The Lost Legends

A Brazilian conservationist finds inspiration in his island’s traditional spiritual beliefs

August 24, 2018

Growing up on Marajó Island in Brazil, 31-year-old Danilson “Dan” de Avelar Silva was raised to see magic in nature. Like most Marajó elders, his grandparents believed in legends of spirits powering the island’s forests, rivers and oceans. His grandmother, Teresa, was a benzedeira, a folk healer of indigenous descent. She showed Dan how to make herbal remedies. “My grandmother taught me about the healing power of nature,” he says. Dan’s grandfather, Domingos, worked as a fisher and on water buffalo transports, sometimes taking Dan along on both jobs. Water buffalo graze the eastern savanna on Marajó, their population vastly outnumbering the human one. Domingos helped Dan recognize how heavily people depend on the environment for livelihoods. “He respected the forest and nature very much,” says Dan. “That is how I learned to as well. How to have a love for natural things.”

Today, Dan is a biologist and a conservationist, and this year, he joins Rare to lead a Pride campaign for sustainable fishing in the coastal municipality of Soure on his native island. As Dan prepares to launch the campaign, he finds himself looking back, not only at the scientific knowledge stockpiled in his head over the course of his career, but further back, at the lessons his grandparents taught him. To Dan, his impact will rest on restoring the same sense of awe and connection to the natural world shared by Teresa and Domingos — a link he thinks has been lost among the island’s next generation of coastal fishers.

When Dan was younger, he was always exploring the outdoors. “I was an adventurous kid,” he says. He filled his time with fishing, playing in the forest, and paddling canoes near the shore. Sometimes, Dan kept this activity hidden from his grandparents. While they fostered his respect for nature, they didn’t want their grandson to depend on it for a living. That meant no fishing beyond the level of a hobbyist, and no working with the water buffalo. “They wanted me to have a better life and to study,” he says.

Dan obeyed their rules halfway: he kept up with his studies, but he would also sneak out of the house during their afternoon naps to visit his neighbors, a family of fishers that taught him how to better fish and deftly handle gear. Over time, Dan’s curiosity about fishing extended to its culture. He took up photography and filmmaking and documented life in Marajó’s fishing communities. “Filming and photography made me know the communities intimately, the life of the fishermen, the stories, the experiences,” he says.


Filming and photography made me know the communities intimately, the life of the fishermen, the stories, the experiences.”Dan de Avelar Silva, Rare Pride Campaign Manager, Soure


Following fishers with his camera, Dan began to understand why his grandparents tried to discourage him from a life in the industry. The work is hard for a small-scale fisher: it’s physically draining, the sector’s strength is stifled by its informality and murky data, and coastal fisheries are on the decline. Booming human populations and demand for fish have bred competition and overfishing. In Dan’s region, such activity puts a huge area of critical ecosystems — including some of the largest contiguous mangrove forests in the world — at risk.

A photo by Dan of a local fisher sewing his net on Marajó Island.

A photo by Dan of water buffalo grazing the savanna on Marajó Island’s eastern side.

Dan has seen the effects of unsustainable activity for himself, particularly within the Soure Marine Extractive Reserve (RESEX), a marine protected area on Marajó’s coast. The area holds a large tract of mangrove forest and is central to ongoing efforts to restore fish populations for the people of the wider state of Pará. Dan’s photography brought him in contact with a manager from Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade (ICMBio), the Brazilian government agency responsible for protected areas. After that, Dan began volunteering with government projects focusing on the Soure RESEX. He also worked on the UNESCO Sustainable Fishing Project in the area, surveying RESEX families and mapping residencies for more context information.

Dan says fishing conditions are worsening in part because local people can no longer take “only what nature can give us.” That mindset of moderation is one he believes is still common among older fishers, but is fading among younger fishers. He says young fishers tend to be more easily tempted to overfish in search of fast cash. “The way of life in the past and now is different, with consumption of modern society,” says Dan. “Today, the sea cries over the attitudes that people have adopted.”

Dan hopes that his Pride campaign, launching this month, can revitalize the communities’ traditional respect for nature. Pride is Rare’s strategy for building community buy-in for its technical solutions. Pride campaigns apply behavioral insights to bring about conservation, and are shaped by concepts like emotional appeals — efforts channeling the power and influence of emotions like gratitude, compassion and pride to help local people form healthy, sustainable relationships with nature. “People in the community really rely on the quality of the environment,” says Dan. “It’s important to respect and love nature, and it is key to understand the importance of inspiring people.”

As a Rare Pride campaign manager, Dan aims to advance community adoption of a strategy called “managed access and reserves.” The approach integrates marine reserves into the Soure RESEX (inside which fishing access is managed through rights), folding new areas of marine conservation into existing areas of sustainable use. Dan’s campaign will relay to fishers the importance of adhering to RESEX regulations, while seeking out their involvement and input in reserve design and placement. Dan will focus on Soure shrimp fishers, specifically the younger fishers, and hopes to reduce predatory fishing with unsustainable gear like the onion sacks some use for trawling.


Today, the sea cries over the attitudes that people have adopted.”Dan de Avelar Silva, Rare Pride Campaign Manager, Soure


Though older fishers have so far joined campaign efforts in more earnest than their younger counterparts, Silva looks forward to inspiring change across all demographics. He already sees a “zum-zum,” a buzz among local people, around the campaign. “Fishers are increasingly talking on the streets about the campaign and behavior change. However, I believe it is still necessary to strengthen the communities more, to root the discussion from the campaign in the entire population.”