Miguel is a passionate conservationist based in Brazil who has been entirely dedicated to wildlife conservation in tropical forests. After graduating in Rio de Janeiro he moved to a small town deep in the Amazon to start working at Mamirauá Institute, a social organization that develops research and conservation projects together with the local communities. He's had experience working with camera-traps, but over the past years has done research on human-wildlife conflict involving jaguars and traditional communities in the Amazon.
Learn more about Miguel Monteiro
July 28, 2021
I Know That I Know Nothing: Reflections on Hunting and Conservation in the Amazon
The forest was pitch black, its darkness amplified by the night. All I could see was a dense rainforest lit by a flickering flashlight held in one hand by Foca, an Indigenous man from a local community, while he paddled the canoe with the other hand. It was June and the water level was at its highest, so the whole forest was flooded and canoes were the only means of transportation. The rainforest was eerie and filled with unfamiliar sounds. Prickly plants scraped against my skin inadvertently. The atmosphere was tense, for I knew what was about to happen. Foca was trying to hunt caiman to be eaten at the next day’s festivities, and I had asked if I could come along to watch. The canoe could barely fit both of us and water kept coming in over the sides with the slightest movement. Suddenly, he set his flashlight on two glimmering spots on the water’s surface—the eyes of an unsuspecting caiman. Foca paddled softly, gliding across the water to get closer to his target. Then, he gently put away the paddle and grabbed a large harpoon with his eyes and flashlight still fixed on the caiman, which didn’t move. In a split second, he hurled the harpoon towards the caiman and water splashed in all directions. A hit. He tugged the struggling caiman back to the canoe with a rope that was attached to the harpoon and finished it off with a wooden club. Lunch was guaranteed the next day.
Growing up in the city and learning about all the impacts and threats that humans pose to wildlife, we sometimes lose touch with the reality of the people that actually live in the places we want to protect. For instance, before coming to the Amazon I had many preconceived ideas about hunting, thinking that all hunting was negative and should be prohibited. However, spending time with people from local Indigenous and riverine communities quickly opened my eyes and made me realize how little I knew about their reality and livelihoods. Hunting has been an important part of their lives and culture for millenia and is a means of subsistence that can be carried out in a sustainable way. There are many different types of hunting, including for sport, commercial gain, and subsistence. Treating these activities as the same, under the umbrella of “hunting”, not only does not correspond to the reality of these activities, but also hinders conservation by not taking into account the distinct differences in impacts and motives of each. Conservation measures often impose Western values on local communities, reminiscent of a colonialist mindset (which can further harm already vulnerable populations.) For example, any attempt to arbitrarily prohibit subsistence hunting fails to consider the social and cultural significance of this traditional activity and its importance for local communities’ food security. Something I realized while working closely with traditional communities is their stewardship over their respective land, actively protecting and conserving the natural habitats around them. Previously, I held the firm belief that designated conservation areas should be uninhabited—even by local Indigenous communities. However, evicting Indigenous people from their ancestral lands in the name of conservation is unjust (and in many cases will create even more problems, such as land conflicts). A more productive and ethical approach is to work together with these communities, fostering a trusting relationship that enables the combination of traditional and Indigenous knowledge with scientific research, in order to effectively protect biodiversity.
Every day I spent with these traditional communities taught me something new and radically changed the way I think—eventually leading me to realize that I knew nothing. Essentially, one of the fundamental lessons I learned is: conservation cannot be done without involving people. Biodiversity cannot be protected at the expense of those living alongside it. The fate of Indigenous and traditional communities is intertwined with that of natural environments, so safeguarding their way of life is a crucial step towards protecting our planet.