Rooted in the Amazon

How a massive, big-picture approach to conserving Brazil's Amazon helped define a new way to save nature

A small river otter sits in the palm of Juarez Sena Feitosa’s big hand.

He’s just sculpted it out of a thick branch he found on the forest floor behind his home. He used a small knife and hacksaw, as well as his homemade table saw and sander, to cut off a piece of the branch, create the curves of the otter’s back and tail, smooth out the edges of its belly, and carve two tiny holes for eyes. He’ll use a similar process at his makeshift, riverside workshop to create tapirs, jaguars, and jabiru storks to sell at the gift shop in the park headquarters located just a half hour upstream.

He is grateful for the income from the sale of his artwork. But, more so, he appreciates the opportunity to use his creations to open people’s eyes to the magnificent wildlife that runs, swings, or swims through the eastern Brazilian Amazon park—Cantão State Park—in his backyard.

Through his art, Juarez is essentially an ambassador for the park. That’s a twist to his life that neither he nor his friends and family would’ve expected when the now 60-year-old was in his 20s, 30s, and 40s. That’s when he worked as a logger and fisherman in the Amazon—including much of the area that was later designated as Cantão.

During the 12 years that he was a logger, he worked with a crew that cut down “a lot” of trees: nearly three acres of forest a day. In his 16-year fishing career, he says he caught an average of 50 pounds a day. He wasn’t doing anything illegal at the time. Yet he certainly wasn’t operating in a way that we would now call sustainable. He wasn’t extracting those resources from nature in an environmentally friendly way.

But in the early 2000s, Juarez put down his chain saw and fishing gear. He had started noticing that there were far fewer fish in the rivers than when he was a child—and that some sections of the rivers were being choked. Where logging had cleared trees and their anchoring roots, soil from the forest floor was eroding into the waterways.

Cantão State Park was created at around the same time, and Juarez got a job as a park ranger—a job he was qualified for in large part due to his deep knowledge of how to get around the 222,400-acre, practically roadless park. Not only is it a massive area, but it’s essentially two parks in one. From November to June, it’s a relatively solid block of forests and lakes bordered by the Araguaia and Javaés rivers, which are fed by the heavy rains. The rest of the year, there’s essentially no rain. None. The water levels in the rivers drop nearly 30 feet, exposing large stretches of forest that can’t even be seen in the rainy season.

Through his ranger work, Juarez became a die-hard conservationist. He can imitate the sounds of jaguars and black caimans, two of the most iconic species in the park. He can smell otter dens that are more than 500 feet away. He can spot a dark tapir coming out of a dark forest, or a tan turtle inching across tan sand, long before anyone else can.

After serving almost a decade in Cantão, Juarez took on new work as a research assistant for biologists at Instituto Araguaia, a nonprofit entity based in the park. The organization studies otters and several other species and is a strong and consistent voice for conserving the natural resources in the park. Juarez is such a determined advocate for nature that WWF-Brazil nominated him to represent the environmental community by running with the 2016 Olympic torch when the Olympic relay passed through his state.

“I’ve lost a lot of friends over this,” he admits, mainly referring to men in his town who still try to make a living as commercial fishers. “They say I’m part of the ‘turtle mafia.’ But it’s okay. I love what I do.”

Cantão is one of the most biologically rich areas of the eastern Amazon, in part because it is a transitional area between the Amazon rain forest, the wetlands of the Pantanal, and the Cerrado—the most biodiverse savanna in the world.

Lowland tapir

A lowland tapir crossing the river

Black caiman

A black caiman

Giant otters

Giant otters

Rufous-tailed jacamar

A rufous-tailed jacamar

Amazon lava lizard

Amazon lava lizard

Roseate spoonbill

A roseate spoonbill taking flight

Juarez wouldn’t be living this life if it were not for the Amazon Region Protected Areas (ARPA) and ARPA for Life programs. Without them, there wouldn’t be a Cantão State Park. Juarez wouldn’t have had the jobs the park has provided, and he wouldn’t have had the equipment he’s needed to do those jobs. The park is the second-largest employer (behind the government) in the municipality where it is located.

On a larger scale, ARPA has generated a total of $23 million a year across 30 of the protected areas that are part of the program. ARPA grew out of a WWF forest initiative and was launched by the government of Brazil in 2002, with the goal of conserving 150 million acres of the Brazilian Amazon rain forest—an area nearly three times the size of all US national parks combined. That goal was reached in 2018, making ARPA the largest tropical forest conservation program in the world. Throughout, WWF contributed to the work involved in this success.

