Bigger than man, tasty and beautiful, the piraruco fish is a favorite among fishermen in the lawless part of the Amazon jungle where Brazil, Peru and Colombia meet.
The piraruco fish, for its skin as much as its flesh, has long been a staple of the indigenous people who fished for air-breathing fish in the lakes in the Javare Valley.
But it’s also become a much-sought-after protein on restaurant menus in Rio, Bogota, and Lima—its growing popularity has pushed up prices and raised the stakes for residents of the Amazon.
The pirarucu’s growing appetite has been blamed for the deaths last year of indigenous rights advocate Bruno Pereira and British journalist Dom Phillips at the hands of fishermen who hacked into their bodies and hid the remains in the jungle.
In the Brazilian province of Amazonas, the piraruco harvest is strictly regulated.
In the Jaffari Valley which is home to the country’s second largest indigenous reserve – home to seven tribes including the Kanamare – only locals can hunt.
However, “They are stealing from us!” said Joao Filho Canamare, an Amazonian who takes his last name from his tribe that regularly comes into conflict with intruders in pursuit of the prized fish.
The story of the piraruco is “a leaf that fell into the water and became a giant fish,” Mauro da Silva Canamare, chief of the Canamare tribe, told AFP.
“Arapaima gigas” by its scientific name, the pirarucu is one of the largest freshwater fish on the planet.
It is a strange-looking creature with a pink, pointed tail, an awkwardly flattened head, and spherical eyes reminiscent of prehistoric beasts.
A carnivore, the piraruco can grow to three meters (9.8 ft) long and weigh over 200 kilograms (440 lb).
Giant fish are caught with nets and harpoons, and are relatively easy to spot and kill because they need to surface to breathe about every 20 minutes.
The piraro is lovingly known to the locals as the “Amazonian cow”, due to its ability to feed so many at once, and it is also very versatile: its skin is used for exotic leather products – shoes, bags or purses.
Pirarucu scales, known for their resistance to piranha teeth, are sold to tourists as key chains.
Due to poaching in the Brazilian Amazon, the piraruco disappeared in the 1990s until the government imposed hunting restrictions.
In 2017, a project was started in the Jaffari Valley with the help of an indigenous NGO called CTI to ensure that the community can continue harvesting piraruco for a long time to come. sustainably.
The project is being run by the Kanamari themselves, who have voluntarily limited their pirarucu catches and agreed not to sell any for five years.
“The idea is that indigenous people can feed themselves, provide for their needs, all while protecting their lands,” said CTI spokesman Thiago Arruda.
The project also involves patrols to identify and report poachers – a risky endeavor that can bring tribesmen into contact with poachers, often armed.
“The project is very important to us,” said Bushi Mathis, coordinator of the Javare Valley Indigenous Peoples Union (Univaja).
“Before people fished like crazy. From now on, we will take care of the lakes and fishing grounds, so that in the future we will always have fish.”
Inventory will occur within weeks, and if the fish population recovers sufficiently, the Kanamare family will be able to start selling again.
But there are hurdles ahead: The community has yet to create a cold chain to safely get fish to customers from every avenue within the bowels of the jungle, and decide how to divide the proceeds.
Some fear that opening up sales would expose the indigenous bush population to a whole new kind of risk.
According to one of the project’s promoters, who asked not to be named, there is a risk that local politicians or businessmen “not necessarily well-intentioned and possibly involved in poaching nets” are on their way to the system.
© 2023 AFP
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