For Hugo Costa, deep in the Amazon, the seasons of the Juruá River can define the food you eat, the journeys you travel, and the people you meet. For Yolarnie Amepou, looking over a vast river delta in Papua New Guinea, ten different cultures have been shaped by the same river which runs 400 kilometres from the highlands down into the sea. For Siziwe Mota, Africa’s rivers are a source of survival, relied upon for food, jobs, spiritual practices, climate, and biodiversity.
On 17 May, Synchronicity Earth held a conversation between these three freshwater conservationists about the importance of their rivers, the challenges they face in safeguarding them, and the opportunities there are to protect them.
“Rivers signify connectivity. No matter the distance, what happens at the top of the river impacts the bottom. Any blockage in the middle impacts this connection. No matter the diversity across the basin, the river represents connectivity and interdependence.”
These connections are at the heart of understanding how to preserve freshwater biodiversity. Despite our three speakers representing three different continents, they each spoke to how their waters impacted every aspect of life and culture, and as a result, how intersectional their approaches to preserving their rivers must be.
The average abundance of 6,617 freshwater populations across the globe, representing 1,398 species, declined by 83 per cent from 1970 to 2018. Source: WWF/ZSL (Living Planet Report 2022).
“There’s not much freshwater on Earth… only about 2.5 per cent of all the water on Earth is freshwater, and it covers less than one per cent of our planet’s surface. But despite that… around 10 per cent of known species rely on freshwater habitats for survival.”
As the geographic and cultural connection across land, across borders, the importance of freshwater habitats from rivers and lakes to swamps and springs far outstrips their size.
The challenges facing freshwater
However, Ian summarised the status of freshwater biodiversity in three statistics:
A third of wetlands have declined from 1970 to 2015.
Freshwater vertebrates have declined by an average of 83 per cent.
20 per cent of freshwater species are threatened by extinction.
“This obviously isn’t very encouraging,” said Ian. “We are facing a biodiversity crisis. But I think that certainly doesn’t mean that we should give up hope. In fact, I would say quite the reverse, we have some very strong opportunities for ensuring that freshwater ecosystems are better included.”
And who better to ask about how to protect freshwater ecosystems than the people living alongside them? As Hugo said,
“Nobody will better protect Amazonia than the people who live there.”
Hugo Costa works in the Juruá River basin, one of the longest tributaries of the Amazon which has many ox-bow lakes.
Hugo is the finance director and scientific research coordinator at Instituto Juruá, Brazil. He has been working for the past 13 years in the Juruá River basin, where he coordinates the development of research supporting the effective and equitable management of natural resources by communities.
“In the Juruá, as in the entire Amazon Basin, the greatest challenge is the fight against illegal activities- fishing, mining, logging,” says Hugo. “These are now widespread thanks to the last government of Brazil, as are land grabs from people driving these activities, who are taking land from Indigenous Peoples and other traditional communities who have lived in the Amazon for centuries.
“There has also been historical governmental support for environmentally damaging developments such as dams and roads. These decisions are the result of top-down decision-making where local people are often neglected even though they are the ones living with the consequences.”
Just as in the Amazon, the growing interest in hydropower as a ‘green solution’ is driving dam developments in Africa as well.
Siziwe Mota is the Africa programme director at International Rivers, who has worked on environmental, social justice, and human rights issues, particularly supporting communities impacted by extractive industries and engaging with policymakers on energy justice.
“It is vital that rivers remain free-flowing, undisturbed and uninterrupted from their source to their mouth, without being hemmed in by dams and dykes or other disruptions.”
The race for hydropower
There is huge pressure to retain and expand hydropower as the main source of electricity in much of Africa; the electricity grids of Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ethiopia, Lesotho, Mozambique, Sierra Leone, Uganda, and Zambia, all generate at least 80 per cent of their power through hydroelectric sources.
Even the remote wilds of Papua New Guinea where Yolarnie lives, are being affected by the race for hydropower. Yolarnie is the director at Piku Biodiversity Network. She works with communities along the Kikori River and across Papua New Guinea to conserve and protect freshwater biodiversity.
Yolarnie works in the basin of the Kikori, a major river in southern Papua New Guinea which flows 445 km southeast into the Gulf of Papua.
“The Kikori River basin is very diverse with both cultures and biodiversity- which is why it is being considered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is one of the last places in the world for the Critically Endangered sawfish, for the pig-nosed turtle (the last existing species of a once globally widespread turtle family) and a large fish now so rare that their organs are being bought in villages from local fishermen for USD 2,500 per 100 grams for an elite East Asian market.”
“Part of the reason our biodiversity has been kept intact for so long is how isolated we are, and how difficult it is to access where we are. But now we are facing great threats of biodiversity loss as roads and bridges are being built, bringing with them the threat of damming up our precious river.”
“Newly proposed dams in the Kikori and the neighbouring Purari River will provide enough energy to electrify Queensland, one of Australia’s largest states. But electrifying another country’s largest state will disconnect the river and change river life as we know it.”