The idea for ARPA for Life was born in 2012, 10 years after the ARPA program was created. ARPA’s supporters were seeing deforestation and degradation happening in conservation areas, the result of activities ranging from illegal and unsustainable agriculture to mining, fishing, and logging. They realized that delineating protected and sustainable use areas on a map was not enough. Those areas also needed to be properly managed on a long-term basis, so the threats to them could be minimized or eliminated. And they knew that would take money.

By May of 2014, ARPA for Life emerged as a $215 million fund that the Brazilian government can draw from over 25 years to cover expenses related to the management of ARPA-designated land. The funding is from a variety of entities—many of which also supported the creation of ARPA—such as WWF, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the Global Environment Facility, the government of Germany/KfW Development Bank, and the World Bank. WWF played a lead role in putting together the ARPA for Life deal, helping to create both the conservation plan and the financial plan.

ARPA and ARPA for Life touch the lives of countless people—from the 30 million people who live in the Brazilian Amazon to the billions of people around the world who benefit from the massive amounts of carbon that Amazonian forests keep out of the atmosphere. Conserving those forests touches the lives of many animals and plants as well: 10% of the world’s discovered species live in the Amazon.

Species of Cantão State Park

Podocnemis unifilis
Habitat: slow-moving rivers

Native to the Amazon river basin, these reptiles can grow up to 27 inches long and live up to 70 years in the wild.

Tapirus terrestris
Habitat: savanna, inland wetland, grassland

When startled, a tapir whistles through its mouth and snout-like nose.

Pteronura brasiliensis
Habitat: inland wetlands, coastal areas, forests

Giant otters can grow to 6 feet in length and are highly evolved predators that compete with jaguars for food.

Jabiru mycteria
Habitat: inland wetlands and grasslands

At 5 feet, jabiru are the tallest birds in South America.

Panthera onca
Habitat: forest, inland wetlands, savanna, and grasslands

A top predator, the jaguar can chomp through bone and shell.

Melanosuchus niger
Habitat: rivers, lakes, and wetlands

Although demand for their skins in the mid-20th century led to the species being listed as endangered, populations have rebounded in response to conservation actions.


And as it turns out, ARPA for Life was just the start.

Today, through our new Earth for Life initiative, WWF wants to create more programs like ARPA for Life. Working with the right set of partners, we want to establish, manage, and fund conservation areas—which include protected areas, indigenous lands, and community conservancies—so that more people like Juarez can reap the natural and economic benefits they provide. So that more wildlife can roam free. And so that more landscapes can remain whole.

We’ve already done so in Bhutan, where a program called Bhutan for Life—the first of its kind in Asia—was launched in 2017. We are in the midst of creating similar programs in Peru and Colombia. We are strategizing on which countries come next.

We know this is a monumental undertaking. In each new place, we must find the political leaders who are willing to work with us to build the program so it is durable. We must find the public and private sector donors who are willing to put in the money. Technical experts are needed to determine how to allocate the funds so that conservation goals are met. Economists are needed to figure out how much it will all cost, and lawyers must pore over stacks of paper to make sure the right legal frameworks are in place. Community outreach experts will need to spend hours and hours getting input from local and indigenous people on how to shape the program based on their needs.

But it’s worth it. If nothing else, the return on investment is significant. For example, it makes more economic and environmental sense to keep our rivers clean so they can supply drinking water than it does to allow pollution and have to build heavy duty water filtration facilities. Conservation areas deliver an estimated $100 worth of services, such as clean air and water, for every $1 invested in good management of the natural resources that provide those services.

“Conservation areas are a more efficient way to secure and sustain ecosystem-service benefits than any currently available human-engineered alternative,” says Chris Holtz, WWF vice president of Earth for Life.

We know that these areas help keep threats such as illegal logging, mining, and poaching at bay. In well-managed conservation areas there are more (and better equipped) people to patrol the land and stop illegal activities. And conservation areas serve as a “shield.”

The bottom of one of Cantão State Park’s 850 lakes becomes visible during the dry season, July to October.

