For our cross-journal Virtual Issue on Recognising and supporting Brazilian Ecological Science in uncertain times we talk to Richard Ladle, one of our Associate Editors based at the ICBS, Federal University of Alagoas in Brazil about people and nature research and the challenges facing researchers in Brazil.

Research in People and Nature explores relationships between humans and nature. What are the main areas of research in Brazil surrounding this? And how can this research help with news ways of understanding human-nature relationships?

Brazil is incredibly culturally diverse, encompassing everything from a large technologically sophisticated urban population in the South to numerous indigenous tribes following traditional lifestyles in the forested north. Most of the Brazilian population is clustered along the enormous Atlantic coastline, and there is still a high level of dependence on natural resource extraction, especially in poorer regions in the northeast of the country.

This rich socio-ecological tapestry combined with Brazil’s vast area provides diverse opportunities for studying human-nature interactions, especially those related to sustainable use of natural resources. A fantastic recent example of this is the work of Carlos Peres and João Vitor Campos-Silva among the traditional fishing communities in the Amazon basin.  Taking advantage of the large number of communities and numerous protected areas, Peres and Campos-Silva were able to test the ecological and social impacts of introducing bottom-up participatory governance of fishing for the giant arapaima, the largest freshwater fish in the world. They have shown that compared to communities outside the governance programme, participating communities catch more, bigger fish. Moreover, the populations of many other species in these areas are increasing and, perhaps unsurprisingly, local people are far less likely to want to leave for the big city. A win-win situation for conservation that has been replicated many times over thousands of kilometres of river. 

Tell us about the research featured in this Virtual Issue

Intention of preserving forest remnants among landowners in the Atlantic Forest: The role of the ecological context via ecosystem services

Private landowners are one of the most important actors in tropical conservation, yet as a group little is known of their environmental attitudes and motivations. The conceptual starting point of this paper is that the intentions of such landowners with respect to preserving forest remnants on their land should be tightly linked the ecological context in which they live. Using Reasoned Action theory, the paper shows that landowners living in more forested ecological contexts have more contact with forests, receive ecosystem services more frequently and, ultimately, have stronger motivations and intentions of preserving forest fragments. A kind of positive feedback loop whereby the presence of forest and associated ecosystem services promotes greater positive sentiment towards preserving this forest. Conversely, deforestation destroys both biodiversity and the motivation to preserve through weakening human-nature connections.

A culturomics approach to quantifying the salience of species on the global internet

People’s interest in non-human species ought to be reflected in what they put on the internet. However, estimating the representation of different species on the global internet is confounded by the huge variation in what they are called in different languages (or even in the same language). This study overcomes this barrier by quantifying the frequency of webpages that mention the scientific names of a species – which recent studies demonstrate are strongly correlated with common name use. Using all living bird species as a case study, the paper shows that species that are highly represented on the global internet have been known to science for longer, have populations that overlap with technologically advanced societies, are conspicuous, and directly interact with humans (e.g. through hunting). These results strongly suggest that the relative frequency of a species’ scientific name use on the internet is a good general measure of its prominence in global culture. Such a measure has a wide variety of potential uses in conservation monitoring, communication and fundraising.

What challenges are faced by those carrying out research in Brazil?

Brazil is a wonderful place to work – the people are famously friendly, the weather is great and the wildlife spectacular. Of course, there is a price to working in ‘paradise’. In addition to the universal challenges of generating resources for research, the battle to publish in good journals and balancing administration, teaching and research, researchers in Brazil also face some very specific challenges. For example, the public education system is underfunded with many universities struggling to pay their bills (my university was recently on the verge of having its electricity cut off). Primary and secondary education is very variable, leading to many students entering university without good basic skills. University positions are all decided through a public examination system, leading to very little movement of staff between universities and low levels of foreign-born academics among university research staff. Also, the one-size-fits-all model for academic staff means that ‘research professors’ don’t exist – everyone from top to bottom has to teach a minimum quota of classes. That Brazil is able to produce so much high-quality research under these bureaucratic constraints is testament to remarkable resilience and motivation of their academics – though both are being sorely tested by the current round of cuts in research funding!   

Tell us about your research.

Alongside Dr Ana Malhado, I’m the coordinator of the LACOS21 (the 21st Century Conservation Lab) at the Federal University of Alagoas in northeast Brazil. We focus on investigating innovative and interdisciplinary solutions to resolving conservation challenges, especially those based on the adoption of new technologies. We have a special focus on the valuation of protected areas, and have been exploring new frameworks and tools for revealing the multiple ways that conservation units can contribute to society. Much of our recent focus has been on the potential of analysis of digital data (e.g. social media sites, blogs, wikis, etc.) to evaluate the cultural value of protected areas at scale – part of a broader research agenda that we have termed ‘Conservation Culturomics’.

Find out more about Ecology in Brazil in our Virtual Issue: Recognising and supporting Brazilian Ecological Science in uncertain times.