Brian Griffiths

Director of Research

Brian Griffiths is passionate about sustainable natural resource management and wildlife economies in the Peruvian Amazon. He is a human ecologist that also engages with anthropology, ecology, and conservation biology, and prioritizes community-driven work. His recent projects include the ecology of natural Amazonian mineral licks and the influence of cultural practices on hunter behavior, each conducted in collaboration with the Indigenous Maijuna people of Peru. Brian has done consulting work with the Smithsonian and United Nations, among others, on topics ranging from environmental education to wildlife economics. Brian helps direct the Amazon Center for Environmental Education and Research (ACEER, Director of Research) and OnePlanet (Director of Conservation Science). He holds a Ph.D. in Environmental Science and Public Policy (George Mason University) and bachelor’s degrees in Plant Science and Environmental Engineering (University of Delaware), and is a faculty member in the Earth Commons at Georgetown University where he teaches courses in sustainability. Before coming to Georgetown, Brian was a Postdoctoral Fellow at George Mason University, the Executive Director of ACEER, and a Fulbright grantee.

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August 23, 2021



A splintering crack and a proceeding boom echo through the rainforest, momentarily overwhelming even the orchestra of insects and frogs. An enormous, rotund machi mangua tree now lies on its side by a riverbend, felled by a proud Maijuna father; he stands alongside his prize. This elder is not after timber for sale. Rather, his family has outgrown their decade-old canoe which transports crops from the fields to home—this behemoth of a tree will furnish several new ones. With the help of his sons, the craftsman carefully sections and partitions the tree. He then pushes a sizable log down the riverbank into the rapidly flowing water; it will be floated back to his house in the community of Sucusari. Dawn the next day is accompanied by low, repetitive scraping and intermittent thwacks that send wood chips flying into the air. One son hefts an ax, slowly chipping away at the interior of the log, while another wields a hand planer on the exterior; they work under the expert eye of their father. After the sun has passed its peak, the men step back from their tools for a drink of masato, disappearing into their homes for the afternoon. The idle boat has begun to take shape, but it’s much too narrow to fit even one paddler.

Smoke fills the air in the early hours of the next morning. With even the monkeys still at rest, the sons are back at work. Their newly-formed, virgin canoe is suspended over an inferno of palm leaves, already covered in a fine layer of ash and char that will soften its wood. The flames lick at the canoe while the sons carefully watch for any streams of smoke coming through the canoe; they plug each of these holes with clay from the river. Their father monitors the canoe’s progress; he smacks its length with a hardwood pole. He can feel how soft the wood is by how bouncy it feels. The edges of the craft need to be soft and pliable, its arching spine hard but not overly brittle. 

With word from their father, the sons begin allowing the fire to die. The critical moment has come—now the clock is ticking. Each son takes hold of a massive tree section with a Y on the end and slots them over opposing edges of the smoldering canoe. Their father steps up with short, sharpened poles and quickly nods to his pupils. A delay here would be costly;  they’d have to reheat the canoe. An error? A leaking, worthless product. With another nod from the father, the brothers pull steadily down on the trees as the wood of the canoe starts to bend outwards several inches. One of the smaller poles is rammed into the craft’s cavity to keep the wood from rebounding, while the tree levers are moved down a few feet. With sweat dripping from their brows and their sandals slowly melting, the sons repeat this process for four hours until the canoe is the proper size. The family retires as the sun sets on day three, allowing the canoe to cool and harden. 

Work proceeds rapidly the next day with the finish line in sight. The entire craft is sanded smooth and cracks are filled with a plant-based tar that’s bubbling on a nearby fire. By lunch time, the canoe is fitted with seats and ready to be pushed to the water’s edge; it was floated down from the forest only four days before. The piece is a work of art, a clear demonstration of the elder craftsman’s knowledge and expertise. He’s given his entire family the mobility to access their fields and crops, while also handing down generational knowledge that his sons will pass on. He smiles as his granddaughter leaps into her new ride with her paddle, then turns and takes his own from where it leans against the house. Four days well spent.


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