UH Manoa faculty members awarded $1.65M grant to study resource management by indigenous peoples

Study to look at impact of changing practices on natural ecosystems

University of Hawaiʻi
Jose Fragoso, (808) 956-4734
Department of Botany
Kirsten Silvius, (808) 956-3974
Environmental Center
Posted: Oct 25, 2005

HONOLULU — Two faculty members of the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa will be heading to Brazil to do fieldwork in the Amazon under a National Science Foundation grant that will support a collaboration between academics from three continents and an indigenous people's group. The $1.65 million grant was recently awarded to Josť Fragoso, a UH professor of Botany, and Kirsten Silvius, a researcher with UH Mānoa's Environmental Center.

The grant will fund research to study biodiversity dynamics on indigenous lands in the Brazilian Amazon. Fieldwork will begin in early 2006 and will focus on hunting practices by the Macuxi ethnic group in the state of Roraima, Brazil. The four-and-a-half year project involves several partner institutions, including Syracuse University and the State University of New York in Syracuse, New York, Pitzer College in California, the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, the CNRS in France, and the Indigenous Council of Roraima. Fragoso and Silvius have worked with wildlife ecology and conservation issues in South and Central America since the 1980s, and began similar work in Hawaiʻi last year.

"We know that indigenous and other local peoples have many ways of managing their resources," Silvius explained. "These "systems" are not always formalized in the way modern-day wildlife managers or conservation biologists formalize them. Rather, they are expressed in the beliefs, practices and social structures of the societies itself. For example, in many Amazonian societies, shamans and other spiritual leaders make decisions about how many animals should be killed during a hunt, and when the hunt should take place. This is an effective form of hunting management."

"Why institute a completely new management system when you can adapt a traditional system that fits in beautifully with the local culture and is also congruent with western scientific forms of management?" added Fragoso. "There are many examples of such functioning practices in Hawai‘i itself, from the ahupuaʻa system to traditional fishing seasons. By showing that those indigenous societies that retain their own cosmology and practices are better at managing resources than those that have undergone a chaotic and destructive integration process, we hope to convince more conservation biologists everywhere, including the Pacific region, that it is not always necessary to exclude humans in order to achieve conservation, and that it is a good strategy to integrate traditional resource use practices into conservation plans."

Indigenous peoples control 44 percent of government-held land area in the Amazon basin and 21 percent of land in the Brazilian Amazon. These lands support a high proportion of the world's biodiversity. There is strong evidence, however, that once indigenous peoples in the Amazon become sedentary and integrate themselves into the non-indigenous national socio-economic system, they exert unsustainable pressure on natural resources. Such over-exploitation appears to be a result of a complex interaction between indigenous practices, a growing population, adoption of new technologies, and direct and indirect influences from the surrounding non-indigenous group. The project will collect anthropological, biological, geographical and ecological data, and will use mathematical models to better understand these complex interactions.

The project will be based in the 4.2 million-acre Raposa-Serra do Sol Indigenous area in the northern Brazilian Amazon. The area, whose name translates as "Fox-Mountains of the Sun," includes dry savannas, dry forests, rainforests and a portion of the table-top mountain or tepui known as Mount Roraima. Conservation International classifies it as one of the last wilderness areas in the world, and one of the least studied.

Fragoso and Silvius, a husband-and-wife research team, came to UH Mānoa from the State University of New York in August 2004 in response to the recruiting efforts of Dr. David Duffy of the Pacific Studies Cooperative Unit (PCSU), of which Fragoso is now Deputy Director. They were attracted to UH and the Pacific region by the opportunity to study the ecology of invasive vertebrate species in a tropical ecosystem and by the strong respect for native Hawaiian culture expressed by biologists working in the Botany Department and elsewhere at UH.