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Conservation, health, and food security in the Amazon

  • KCOCA Community GIS

    Conservation, health, and food security in the Amazon

    University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine researchers collaborate with an indigenous people to seek sustainable food security solutions

    Waiwai hunters use a geographic information system to track populations of their food sources. The practice, which was developed in collaboration with Shaffer, allows the Waiwai to keep tabs on their food system's impact on Amazonian wildlife.

In the Amazon Rainforest, University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) researchers are collaborating with an indigenous people to seek sustainable food security solutions. The Konashen Community-Owned Conservation Area (KCOCA), a section of land along the southern border of Guyana, acts as home to many of the Waiwai people, who are native to southern Guyana and northern Brazil. There, Marissa Milstein and Christopher Shaffer are applying a cultural lens to take a deeper look at ecosystem health, potential food security solutions, and the development of globally applicable disease monitoring programs.

Waiwai project map

Milstein, DVM, MA, PhD student, and Shaffer, PhD, visiting professor at the CVM from the Department of Anthropology at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich., have spent the past four years collaborating with the Waiwai to determine the health, safety, and sustainability of the Waiwai’s food systems. The research was requested by the Waiwai in 2012 after they became concerned about the impact of their subsistence practices on the ecosystem and curious about disease transmission within it. The collaboration prioritizes health and safety while working within the cultural beliefs and practices of the Waiwai people.

More than half of the protected areas in the Amazon exist within indigenous reserves. “We all know how important it is to conserve the rainforest,” Shaffer says, “but if that is going to work, it is going to be in the areas owned by the indigenous people. Conservation is going to succeed or fail on the terms of the indigenous people. It benefits everyone to develop these relationships.”

Chris Elisha Charakura
Shaffer and Waiwai hunters Elisha Marawanaru and Charakura Yukuma

Valuing culture

Ethnography, the scientific description of the customs of individual peoples and cultures, is one of the methods Shaffer has contributed to the project and the fulcrum upon which Milstein has based hers.

“Our work shows how essential it is to combine ethnography with veterinary medicine,” says Milstein. “We need to understand why people hunt, how culturally important their food sources are, and how to translate findings. This approach is broadly applicable for integrating culturally descriptive methods with quantitative methods in veterinary medicine.”

Ethnographic data Shaffer has been collecting with the Waiwai since 2013 has revealed a cultural taboo about meat from domesticated animals. With this understanding in place, Shaffer and Milstein consulted with the Waiwai on how to mitigate disease transmission and negative environmental effects without asking the Waiwai to forgo any aspects of the process that are of cultural importance. “Putting it in a cultural context helps us understand the system better,” Milstein says.

Milstein thinks the combination of anthropological and veterinary data has been crucial not only to building a relationship with the Waiwai but also to seeing the bigger picture. “We are finding that the cultural aspects are telling the fuller story on what we are seeing in our quantitative data,” she says. Understanding the Waiwai’s entire process of finding, hunting, butchering, preparing, and eating food has helped Milstein pinpoint the places where disease has an opportunity to spread.

“We need to understand why people hunt, how culturally important their food sources are, and how to translate findings. This approach is broadly applicable for integrating culturally descriptive methods with quantitative methods in veterinary medicine.”

Marissa Milstein, DVM, MA, PhD student

A safe system

Prior to getting her DVM from the University of Minnesota in 2018, Milstein was a primatologist, which made her the perfect candidate to assist the Waiwai, who rely heavily on eight species of monkeys as sources of protein and fat. On her first visit to Guyana in 2015, Milstein helped the Waiwai assess the health, safety, and sustainability of consuming available wildlife.

Milstein community interviews
Milstein (left) conducted various interviews of community members to better understand the Waiwai's food system.

 

Most recently, with the assistance of the Veterinary Pioneers in Public Health Fund and mentorship from her advisors, Dominic Travis, DVM, MS, and Tiffany Wolf, DVM, PhD—associate and assistant professors, respectively, in the Department of Veterinary Population Medicine—Milstein has been conducting research on samples from the Waiwai’s food system to assess disease risks. The Veterinary Pioneers in Public Health Fund is administered by the CVM’s Center for Animal Health and Food Safety (CAHFS). It funds customer-focused, transdisciplinary research supporting the CAHFS service mission of addressing complex challenges at the interface of animal, public, and environmental health.

With the help of funding from the CVM’s International Program Fund and other sources, Milstein has returned to Guyana multiple times, creating a conceptual diagram of the key players in the food system and training the Waiwai to collect tissue samples from hunted animals in order to pinpoint disease.

The result? Milstein and the Waiwai have found very little disease among the monkey populations the Waiwai are hunting. Their food system is, on the whole, safe.

