Biodiversity Dynamics and Land-Use Changes in the Amazon: Multi-Scale Interactions Between Ecological Systems and Resource-Use Decisions by Indigenous Peoples

Debate surrounding resource use and conservation by indigenous peoples has shifted away from tests of the "noble savage" hypothesis of the 1970s and 1980s towards analysis of the multiple social, economic, and biological factors that affect the sustainability of resource use. Hunting practices in particular among many indigenous groups are probably strongly regulated by internal controls, based on a combination of spiritual beliefs (cosmology), social rituals, and natural history knowledge. Despite the evidence for the key role of cosmology in regulating resource use, most work on game overexploitation and the abandonment of traditional hunting practices by indigenous peoples, particularly in the Neotropics of Central America and northern South America, has focused on the effects of market integration and ignored spiritual and other cultural practices.

This research project will test the fundamental hypothesis that retention of traditional practices and cosmology by indigenous societies buffers them against the process of integration into the national society, thereby preventing biodiversity and ecosystem degradation by the indigenous societies themselves. This hypothesis will be evaluated by quantifying resource-use practices and biodiversity status among communities of one ethnic group that differ in their degree of retention of traditional cosmology and practices.

The project will be based in the 1.7 million-hectare Raposa Indigenous Area in the northern Brazilian Amazon. The dynamics of hunting by the Macuxi people of this region offer an excellent system for bridging theory and practice in the study of complexity. Hunting practices and degree of integration to Brazilian society vary among 206 villages distributed across the heterogeneous landscape in Raposa. A mechanistic model of animal population dynamics and human hunting practices will be developed and tested using quantitative and qualitative approaches. Socioeconomic data, wildlife data, and remotely sensed data will be collected, integrated, and analyzed within a geographic information system. In addition to a better understanding of human-biodiversity linkages in indigenous areas, outcomes of this project will include (1) educational materials for the Macuxi and the institutions that work with them, (2) a distance-linked graduate seminar in which students collaborate across departments, campuses and disciplines, (3) broadening of the participation of women and minority students in science, and (4) enhancement of the infrastructure for science by linking institutions with different areas of specialty into a teaching and research network that will benefit students who would normally have access only to their own institution.

This project will contribute to the development of effective development policies and biodiversity conservation and will help provide theoretical background for coupled human-natural systems in the subsistence or semi-subsistence societies that characterize much of tropics. Research results will be relevant to discussions on the role of overkill by low technology hunters in Pleistocene extinctions and the synergistic effects of environmental conditions and forms of social organization and decision making on the intensity of natural resource depletion.

The results will be particularly germane for the ongoing debate on the role of "people in parks" and on the contribution that indigenous peoples will make to biodiversity conservation worldwide. The geographical location of this study is significant unto itself. Roraima covers a large portion of the unstudied and largely unmanaged high diversity Guiana Shield forest-savanna transition. The area, which grades from dry savannas through mesic and wet forests to montane cloud forest and tepui habitats, represents one of the last wilderness areas on Earth. For this key ecological area, the future of biodiversity lies in the hands of indigenous peoples. This study will provide key insights regarding how the internal cultural dynamics of indigenous societies influence and are influenced by biodiversity patterns and ecosystem function, with implications for human-environment interactions in Raposa and elsewhere where indigenous peoples retain an important presence. This project is supported by an award resulting from the FY 2005 special competition in Biocomplexity in the Environment focusing on the Dynamics of Coupled Natural and Human Systems.

Lead Investigator: 
mechanistic hunting, GIS
Raposa Indigenous Area, Brazil
Temporal Scope: 
Spatial Scope: 
Natural System: 
tropical game abundance
Human System: 
indigenous hunting, cosmology, integration