people but other traditional groups are truly involved and empowered to protect the forest that they rely on."
Because of this wealth of indigenous knowledge and the scientific knowledge and data amassed over the years, Spina recognizes that the two can propel significant environmental conservation change. "We try to pair science with traditional knowledge and empower the traditional communities with technology so they can better protect and defend the resources and forests that they rely on in a participatory way. Of course, they don't have the same scientific knowledge that we have, like myself as a biologist. But they have vital knowledge and long experience from living close to the forest. They have a very intricate relationship with a forest. They rely on the forest for everything: food, medicine, and rituals. The forest is sacred for them. We have managed to involve them in conservation and empower them to use technological tools. We can benefit from using this approach of relying on traditional knowledge as much as science, and with that, truly achieve conservation. I believe that we can only achieve conservation with both the people who live in the forest and close to the natural areas by truly engaging them in conservation."
As previously mentioned, Spina worked as a Terrestrial Biology Conservation Manager for FFI on Príncipe, a small island off the west coast of Africa in the Gulf of Guinea. Though the environments and governmental systems are different, there are still quite a few similarities between his work there and in Brazil. "They are both tropical nations and have tropical forests. There is a lot of similarity to some extent regarding species. It's not exactly the same, but structurally regarding the forest, it is similar. Then there are historical and cultural similarities as well. Both countries were colonized by the Portuguese. So we're both heavily influenced by this Portuguese culture, and in some places, we both speak the same language: Portuguese. Where I was, they spoke Creole, which is a mix of Portuguese and traditional African languages. So for me, it was very interesting to have this experience because it was like going back in time in Brazil (I was on preempt island - very far away and remote, 500km away from the coast, over 10,000 feet, very small city, 3000-4000 in the capital, San Antonio). It's one of the smallest capitals in the world."
"More than half of the island is a national park, and all of it was a biosphere reserve. It was a very well preserved area. There were only a few small villages and the main city. There are not many industries or roads, and unfortunately, it was also very poor; it lacked a lot of basic infrastructure: no running water or pipes and sewage in most of the houses. They were a very interesting society and friendly people as well; they relied on fishing and forest resources that they could gather. It was very different, but because it was a Portuguese colony, many Portuguese/native Brazilian farmers worked there growing cocoa and coffee. It was funny because I could identify a lot of fruit trees that had come from Brazil and were introduced to the island during colonial times, creating a mixed forest."
"The threats are on a much smaller scale like deforestation, unsustainable logging, unsustainable fishing, etc. Very different from Brazil, where the threats are much bigger. In the end, the work itself is very similar. You're monitoring biodiversity, trying to get local communities involved in Conservation, raising the importance of the environment, finding a way to promote sustainable income generation, pairing traditional knowledge with science to do conservation in a participatory way. I have some friends who followed my work for many years in Brazil, Africa, the UK, or wherever I go, and they joke that my work never really changes, and it's because I apply the same model. The recipe changes a little depending on where I am, but it's a good recipe. You can only achieve conservation if you're working on all those things at the same time."
"When I was in Africa, the government was very involved in conservation. Eco-tourism is pretty much the only source of income that they have, so the government was very committed to the environment. And because it was a much smaller country, it was easier to have access to politicians. When I was there, I even got to help write laws because they like laws with a lot of environmental legislation. I've never had that kind of access - you could see the president walking down the street in the afternoon because it was such a small city. If there was an issue, I could be with the head of the national park very quickly, with the minister, or even the president, if needed. The politics were way less complicated than it was in Brazil, where we have a lot of people and corruption and a lot of economic pressure from big corporations. In Brazil, the situation is very bad. There's a huge social divide. Roughly 10% of people have 90% of the richness. The other 90% of people have 10% of the richness. It's a very socially imbalanced country, and we have a lot of problems because of it. The government is not always favorable to the environment. There is currently a great threat in the history of Brazil to conservation because our current administration does not believe that the Amazon should be a priority and doesn't seem to care about the impacts of climate change or doesn't seem to rely on science or help the indigenous people with threats to Covid19."
Mr. Spina's recipe includes three fronts: monitoring, advocacy, and campaigning. "Monitoring can't be any monitoring; it has to be integrated participatory monitoring. We use satellite data to create the first level of intelligence and then use that intelligence to drive a few expeditions and patrols to check what is going on in the area. We also use photo technology, like drones and mobile phones, among the local communities used to document any impacts of forest fires or activities like illegal logging or illegal mining. You capture this data in a scientific way, but also in accordance with traditional knowledge, and view the case from all perspectives: social, indigenous, biodiversity, conservation, and legal. That's where it's very helpful to have advocacy support because the advocacy can gather this information through this integrated multi-level participatory monitoring and transform the data into documents that are then used to building legal actions, persecutions, or to support some Pro-conservation action to make cases for legislation or to pass a law. For this to happen, you need political support. That's where it's very important to have this work of campaigning and raising awareness for these matters. We have to create space, public opinion, and government pressure in those areas. This is how we try to protect whatever we have left of the forest, which is not too much, unfortunately."
"It's very important to use conservation technologies in our work," Spina reaffirms. "Those technologies make a lot of difference, but by itself, it's not going to solve all our problems. It needs to be accessible, cheap, something we can replicate, and more importantly, we need to empower traditional communities and the people living close to the area and rangers and protective managers, the people who are front-line conservationists. We need to empower them with the right technology that's user friendly, if possible is open-sourced and locally made, they can sustainably use and repair and adapt it to their needs throughout the time that they need it. "
So, what can we do to help in our everyday lives? "It's also very important to raise awareness of the state of our planet (it's very bad). Climate change is here, and it's getting worse every day. We have to raise awareness about the importance of biodiversity. Also, to act responsibly. Whether we know it or not, our actions are related to what goes on in the Amazon. So people as consumers also have a responsibility and should reflect more on their habits, what they consume, where their food and meat is coming from. Is it coming from a cattle farm in a burned part of the Amazon, for you to have a burger? Same thing with coats or jewelry. The soil, the sugarcane, everything, they're all coming from somewhere because we're all consumers, and we should pay attention. Small actions can have a big impact on conservation. We all need to put pressure on society and put pressure on our politics: not only Brazil, but everywhere in the world and be conscious about picking our leaders - people who believe in climate change, and in science, and who are committed to trying to do something to save this planet and save our society."