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In the Amazonian far west, indigenous Brazilians fish for a better life

April 19, 2013


A pirarucu for sale at a market in Jutaí, in the Alto Solimoes region. The fish is also referred to as the Amazonian cod.

Jean-Martin Brault / World Bank

  • In the Alto Solimoes region, the population of pirarucus is on the rise again.
  • The region, with 230,000 inhabitants, borders Peru and Colombia and is thinly populated.
  • Approximately one-fifth of the local population is of indigenous descent.

An Amazonian legend has it that the pirarucu, one of the world’s largest freshwater species, is an evil indigenous warrior turned fish. This species, which can reach 10 feet and 485 pounds, has a long and narrow body, a rounded tail, and a big mouth – believed to scare ancient fishermen.

In modern days, however, the fish is known to have another superpower: the power to lift at least 1,500 indigenous families from poverty. They carry out a sustainable fishery management initiative in the Alto Solimões region. 

While illegal fishing activities start to fall, the population of pirarucus (among other species) is on the rise again, thanks to the effort. “Lakes used to be almost fished-off”, says fisherman Ataíde Gonçalves.

The initiative is part of a greater project that seeks to improve livelihoods in one of the poorest Amazonian regions. It is conducted by state government of Amazonas and the World Bank.

Every breath counts

In this remote region, Pirarucus can be found in lakes connected to the Solimões River and located mostly inside indigenous lands. Project technicians and fishermen unions classified these lakes according to their usage:

•         Conservation lakes are used for breeding and cannot be touched;

•         At the fishery management lakes, fishermen can work from March to November and have a catch share;

•          At the “maintenance” lakes, there isn’t a close season and fishermen are allowed to work year-round.

Environmental agents offer grassroots training on the environmental laws. Once the communities have been trained, fishermen and their families take shifts watching the lakes – and reporting illegal activities via radio. In August, the communities also carry out the fish count.

Every 20 minutes, pirarucus swim up to breathe air, and while doing so, they make a particular noise. Experimented fishermen are able to analyze these signs and precisely estimate the fish population.

The figures are then handed to Ibama, Brazil’s environmental authority – and the catch quota for each season is defined accordingly.

" Lakes used to be almost fished-off "

Ataíde Gonçalves


Changing small towns

When the season comes, fishermen tag their catch (to make sure the pirarucus were legally caught) before sending them to the local markets.

“Some families are now able to make up to BRL 1,000 (US$ 500) a month,” explains Geraldo Araújo, project sub-coordinator at the government of Amazonas.

In addition to that, small cities such as Tonantins now have a regular economic activity. “We can not only feed our town, but many others around here,” proudly says José Oliveira, from the local fishermen’s union.

“This is a great outcome in such an isolated and environmentally important area, where sustainable management of natural resources is pivotal,” says Agnes Velloso, project environmental specialist at the World Bank.

Free from a heavy load

Years ago, the men had to carry the catch on their backs for miles in paths inside the deep forests. With project help, they could afford to buy small tractors, which enable them to reach the local markets in less time. “This is something we’re so grateful for,” says fisherman Mário Andrade.

Now, to reach for bigger markets, they need more access to refrigerated chambers, in and out their vehicles. “This is a need we found out as the implementation evolved,” Velloso comments.

The team currently analyzes how to help them fill the demand – either within this project or with a supplemental initiative.

Still, the results so far can be considered positive. “More than having a regular source of income, the beneficiaries have more control over their lands and feel the need to preserve their culture and the forest,” Araújo concludes.