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Tree top botany in the Amazon

Extracting and cataloguing botanical specimens from the rainforest canopy doesn´t sound easy, even with fantastic tree climbing skills, but with the help of some botanists from INPA and Kew Gardens (and a ten metre extendible tree pruner) the community of Xixuaú have shown that the ‘Botânica Comunitária’ (Community Botany) project could work.

The latest milestone for the project was reached during a visit by Dr Mike Hopkins of INPA (the Brazilian National Institute for Amazon Research), and Dr Daniela Zappi and Dr William Milliken both from the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.  They undertook a feasibility study, which gave the community new understanding of their environment, and new skills to help specimens get safely from the rainforest canopy to the herbarium cupboard.  This isn't easy, as William explains:

"The training in the rainforest covers the whole process.  The first step is to climb the trees to get to the specimen, using a strap around the feet to grip the tree – something the ribeirinhos are great at!  At the top a safety harness is used to tie the climber to the tree, but only once they're right at the top.  Then a rope is let down to winch a ten metre pruning pole all the way up into the canopy.  This is used to snip bits off the higher branches, which the rest of the team collect on the ground below.  On the ground we also make observations on the bark and note whether there's any smell or latex from the trunk, record the GPS position, and take photos of the tree and the specimen.”

"Back in Xixuaú, people create bundles of the specimens sandwiched between newspapers, cardboard and corrugated aluminium - this helps the air circulate better in the kiln.  We held a meeting with the women in the village and they are really interested in helping with this stage. The specimens take about a day to dry, and are then sorted and bundled up for transportation to the herbarium, where they can be studied and identified.” 

The feasibility study showed where the community will do well - and where they might need help: they are brilliant at climbing the trees and now have a good understanding of the process and how the project might work.  But, as in much of the Amazon, literacy levels are low and note-taking can be more of a struggle.  Artemizia Brazão, the community nurse, is keen to use her extra education to help manage the data and the specimens. 

William is very pleased with progress:

"The feasibility study helped show how the project could best develop in a way that fits with local expectations and skills.  Some people are really keen because of the value of the project in helping them to interpret the vegetation for tourists, and because it can help in the future management of the Resex.  They have a genuine interest in, and knowledge of, plants.  They are very enthusiastic and capable, and ready to get started."