For example, Cantão’s protected status shields it from the deforestation that is quickly creeping up to the eastern edge of the park—deforestation caused by the conversion of much of the woody savanna (known as the Cerrado) into soy plantations. Even with that shield, the park’s eastern edge experiences negative impacts from agriculture, such as air pollution when trees are burned to clear land and water pollution that results from chemical runoff. But those impacts are not nearly as severe as they would be if the park did not exist.

Conservation areas also address one of the world’s largest environmental challenges—climate change. Through ARPA, for example, an estimated 5.1 billion tons of carbon dioxide emissions will have been avoided by 2050. That’s roughly equivalent to the total amount of US energy-related carbon dioxide emissions in 2016.

Fundamentally, the Earth for Life initiative is about managing parks well so that they are more than just “paper parks” (areas that have been designated as protected, but have little-to-no funding or management support) and can deliver on their promise of conserving nature for the benefit of us all. But Earth for Life is also about making sure there are enough conservation areas in the world. Consequently, Earth for Life funding may be allocated to expanding and improving existing protected areas or creating new ones.

Given that these programs are so big, it can be hard to fathom how they touch the lives of ordinary people. But they do. They make a difference, often for people who don’t even know the names of the programs, the politics behind them, or the intricacies involved in getting them off the ground.

Juarez, park advocate and artist, crouches down. He looks ahead, then moves his head ever so slightly from side to side so he can scan the landscape that’s in front of him in the soft dawn light.

He waits. And waits. And waits. For nearly two hours, he keeps his eyes on the lake, looking for ripples in the water that would indicate a giant river otter moving just below the surface. He listens for the sound of bone-dry tree leaves being crunched, a potential sign that an otter is making its way out of its den and into the lake. He sniffs, specifically for the smell of otter urine, as that would likely mean the otters were in the den the night before.

Then in a split second it happens. An otter emerges from its den and slides down the sandy bank into the lake. Splash! He’s immediately followed by another otter, then three more.

Juarez points to make sure we see them, then stares out on the lake and smiles as if it’s Christmas morning. He’s seen hundreds of otters in his lifetime. But each one is still a gift.



Marluzia Alves Dalat Junquiera

Tourists in boat

From Monday to Friday, Marluzia Alves Dalat Junqueira focuses on helping people overcome complex and often heart-wrenching challenges. She’s a social worker in Caseara. She likes her job, but she looks forward to the weekends, when she gets to immerse herself in what she refers to as the “little piece of heaven” that’s not far from her home.

Marluzia is one of a handful of people who lead tours through Cantão park. She learned this skill a few years ago by taking an eco-tourism course that was funded by ARPA for Life.

“Being in the park gives me extra income and it helps ease my mind,” she says.

During a recent tour for local tour operator CC Trekking, Marluzia sat in the front of a boat and pointed out roseate spoonbills, ringed kingfishers, and other birds as they flew through the canopy or perched on branches. She spotted a baby black caiman. She tried to find pink river dolphins to show her guests, but they move so quickly that glimpses of them are rare. Jaguars are even harder to spot, but she hopes to see one someday.

“If the park had not been created, we wouldn’t be able to see any of these animals,” she says. “The area where the park is, and everything around it, would be devastated by now. And I wouldn’t have the privilege of being able to lead tours in this beautiful place.”

Veldiz Pereira Da Silva

Woman canoeing

Veldiz Pereira da Silva takes a deep drag on her cigarette. Her other hand clutches a black and red Betty Boop purse, which clashes happily with her glittery blue shirt and jigsaw leggings.

Veldiz is ready to go canoeing.

She might not look like the three-time winner of Cantão State Park’s three-year-old annual canoe race. But it’s evident, once she leaves the shore, that this five-time great-grandmother knows how to paddle.

Within seconds, she is gliding down the middle of the river at a fast clip. Her eyes seem to be working the hardest, as they focus on what is in front of her so she doesn’t hit one of the sandbars or rocks that are near the surface during the dry season. But the rest of her body seems to move effortlessly.

Veldiz used to canoe daily and now does so several times a week. “I love the rivers,” she says, “because paddling and being in nature keep me alive.” Without the park, she adds, she might not be as healthy, sharp, and sassy as she is.

While Veldiz doesn’t receive any income from park-related work, she is closely plugged into what is happening there. She says she wants to be a voice for keeping the park a park so that she can keep paddling, and the city of Caseara—which is near park headquarters and is where she lives—can continue to see economic benefits from being near the park.

“I fixed the canoeing competition so more women would participate in it,” she says with a smile, “so I can fix everything else too.”

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