by: Genny Biggs
 

Somehow, without a seat assignment, I lucked into a window seat. Looking through my tiny eight-by-twelve-inch porthole, I was captivated by topographic drama. The bustle of sprawling Lima gave way to barren coastal desert. That rose up into arid Andean foothills, until we were soaring high over rugged mountain peaks. Next, we were floating far above a mosaic of deep green hues that extended as far as the eye could see, with the color-block offset only by the serpentine ribbons of white and black-water tributaries to this great riverine and flooded forest wonder we call the Amazon. And then, we had arrived in Iquitos.

As we deplaned, the humid air was heavy — and so was a weighty sense of gratitude for being there. I was partly grateful to be there, finally, after a string of flight delays, nearly missed connections and a red-eye discovery that my Dallas-Lima seat happened to be the only one on the row with a broken recline function. But that very upright overnight had also given me time to think about how grateful I was for the longer journey that had brought me to this remarkable place.

It’s a longer journey that started with my parents, patiently lugging us kids around the world wherever my father’s research and conferences took us. And wherever we were – on the bright azure sea surrounding Micronesian rock islands, on the tree-lined riverbank of an ancient European village, in the cool shadow of hieroglyph-covered Egyptian temple walls – he would find a quiet moment when he’d remind us to pause, take a deep breath, look carefully at every detail our eyes could register, and listen even to the smallest sounds. That way, when we’d close our eyes that night and ever after, we could remember being there and the scene, the smells and the sounds would be etched in our memories forever. I think, more than anything, they wanted us to understand viscerally how beautifully diverse and interdependent this planet really is.

 

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That cornerstone belief is what made me jump at the chance, seventeen years ago, to join the staff here at the Moore Foundation. I couldn’t imagine any work I’d rather do than to help, in any way I could, realize the hopes and aspirations of our co-founders. And so here I was in northeastern Peru, surrounded by forest and water that reached beyond the horizon in every direction, and it’s hard to describe just how humbling that immense flooded forest really is. When you’re there, your senses tell you everything that facts and photographs can only partly convey: the Amazon is the planet’s largest remaining rainforest, about the size of the contiguous United States. It stretches across the domain of eight different countries and one territory. It is home to some 10 percent of all the world’s recorded biological diversity. It holds one-fifth of Earth’s fresh water. Photos, even big bright beautiful ones, don’t quite do this justice, because the photographs have edges, and when you’re there, your eyes make you think the Amazon doesn’t have any edges at all. From Iquitos, accessible only by boat or plane, the surrounding river and forest look and feel like they extend forever.

Citizen Science for the Amazon

Just as humbling as the geographic setting was the reality that I was to be surrounded for three days by more than 60 researchers, explorers, conservationists, inventors, journalists, professors and others who had come to help, in one way or another, safeguard the Amazon basin and enable meaningful exploration and discovery for those who live there. This was the second meeting of the Citizen Science for the Amazon partners, who are working basin-wide to generate information about fish and water, and to engage citizen scientists in the sustainable management of fisheries and wetlands conservation. Led by Wildlife Conservation Society, the partners all share a commitment to conserving the Amazon’s freshwater ecosystems and improving its inhabitants’ livelihoods, and they also share a recognition that the natural world around us is a vibrant, inspiring source of curiosity and engagement.

Core to the workshop were discussions around how best to build a durable network of local communities, students, scientists and conservationists who will collect and share data using technologies to document the shifting ecosystem and resource dynamics of the Amazon’s freshwater habitats. To make a distributed but connected system of citizen science projects a reality, the partners needed to develop low-cost tools that could be made widely available. Soon, communities and individuals across the basin will be able to use AguaKit sensors from Conservify to gather new information about water quality and other river characteristics, and a new Ictio app from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology that will enable fishermen and people in ports and markets to track and study fish and fish migration patterns.

These fish — fish like the giant dorado catfish — inextricably connect people and rivers in the region. They represent staple food and income sources, and are critical to the future of Amazonian communities and cultures. Fish can be effective indicators of river connectivity, ecosystem health and human wellbeing, but the current fundamental lack of information (about both river dynamics and the fish within the rivers) makes good river basin management difficult. By facilitating monitoring, data gathering and modeling, citizen science can empower those who live in the region and fill this information gap, answering important scientific questions: when, where and why do fish migrate? And how do water properties relate to fish migrations? With the wide community engagement that citizen science engenders, the project can do this at the basin’s enormous spatial scale.

That first day, the partners hammered out their plans for a wider rollout later this year, grappling with the challenges that will need to be overcome for a critical mass of users to be able and eager to participate, and for the data to be broadly integrated and shared. Heading out onto the water in the early dawn on the second morning of the workshop, we were able to field-test the app ourselves – recording and tracking on smartphones what fish were found where, when and in what quantity. By the end of the third day, the participants had started to chart plans for the network’s future. And, just as I’d finally shaken off the last of my red-eye grogginess, the workshop had ended and I was walking out on the tarmac under the Iquitos night sky for a departure back to Lima and the series of connecting flights that would eventually deliver me home.

Without a window seat this time, I looked inward as we left the runway, replaying my own internal highlight reel from the meeting. My sense of hope had been buoyed there, in one of the world’s last great places and in the company of an amazing group of people committed to conserving it. I was reminded of an op-ed I had read a couple of years earlier about why we experience awe. In it, the authors suggest how important it is “that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others…”

Over the course of the workshop, I had witnessed all of that and more.

And then, because I had also remembered to find a quiet moment and heed my father’s lessons, I could shut my eyes and again be deep in the flooded forest: the sights, the smells, and even the smallest sounds are stamped indelibly in my memory. So is an abiding gratitude for this journey, for this treasure that is the Amazon, for all the people who commit to conserving it and conserving other vast ecosystems of global significance, and for a world that has no shortage of challenges, but is awe-inspiring for all its wonder, vital energy and promise.

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Genny Biggs is a communications officer at the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

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