A colonist farmer hand-feeding a tamed white-crested guan (Penelope pileata) – a vulnerable species but commonly seen in the study area. Photo credit: Katarzyna Mikolajczak.

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Many working in nature conservation believe that people need to know nature in order to care about it. Therefore, many conservation outreach activities focus on raising awareness of threatened plants and animals, in the hope that this knowledge will make people want to protect their local biodiversity. Past studies have shown that raising awareness of environmental problems is rarely sufficient on its own to motivate people to start caring about them and to take actions to protect the environment. However, most of the studies on this topic come from a handful of highly industrialised nations in the Global North and we know very little about it in other parts of the world. Moreover, less is known about how the knowledge of biodiversity itself (rather than awareness of environmental problems) affects how people feel about nature.

Our study focused on non-indigenous farmers living along a major frontier in the Brazilian Amazon. In such deforestation frontiers, farmers’ decisions are critical for the survival of the forest and the species that live there, but their environmental motivations are rarely studied. We investigated how a form of the farmers’ ecological knowledge – the ability to recognise local bird species – related to their sense of attachment and caring about nature, known as nature connection. We found no relation between the farmers’ bird knowledge and nature connection. The majority of respondents felt strongly connected to nature, but recognised less than half of the sampled species. Larger and more common species that can be found throughout Brazil were easier to recognise, but most people struggled to identify those birds that only live in the Amazon forest. Thus, although nature appears to matter to most farmers, they seem to know little about the native forest species and so may struggle to conserve them effectively. Our results contrast with studies from the UK and the US that found a positive correlation between knowing and caring about nature. This variation in results suggests that the relationship between ecological knowledge and caring about nature is complex and context-specific and we shouldn’t assume that changing one would automatically change the other.