Amazonia represents a major sustainability challenge: as well as being the world's largest remaining tropical forest, the Amazon biome is home to more than 30 million people, and provides locally, regionally and globally significant human-welfare benefits including economic goods (e.g. timber and agricultural products) and non-market ecosystem services, such as climatic regulation and biodiversity conservation.

 

Rapid social and ecological change has left the future of the Amazon region uncertain. Recent reductions in the rate of deforestation, expansion of protected areas, increased market-based demand for more responsible land-use practices, and a strengthening of local and regional governments and civil society organisations provide some cause for guarded optimism that the Amazon economy can be set on a sustainable footing. However, we need to ensure the right choices are made as soon as possible, thereby reducing the likelihood of costly or potentially irreversible damage to both social and ecological systems in the region. Science can help this process by identifying the problems that need to be addressed first, and assessing the long-term social and ecological implications of land-use alternatives in planning for both regional development and ecological conservation.

 

The overarching goal of Rede Amazônia Sustentável (RAS) is to assess the sustainability of land-use systems in two dynamic regions of eastern Brazilian Amazonia. While there is already a substantial body of social and ecological knowledge on the Amazon, scientists are often criticized for failing to deliver the evidence most needed to foster sustainability. Criticisms include the fragmented and disciplinary nature of many research projects, a narrow focus on specific ecological or social problems and spatial scales, and a weak connection to local actors and institutions who are ultimately responsible for implementing changes in land use policy and management. The research approach adopted by RAS offers three distinct advantages; (1) the collection of synchronised and co-located ecological and socioeconomic data across broad gradients of past and present human use and exploitation of natural resources; (2) a nested sampling design that allows comparisons of the ecological and socioeconomic conditions associated with different land uses to be made across local, landscape and regional scales; (3) a strong engagement with a wide variety of actors and non-research institutions.

 

Drawing upon the strengths of our approach, RAS aims to make important advances in understanding the sustainability challenges facing Amazonia with regards to four broad objectives.

 

1. To quantify and better understand the ecological consequences of forest clearance, forest degradation and exploitation, and agricultural change (including cattle farming and silviculture) at several spatial scales. We are particularly interested in assessing the relative importance of local and landscape scale variables, as well as the extent to which past human impacts can help explain observed patterns in current ecological condition. Our measures of ecological condition include terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity, carbon stocks, soil chemical and physical condition and aquatic quality.

 

2. To examine the factors that determine patterns of land use, management choice, agricultural productivity and profits (and hence opportunity costs for conservation) and patterns of farmer well-being. Beyond input cost, geophysical (e.g. soil type, topography) and location (e.g. road and market access) factors, we recognise the potential importance of social-cultural factors in influencing land-use behaviours, including geographic origin, technical support, credit access, social capital, and the importance of supply chains.

 

3. To use our multidisciplinary assessment to evaluate the relationships between conservation and development objectives, and identify potential trade-offs and synergies. Here, we were interested in the relative ecological and socioeconomic costs and benefits of alternative land-use and management choices, and the potential for feedbacks, multiple-scale interactions and dependencies and unintended ('perverse') outcomes.

 

4. To enable future research initiatives to maximize their cost-effectiveness by examining the implications of choices made with respect to; variable selection, sampling design, prioritization of research questions and analyses, and approaches for engaging with local actors and institutions and disseminating results.