Newton Fund

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Preserving the Amazon with traditional knowledge

Since 1970, over 800,000 square kilometres of the Brazilian Amazon have been deforested – an area four times the size of Great Britain. To combat deforestation, indigenous peoples of Northwest Amazonia have historically practiced sophisticated forms of land management, but these practices are now under threat from erosion of traditional knowledge. As this traditional knowledge is lost, the risk to health, income, nutrition and culture increases.

This Newton funded project is preserving this vital knowledge by drawing upon the historic collections of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, to improve understanding between past and present indigenous knowledge and science. This project will build on the team’s work with the records of 19th century botanist Richard Spruce; some of the earliest surviving records we have on Amazonian culture, plants and their uses. The team plan to extend their programme on Spruce’s collections to create a long-term digital resource in collaboration with researchers in Brazil. Digitising the collection will make this key reference work on Brazilian ethnobotany available to wider audiences.

Training indigenous people in the collection and recording of biocultural knowledge will enable them to undertake their own biocultural research, bringing fundamental benefits for the sustainable and beneficial use of plants throughout the region. The current focus of the project is across 22 indigenous groups (40,000 people), but the longer-term aim will be to expand this work reconnecting local knowledge and science
throughout Brazil and neighbouring countries in the Amazon. 

"This project revitalises the knowledge we don’t have in the region anymore. I believe that with this knowledge we can recover our ways of living and the wellbeing of our communities."

Ronaldo Silva, Indigenous leader, Rio Içana, Baniwa


Mobilising the value of bio-cultural collections in Brazil

Project leads: William Milliken, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew and Viviane Stern da Fonseca Kruel, Rio de Janeiro Botanical Garden

Delivery partners: British Council and Rio de Janeiro Botanical Gardens

Collaborators: Birkbeck, University of London, Instituto Socioambiental, São Paulo, Federação das Organizações Indígenas do Rio Negro (FOIRN) and Museu Paraense Emilio Goeldi (MPEG)