The ClimFabiam project (funded by the FRB (Foundation for Research on Biodiversity) aimed at understanding the changes of a biodiversity hotspot in the Amazon floodplain under climatic change. One of the objectives is to explore how global warming induce changes in human activities and conversely, how changes in human activities may have impact on the local ecosystem. This project focused on the flooding of the Lago Grande de Curuaí, a territory of 30,000 inhabitants spread over 133 communities, which is part of Santarem prefecture (Pará State, Brazil). Hydrologically and biogeochemically, this territory is a good representation of the flood plains of the lower Amazon River where populations are isolated from the large cities of Pará and there is limited access to public services.

Lago Grande Curuai

In this region, Incra, the National Institute of Settlement and Land Reform, is responsible for differentiating public lands from private ones, but due to lack of resources and the complexity of the task, land has been allocated without real demarcation and without public/private differentiation. Even though local people only have usage rights and hold no land titles, the sale of land is commonplace. Due to this legal grey area and after a long mobilization of the inhabitants, Incra finally created the “Lago Grande do Curuaí” Agro-Extractivist Settlement Project (Portuguese abbreviation: PAE) in 2005. It is managed by the Federaçao Agroextrativista da Gleba Do Lago Grande (Feagle), a civil organization that institutionally represents this territory’s communities. Feagle is in charge of monitoring agrarian reforms and the links between institutions, communities and social organizations. It also regulates natural resources by granting deforestation permits and hunting and fishing licenses. Today, this land registration project, designed to resolve conflicts over land and land uses, is only partially successful, as irregularities continue to be reported within the area. Moreover, its future remains uncertain. Indeed, regional conflicts and pressures from mining and timber extraction companies, as well as the complex land situation threaten its renewal and continued existence.

Given the vulnerability expressed by the actors, we first studied their concerns and strategies and then collectively discussed possible scenarios. To facilitate these debates and make them more meaningful, a role-playing game and then a hybrid agent-based model (ABM) (allowing users to interact with the simulation) were designed progressively with producers and Feagle members.

The participatory approach forced us to revise the project’s initial objectives in order to better respond to local concerns. Indeed, what emerged from lessons learned collectively from games and hybrid simulations was that the difficulties are not only due to climate change. Other changes, socio-economic and demographic, also play a part. For example, in these remote territories, population growth, due in part to the abandonment of varzea areas, has a significant impact on the environment. Without a sewage treatment system, this population growth is having an impact on water quality and leading to the proliferation of aquatic microorganisms. The project’s biologists have shown an increased presence of cyanobacteria that pose a threat to human and animal health, as well as adverse effects on fish stocks already under pressure from commercial fishing and non-compliance with community fishing rules. Participants have often expressed the general feeling of not being heard on these issues by local authorities and institutions.

The question arises as to whether actors from outside the territory whose actions contribute significantly to the degradation of resources should be included. They include commercial fishing enterprises from Juruti or Obidos, the fazenderos (large-scale livestock breeders) of Obidos, and major soybean producers from Mato Grosso, as well as bauxite mining companies who lobby local leaders to be allowed to buy land in the PAE. The issue of the participation of extra-territorial actors is not only methodological in nature, but also ethical. After all, we cannot blame these external actors for environmental degradation and not give them an opportunity to defend themselves through discussion and debate.

In the Amazonian context, far from the administrative centres of power, social violence is part of everyday life and extreme pressure is often exerted on the weak. Thus, by inviting external actors to participatory workshops and debates (assuming they were even willing to engage in this form of dialogue), we risked inciting more violence. In this particular context, the choice was made to initially bring together only the local actors in order to understand ongoing processes and to undertake a prospective approach. Accompanying the actors in establishing community rules aimed at guaranteeing their living conditions is already an ambitious task. By helping them to look forward over the medium term, the approach helps them to step back and understand the effects of each person’s actions on the territory. Aware of the continuing deterioration, several actors have, for example, themselves proposed the strengthening of fishing rules and restrictions, or the adoption of collective forest management. In addition, by providing local institutions with scientific documentation on the state of natural resources and by contributing to social cohesion, the approach seeks to bolster the capacities of negotiation of these most vulnerable actors.