Tracking the hunt

Milstein became connected to the Waiwai before coming to the U of M in 2015—as a graduate student at Washington University in St. Louis, where Shaffer was pursuing a PhD. It was there that the two crossed paths professionally.

After being approached by the Waiwai village council, Shaffer worked with the group to develop a culturally appropriate comanagement project focused on sustainable wildlife hunting and resource management. He helped develop methods that focus on empowering the Waiwai to manage and monitor their prey resources with GPS units. “I also helped them collect data on the animals they harvest and use spatial modeling to predict in real time what the effect on animal populations is so they can ensure they are not overharvesting.” The system he and the Waiwai created could be applied to a variety of contexts.

Understanding that the Waiwai are not going to stop eating monkeys—because of the practice’s great cultural importance—was crucial to Shaffer’s work. “Putting a whole bunch of sheep in the village and saying, ‘Eat this instead of that,’ is not a solution,” he says. “If we are instituting any kind of system to help humans stay healthy or maintain sustainability for a food system, we need to understand the cultural elements, perceptions, and beliefs. We also need to make sure there are lots of healthy animals available and that they are not making people sick.”

Sustainable solutions

With Shaffer collaborating with hunters on developing a sustainable population tracking system and Milstein implementing a system for disease monitoring, the pair are providing the Waiwai with the tools they requested—approaches to quantify both their health risks and impact on the ecosystem in which they live.

“Our role is to help provide scientific knowledge alongside indigenous knowledge to help the Waiwai make decisions that are best for them,” says Shaffer. “It’s all about emphasizing what works for a specific ecosystem. In this ecosystem, the most sustainable practice is what we are working toward, rather than introducing another animal, which may be much less sustainable.”

The researchers are quick to cite funding from the Veterinary Pioneers in Public Health Fund as essential to their work. “The Pioneer Fund helped us show that food security is not just about agricultural production,” Milstein says. “As veterinarians, we are so used to relying on domesticated animals as our main source of protein, but this fund took a chance on this very different project to allow us to show that food security is a much broader umbrella.”

Shaffer says that building a long-term relationship with the Waiwai is essential to the project. Not only does the relationship benefit conservation efforts in the Amazon, but investing in it long-term also helps the Waiwai build trust in the U of M researchers. “Indigenous people are often on the front lines of infectious and zoonotic disease,” Shaffer says. Scientists frequently initiate a project with an indigenous group only to depart with their data and analysis and never return. “The Pioneer Fund allowed us to create a more long-term project both from the perspective of building the monitoring program for hunters and from Marissa’s research standpoint because it was also used to help initiate the hunter necropsy program.”

Meanwhile, Wolf expresses pride for the research Shaffer and Milstein have conducted. “This project is a perfect example of ecosystem health in action, where the social and health sciences are combined to contextualize food safety and security for the development of culturally appropriate recommendations for health and sustainability,” she says. “That kind of approach maximizes impact and really strengthens community relationships.

“As veterinarians, we are so used to relying on domesticated animals as our main source of protein, but this fund took a chance on this very different project to allow us to show that food security is a much broader umbrella.”

Marissa Milstein, DVM, MA, PhD student

Remaining questions

On their most recent trip to the KCOCA, Milstein was surprised to find that the Waiwai’s dogs might be playing a role in creating some disease risk in the food system.

Milstein observed how the Waiwai hunters were discarding entrails while they were butchering. The Waiwai have practices for safely disposing of entrails, but Milstein noticed that dogs would still find and eat them. Additionally, dogs could carry in disease via ticks and other environmental pathogens. The duo think that although the Waiwai have practices in place to decrease disease transmission, dogs may still act as intermediaries in disease spread.

Dogs are hugely culturally important for the Waiwai as they are often used for hunting and trade. On their next visit to the KCOCA, Shaffer and Milstein hope to further explore the relationship between the Waiwai and domesticated dogs to develop a culturally applicable and sustainable system for the Waiwai to mitigate the potential disease spread by their dogs.

The Waiwai's food system, as charted out by Milstein
The Waiwai's food system, as charted out by Milstein

“We have lined up a great team and we want to explore each of the items in the food system in more depth,” says Milstein, “specifically how emerging infectious diseases are coming from these remote tropical areas.” Dogs could be a possible culprit here, according to Milstein. But other threats are also present. Shaffer’s interests lie in the opportunity to research the centuries-old human-animal bond between dogs and people in an entirely different setting.

Whatever the researchers find, they’re grateful for the Waiwai’s willingness to collaborate, their many opportunities to conduct groundbreaking research in the Amazon, and the funding that has made their professional relationship with the indigenous group possible.

“We believe that partnerships with indigenous groups like this one are essential for solving the grand challenges of global food security, biodiversity conservation, and the prevention of emerging disease,” says Milstein. “Successfully meeting these challenges benefits everyone.”


Illustrations by Megan Murrell

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