Rivers as the connection between cultures
The Kikori River draws together people from ten different tribes, representing a wealth of different languages and cultures all within the same river basin.
Why would damming a river have a big impact on local communities?
“The rivers signify connectivity,” said Yolarnie. “I work along a river delta with over ten tribes and villages – that is ten different languages, ten different cultures, each shaped by the same river.
“But no matter how diverse we are, what happens at the top of the river impacts the bottom, any blockage in the middle of the river [is] a disconnection. Although different diversity exists, the river demonstrates connectivity and interdependence.”
Rivers shape the lives within communities. Hugo said “The rivers determine the food you eat during the year. In Amazonia we have the Açaí palm fruit season during high water season, and during the low water season, we have many other different types of food.
“We say that the river commands life. The river determines the distances you travel, and the people you meet. It could make the difference between you meeting the love of your life in one season, or not meeting them in another.”
Developments such as dams, roads, and bridges, which disrupt, block, or pollute these rivers have huge consequences for the communities and ecosystems that rely on them.
90 per cent of people live within 10km of a freshwater ecosystem and 90 per cent of fisheries in inland waters supply food for human consumption, a yield of over 10 million tonnes of fish and crustaceans. A dam which blocks fish migration routes, buries fish spawning grounds in sediment, or floods shallow nursing habitats, could have a catastrophic impact on fish populations, crashing local ecosystem function and leaving thousands of people without a reliable food source.
But despite the number of challenges, our panellists were far from giving up hope. Each of the organisations represented have established community-led solutions to bending the curve on biodiversity loss witnessed in our precious inland waters.
For Hugo in Amazonia, this has taken the shape of fishing agreements as a conflict resolution tool where communities have agreed to divide the fishing grounds of the Juruá River into three categories: open access (including commercial fishing), subsistence (for communities to eat), and conservation (no fishing). This has caused fish populations to rebound spectacularly, and had significant impact on local gender equality. Instituto Juruá’s operations have enabled local women to work in fisheries.
For Siziwe, working across countries in Africa, one of International Rivers’ successful approaches has been ‘biocultural community protocols’ which enable communities to assert their rights.
“What the protocol does is it sets guidelines,” said Siziwe. “These are developed by the community itself, based on their culture, and sets standards which ensure that anybody entering their territory has a guide on how to respect the natural resources that they value.”
The Endangered pig-nosed turtle has a pig-shaped nose and flippers, resembling those of marine turtles, which give it a striking appearance compared to other freshwater turtles. Image: Piku Biodiversity Network
For Yolarnie, Papua New Guinea’s laws are in favour of bottom-up approaches to conservation because customary land tenure is recognised by the country’s constitution.
“Our country is only 48 years old, and I think being a young country, we have learned a lot from the lessons of the world, and I hope we can continue learning.
“80 per cent of Papua New Guinea’s land is held in customary ownership, governed on the ground by traditional systems, some of which are tens of thousands years older than our young country. For most land actions, commercial or otherwise, it is necessary to get free, prior, and informed consent from local communities, and approval from the traditional landholders.”
So, when the Piku Biodiversity Network engages with local communities about environmental issues, these lessons are directly adopted into the decisions being made about land use.
The future of freshwater
International Rivers has been supporting the Himba communities protesting dam development on the Kunene River. Image: Patrik M Loeff (Creative Commons)
To close the event, the final question was: if you knew that you could raise all the funding that you needed, what would you choose to prioritise over the next five years?
For Siziwe, the rights of rivers would come first. The ‘rights of rivers’ movement or ‘earth jurisprudence’ refers to the swelling support for legally recognising and implementing the inherent rights of rivers, such as rights to exist, flourish and regenerate.
“It is critical to create a legal framework that ensures that rivers do not continue to be exploited, polluted, and dammed. Communities should be able to take responsibility and act as guardians of their rivers, with legal protection.”
“There are many more, but the other critical issue would be to train people and help platform their voices so that they can resist dam projects that would impact local communities, Indigenous Peoples, and biodiversity.”
Yolarnie’s dream would be to focus on environmental education by establishing a centre for communities to come together, share experiences and appreciation of the environment, and exchange knowledge about the importance of their freshwater ecosystem.
Meanwhile, Hugo’s concerns lie in the future of the carbon market, or ‘bioeconomy’. As interest in carbon offsets grows, he wants to guarantee that these opportunities are supported by scientific evidence and grounded in social justice.
These are examples of where there is a real opportunity for long-lasting change for freshwater, reversing the global declines, and ensuring a flourishing future for freshwater. Ian mentioned the various successes at the policy level; most recently, In the United Nations biodiversity agreement, freshwater ecosystems were finally included as ‘inland waters’ in the commitment to safeguard and restore at least 30 per cent of the world’s lands, inland waters, coastal areas and oceans by 2030.
But it is the leaders, communities, and organisations on the ground that know their inland waters best, and Synchronicity Earth aims to support them in every way we can through our Freshwater Programme.