The large pirarucu (Brazil) or paiche (Peru) is one of the largest freshwater fish in the world and a prized food fish. It is also one of the main predators in floodplain lakes where the species has not been overexploited.

Working Group:
Western Amazonia

Our focus: How to balance conservation and management of the Amazon’s wetlands and fisheries with large-scale infrastructure development there (such as hydroelectric dams, roads and hydrocarbon exploitation) to improve economies and living conditions for the region’s rural and urban populations.

Photo: Michael Goulding | More Info
The giant Amazon water lily has leaves grow to a diameter of 6 metres. A mature leaf can support the weight of a year-old child. The underside of the leaf bears sharp spikes to ward off leaf-eating fish. One plant can produce 40 to 50 huge leaves in each growth cycle.
Photo: Schristia


Western Amazonia: Balancing Infrastructure Development among Conservation of Waters, Wetlands and Fisheries

The Amazon Basin is the largest river system in the world. The Western Amazon contains the largest areas of river and stream channels, flooded forests and floodplain lakes in the basin. The river is a major source of drinking water for millions of people — and its vast wetlands provide local populations with essential protein as well as employment in subsistence and commercial fisheries. How might conservation of of these waters, wetlands and fisheries be balanced with the large-scale infrastructure development already underway in the region — from roads for expanding agricultural frontiers to planned Andean hydroelectric dams needed to support the energy needs of growing urban populations?

The SNAP Western Amazon Working Group promotes integrated river basin management through informed planning that is supported by scientific data and analyses communicated effectively to local stakeholders and decision-makers. This effort will lead to a transnational framework that will serve to help scale-up conservation initiatives to a perspective that makes ecological sense when dealing with long distance migratory fishes and management of waters and wetlands across geopolitical borders of the Amazon Basin.

Our work is complemented by forward-thinking and cooperative strategies, such as WCS’s Amazon Waters Initiative and The Nature Conservancy’s Great Rivers Partnership and Global Freshwater Program. These efforts will help stakeholders better understand the sustainable use of aquatic resources and the upstream and downstream impacts on waters, wetlands and sub-basins and their wildlife from infrastructure development — and how those impacts might be more adequately abated and mitigated in the western Amazon. Understand the Challenge

Fishermen fishing for migratory catfish in the Amazon River channel.
Photo: Michael Goulding

The Challenge

Integrated River Basin Management: Key to a Balanced Conservation and Development Strategy

Large-scale infrastructure development, especially highways and roads and associated agricultural frontiers, are rapidly moving down the Andean river valleys, the very headwaters of the Amazon Basin. The western Amazon is also rich in hydrocarbons and large areas are already under exploitation or have been slated for new wells and pipelines.

Wetlands and the fisheries associated with them will increasingly be impacted by changes in the hydrological cycle caused by dam projects, by upland and floodplain deforestation associated with land conversion to farming and ranching, and all possibly exacerbated by climate change. Together, these threats could jeopardize the diversity and productivity of wetlands and the livelihoods of the rural and urban people who depend on them.

The vast size of the Amazon Basin, the interlocking relationships among uplands and wetlands, and the flow of water through wetlands from the Andes to the Atlantic strongly suggest that, to be effective, conservation actions must be informed by scientific analysis and synthesis of information at large enough scales as to be capable of capturing these ecological complexities. One of the principal telltales of the complex processes involved and their far-flung scale is fish migrations, where hydrological cycles, water quality and quantity and regional weather patterns influence the reproductive success of these valuable species.

And the rapid expansion of energy infrastructure and urbanization in the Amazon, coupled with a possible greater frequency of extreme hydrological events, means that integrated river basin management has become critical to inform a balanced conservation and development strategy.

Read About the Inquiry

Aerial view of the Amazon Rainforest, near Manaus, the capital of the Brazilian state of Amazonas.

The Inquiry

Western Amazonia: Activities & Products of the Working Group

Critical Goals

  1. The Working Group will analyze available data on waters, wetlands and fisheries in relation to present and expected wetland resource use, infrastructure development, and possible climate change.
  2. The analyses will be used to construct science-based syntheses at an unprecedented spatial scale that captures the complexity and interconnectivity of Amazonian wetlands and their critically important migratory and non-migratory fishes.
  3. These syntheses will be used to develop different scenarios of integrated river basin management.
  4. The Working Group will use the analyses to develop scenarios on how predicted changes to wetlands and fisheries could impact urban and rural populations in the western Amazon.
  5. The Working Group will then bring together government personnel, project investors, scientists, NGOs, and local associations concerned with aquatic resources to examine and fine-tune the recommendations and potential tradeoffs associated with each proposed integrated river basin management scenario.

Critical Questions and Activities

  1. Where are the highest conservation value areas (HCVA) for migratory fish? Using a series of GIS analyses, we will map and quantify the spawning, nursery and feeding wetlands most important to commercial migratory species and some of the non-migratory species valued locally. The analyses will be presented in relation to sub-basins, political units and protected areas to build a geographically dynamic view of the distribution of HCVAs. We will suggest realistic, space-based frameworks for the management of the wetlands and fisheries.
  2. What environmental changes can be expected to impact migratory fish populations? We will focus mainly on the potential impacts of planned dams, artificial waterways (hidrovias), hydrocarbon exploitation and deforestation associated with roads and agricultural expansion in the Andes-Amazon headwater basins and the western lowlands. Analyses will include potential downstream impacts on river flow, sediments and nutrients and, in turn, their potential impacts on wetlands and migratory and non-migratory fishes of subsistence and commercial importance.
  3. How will climate change and/or local weather changes affect the seasonal flood and drought cycle of the Amazon? Using existing South American climate models with specific Amazonian data and/or assumptions along with historical meteorological data, we will be able to better understand and perhaps predict expected flood and low water extremes that could impact wetlands, fisheries and rural and urban settlements.
  4. How will people be impacted by changes to wetlands and fisheries? Using existing data and expert opinions, we will assess the potential impacts of the scenarios outlined above on the lives of the Amazon people. Indicators will include demographics, food consumption and protein, income, employment and cultural values related to wetlands and fisheries in various sub-basins and political units.
  5. Based on the analyses from Questions 1-4, what are the key policy and management recommendations? Policy and management recommendations will be developed incrementally as our analyses unfold. These recommendations will be improved with the review and feedback from various critical stakeholders as the project progresses.

Anticipated Results

We will present management recommendations to critical stakeholders on urgent steps needed to manage major Amazonian wetlands and fisheries at realistic ecological scales.

These recommendations will include frameworks for how to incorporate wetlands and fisheries into environmental impact assessments, environmental mitigation and environmental offsets for infrastructure projects that will impact aquatic ecosystems in the western Amazon.

We will build websites and conduct workshops in appropriate languages in Brazil, Peru and the United States to highlight our recommendations. We will also conduct numerous smaller regional meetings.

We also intend to share information in Portuguese, Spanish and English through popular publications aimed at general local audiences, scientific publications, posters and pamphlets.

Meet the Team

Photo: Neil Palmer (CIAT) | More Info

The Team

The Western Amazonia Team