From above, the Amazon River resembles a thick thread sewn into the land. Other rivers and tributaries join with it, forming a great moving tapestry of water that sustains and supports life across South America. Like threads, these rivers form connections between people and places. At the same time, they tell stories and carry memories, histories, sacred beliefs, culture and the traditions of those people and places.
Elizabeth Anderson doesn’t want to think about any river gone dry. The water no longer moving and flowing. The thread unraveled. The connection cut. The river dead. Especially not the Amazon River.
The FIU assistant professor of Earth and Environment and researcher in the Institute of Environment has long had a dream that’s both simple and complex — she wants the rivers in the Amazon to remain free-flowing and alive. The main focus of her research in this region has been on the critically important Andean headwaters where water, sediment and organic materials originate and flow downstream into the lowlands. Anderson refers to this area as the brain that controls much of the Amazon, and most importantly, keeps it alive.
This brain is having a difficult time, though, doing what it’s always done. Dams being built near the headwaters are disrupting the natural movement and flow of water and sediments, possibly even changing the channels and floodplains downstream. They also threaten migrating fish trying to reach important spawning areas upstream. The 33 million people who live in the Amazon basin rely on fish as a primary source of food and income. A loss of any species would be devastating.
“Changing the flow and connectivity of rivers means we’d lose the Amazon we know today,” Anderson said.
Protecting the rivers of the Amazon requires teamwork. Anderson is principal investigator of multiple collaborative initiatives that have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in support from the MacArthur Foundation, the Tinker Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation through the Wildlife Conservation Society.
One of those initiatives is Ríos Vivos Andinos or the Living Rivers Project, which focuses on the importance of free-flowing rivers to both humans and entire ecosystems. With support from the MacArthur Foundation, Ríos Vivos Andinos looks to improve river management through region-wide collaboration. It connects the experts on the rivers — the people who live, work and rely on them — to scientists, government authorities and local conservation partners.
Natalia Piland, an FIU postdoctoral research associate in Anderson’s Tropical Rivers Lab, works closely with Anderson on Ríos Vivos Andinos. Half Peruvian and originally from Lima, the work is personal for Piland. As she says, she’s come to see rivers in a new light. How they are embedded into our existence. How a river’s life is intertwined with a human life.
Community involvement is a running theme for Anderson. As a part of the Citizen Science for the Amazon project, FIU is working with more than 20 organizations across South America helping answer questions about where fish migrate and what the environmental conditions are in those areas. To paint a better picture of what’s happening along the rivers, low-cost water quality sensors developed by Conservifiy, a conservation technology start-up company, are set up at several sites in Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Colombia and Bolivia.
To track fish, project partners work closely with local fishermen. With a mobile phone app, they go out fishing as they normally would and then enter the species they come across. The information automatically enters a centralized database that tracks the fish in real-time, in collaboration with the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Funding from the Tinker Foundation has also bolstered these efforts in the Andean-Amazon region.
Paulo Olivas, an FIU research associate who works on the Citizen Science for the Amazon project, points out that the project is really rooted in reciprocity. The data is, of course, valuable to scientists. It’s also valuable to the fishermen who also have questions about what’s happening in the rivers they depend upon.
Olivas says the project also gives the local communities a renewed sense of connection to one another. Someone living in Peru comes to understand the fish they rely on also travel to Brazil to reach spawning sites. The connectivity of the river is what brings everyone together in wanting to help preserve it and the species that depend on the Amazon.
This idea of connection has come up many times in Anderson’s work across the globe — in East Africa, India, Central and South America. This is why her conservation work isn’t just about protecting these river systems, but also people’s deep personal links to them.
Anderson knows firsthand the magnetic pull of a river. Growing up in Georgia, there was a creek that ran behind her house. Hours were spent near that creek, her brother at her side, just exploring and walking up and down the bank looking for bugs and turtles or catching fish. Back then, she never could have imagined a career studying rivers. In her world, there were only offices and factories. It wasn’t until her last year in college that she learned people actually spent their lives trying to understand and protect freshwater systems. This changed her entire career path.
That time near the creek stayed with Anderson. Maybe, it shaped her interests and curiosity. As she has come to learn, rivers have a way of doing that. They are threads that connect. They are also threads that can weave their way through certain people, like Anderson, becoming an inseparable part of their life, their story and their work.