A trail leads to several homes near the Marañón River, a mainstem source of the Amazon River, in Peru. The largest census ever attempted to study the connection between poverty and biodiversity conservation in western Amazonia included 919 rural Peruvian communities. Photo: Oliver Coomes

In examining the loss of plant and animal life in the Amazon, scientists and the media often focus on the effects of deforestation. But a different set of causes may be at work in one part of the massive rain forest.

To uncover the true culprits behind this biodiversity loss, two UW–Madison alumni, Yoshito Takasaki MA’96, PhD’00 and Oliver Coomes, are drawing on a new, massive data set — and some help from their former mentor, agricultural and applied economics professor Brad Barham. Their conclusions could inform public policy in the Amazon for decades.

Coomes, who earned a minor in agricultural and applied economics with his geography Ph.D., and Takasaki — both Barham’s former students and long-time collaborators — recently completed the largest census ever attempted to study the connection between poverty and biodiversity conservation in western Amazonia. They targeted the Loreto and Ucayali regions in eastern Peru, an area slightly larger than Sweden that encompasses more than 85 percent of the Peruvian Amazon. Their research teams completed a four-year field project covering thousands of miles of Amazonian tributaries, including a census of 919 rural communities followed by 4,000 household surveys in 235 of those same communities.

Coomes and Takasaki view biodiversity loss in the Peruvian Amazon as a developmental problem linked with rural poverty. Local residents overharvest certain species, causing the species’ populations to crash and forcing the rest of the ecosystem to adapt. By surveying the local residents and studying what resources they extract from the forest — and how they do so — Coomes and Takasaki hope to create policy solutions to best preserve biodiversity.

Specifically, they examined the economic drivers and resources of different communities as well as important social aspects that spark population and economic growth. They are in the early stages of analyzing the combined survey and census data but have already discovered some notable relationships.

One surprising finding is that soccer is critically important to expanding labor and marriage networks in the Peruvian Amazon. Communities in the Amazon are small and separated by dense forest, but Coomes and Takasaki observed how the ubiquitous game can connect these communities through tournaments and help form bonds between people who would not normally meet.

“People find mates or partners at tournaments,” says Takasaki. “You can get marriage across villages and diversify a community.”

Coomes and Takasaki have also created an index with their census data to examine biodiversity changes in different communities. They examined fish, game, and timber populations, noting important and rare species. This helps them to track when different species were abundant and demonstrate how the forest has changed over time.

“The index allows us to see how biodiversity has changed from the start of the community to the present,” says Coomes. “It tells us what can be done to help communities in earlier developmental stages and to find ways to support development with reduced impacts on the animal, fish, and plants surrounding them.”

Barham, who assisted with some of the initial analysis, calls the dataset Coomes and Takasaki have assembled “beyond imagination” in its depth and representation of people in western Amazonia. “Previously, the problem with understanding what’s going on in these vast areas of the Amazon is there was just no data at this level or scale or with this kind of systematic approach,” he says. “Now we can use this data set to make statements about what’s happening across the entire region.”

Takasaki believes it will take researchers several years to finish analyzing the data, but he is excited about its possibilities. “There are so many potential topics and projects we can do using this data,” he says. “Hopefully, we can find some creative solutions to slow biodiversity loss in the Amazon.”