Science for Brazil is celebrating three years of editorial operations, and during this time we’ve described every aspect of Brazil-related scientific endeavour – except our own.
Now it’s time to tell you what we ourselves are actively doing to help protect Brazil’s astonishing biodiversity and help everyone to better understand its rich yet fragile Amazon habitat – rather than limit ourselves to reporting on the efforts and achievements of researchers or policymakers.
We are not scientists: our job is to make the discoveries and the wonder of science available in clear language everyone can understand, and in formats that engage and inspire new generations of scientists. But duty now calls us to get directly involved.
Which is why in February 2016, the Science for Brazil team is travelling to Rio Negro in central Amazonia, on a three-week project working with Brazilian schoolchildren in riverside communities where we will lead art workshops in local schools.
This project is led by Laura House — a UK-based animal artist and plant illustrator who was born in Brazil. She also a trained teacher and expert in primary education (working with TeachFirst in the UK), and has been running art classes and workshops for children in remote areas of Colombia as part of a government-run programme (Enseña por Colombia). Her wildlife pictures illustrate this article.
Laura’s father Richard House (that’s me) writes Science for Brazil and I’ll be helping her and writing up the results…. we hope to produce an illutsrated book for young people ( but we need your support to make this happen).
We are grateful to FAS, (Fundação Amazonia Sustentável) a leading Brazilian NGO, for logistical support plus coordination with local communities and the state education service. FAS is making this trip possible. You can visit their website to learn more about their fantastic community work by clicking here.
Our choice – with help from FAS – is to engage with the young people of Amazonia. After all it is they – not policymakers at the recent COP21 talks in Paris, or scientists tracking satellite images of deforestation from another continent – who will ultimately be responsible for conserving Brazil’s biodiversity. Children are the roots without whom no sustainability aspiration can hope to bear fruit.
Our chosen task is to help young people actively appreciate the richness of their world and the progress of science by fusing together three essential strands of experience: art, education and conservation. The objective is to motivate a deeper desire for the conservation of the surrounding world – not just among children in the Amazon, but in every continent.
The goal is very simple: to share with children the beauty of the natural world from the perspectives of both art and science, and to help young people develop the skills to record and express this beauty through art. So art and education are important tools for delivering our sustainable future, thereby supporting supremely important scientific goals.
Already, art has supported science in Amazonia in important ways. Any journey to the Amazon involves treading in the footsteps of scientific giants – and the Rio Negro is no exception. The name of the Amazon’s mightiest tributary is forever linked with that of Alfred Russel Wallace, who in 1848 arrived in Brazil as a 24 year-old specimen collector, hoping to build a scientific career. He surely ranks as both the luckiest and unluckiest of scientists to have ever lived.
Lucky because during four years’ journeying through Amazon, Wallace he discovered literally dozens of new species and then thrillingly described these travels in his 1853 book ‘A Narrative of Travels on the Amazon and the Rio Negro,’ with the first authoritative map of the river. Wallace recorded the languages and habits of the peoples he encountered; he collected butterflies, other insects, and birds; and he searched for clues to solve the mystery of the origin of plant and animal species.
Unlucky because during the voyage home in July 1852 his ship caught fire and the Wallace lost the entire collection of specimens that he intended to sell to European museums to finance his trip.
All he could rescue were were his notes and drawings of Amazonian creatures – the basis of the towering scientific career Wallace later went on to build, during a second spell of exploration in what today is Indonesia. Eventually he was recognised alongside Charles Darwin as co-discoverer of the theory of natural selection.
So that art created by the young Wallace in Amazonia formed the basis of one of the greatest scientific stories of all time. In equal measure Wallace’s work has provided both education and inspiration for hugely important conservation activities around the world.
Even today Wallace’s discoveries on the Rio Negro are the subject of fresh research. 160 years after its discovery, Wallace’s pike cichlid (Crenicichla monicae), a fish he drew in 1852, is the subject of lively scientific debate in the BioOne scholarly journal after it was correctly identified from records in museums of Munich and Stockholm.
Wallace’s discoveries in the upper Rio Negro demanded astonishing dedication, hardship and isolation – a far cry from the modern infrastructure available to us in 2016 at the FAS community of Tumbira in the lower stretches between Manaus and Novo Airão.
Much else has changed since Wallace’s day. But among the children of the Rio Negro we hope to recapture some of his same spirit of fascination with the natural world. We hope Laura’s drawings – and more importantly the drawings we’ll make together with children in the series of art workshops we’re planning – will help to embed a spirit of scientific inquiry. If so, the fusion of art, education and conservation will be our small contribution.
You can read the accompanying article about the details of our journey and the workshops being developed – as well as plans for a book based on the experience which will be aimed at young people keen to support conservation – by clicking here. And we hope you’ll join us on the journey with Science for Brazil.