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The Arapaima Management Plan

Completed initiative


Arapaima gigas.

"Arapaima" by Jeff Kubina is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

In the Rupununi wetlands of central Guyana, illegal fishing of arapaima (Arapaima gigas) led to a dramatic reduction in its numbers. In an effort to reverse this trend, a local NGO - the North Rupununi District Development Board - worked closely with local communities to develop the Arapaima Management Plan. The Plan is co-managed with the community and consists of a number of community-based conservation strategies that have been successful in terms of recovery of arapaima and the development of a new conservation ethic, which includes the re-emergence of traditional social sanctions against illegal harvesting of arapaima.



North Rupununi Wetlands cover an area of approximately 8,000km2 and its rivers are home to the arapaima (Arapaima gigas), as well as several threatened species, including the giant river turtle (Podocnemis expansa), black caiman (Melanosuchus niger), and the giant otter (Pteronura brasiliensis).

The people of the North Rupununi are distributed among fourteen primary communities, consisting of approximately 3500 people. This population is composed of Makushi (77%), Wapishana (11%), Arawak (3%), and a mixture of non-indigenous ethnicities (9%).

The poaching and wildlife trade problem

Species affected Arapaima Arapaima gigas

Products in trade

The arapaima is highly prized for its meat and is among the most sought-after fish species in South America.

Overview of the problem

The livelihoods of local people are primarily based on subsistence farming and fishing, with fish being the primary source of protein. Aside from its subsistence value, fish are also traded within and between the communities of the area, along with other bush-meats. This trade included the arapaima, which began initially as a commercial activity and was harvested for both subsistence and income generation.

Arapaima harvest was taboo in traditional Makushi culture. However, the taboo broke down due to outsider harvesting, and by the 1970s and 80s communities had begun to notice a dramatic reduction in the number of the species. Although some people attributed the reduction to the disappearance of traditional rituals, most villagers seemed to recognise overharvest as the major cause of disappearance because although harvest was illegal, there was no formal government enforcement. and adherence to the ban was mostly voluntary.

The anti-IWT initiative

As the population of the arapaima continued to decline, there was a growing sense of alarm within some North Rupununi communities about the health of the fishery, prompting community leaders to voice their concerns in meetings with Government officials. But as no significant action was taken by the Government the unregulated harvest continued, mainly as subsistence, with a much-reduced trade component, which was the result of social pressure coming from within the communities.

A disconnect between communities and the Government continued until the early 1990s when the Iwokrama Rainforest Reserve was created through an agreement between the Guyana Government and the Commonwealth Secretariat. This agreement led to the creation of the Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development (Iwokrama), which is responsible for managing the reserve.

Iwokrama approached this mandate by first investing resources into the creation of a regional body to represent all of the communities of the North Rupununi, and in 1996 the North Rupununi District Development Board (NRDDB) was formed. In 1998, during a series of community-wildlife workshops, communities identified the state of the local arapaima population as a major local concern. Iwokrama acted on these concerns by identifying an established project in the Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve in Brazil, which worked with local communities to manage their arapaima stocks in exchange for harvest quotas. The Mamirauá project had resulted in a number of innovations, including the development of a survey methodology based on fishers’ knowledge.

In 2001, fishers from Mamirauá were brought to Guyana to run a workshop aimed at training Guyanese fishers' to survey arapaima. Scientists from the Mamirauá Institute had discovered that experienced arapaima fishers could count the number of arapaima in a pond, and from this, a standardised method was developed and 13 Guyanese fishers' were trained in the survey methodology and were found to be highly skilled in distinguishing individual arapaima. This gave the project a means of monitoring the impact of conservation efforts.

The Mamirauá link also resulted in a Brazilian scientist being assigned to the Guyanese project, who led the team of Guyanese (NGOs, University of Guyana) in a series of consultations with communities, which were used to adapt lessons gained in Brazil to local conditions in the North Rupununi. These consultations led to the NRDDB agreeing to enforce a local harvest ban, the formation of fisheries committees at the regional and community levels, and in 2002, the development of an Arapaima Management Plan.

The Plan’s objectives were to increase the local arapaima population, improve local organisation institutions and increase local fishers' income. Structures created to implement the Plan included a community-imposed harvesting ban; the formation of fisher groups at village and regional levels; a local monitoring program with checkpoints; and a community education and awareness campaign.

There were a number of actions which were key to implementing the Plan, including:

- Continuous assessment of the arapaima population

- Keeping the communities engaged in management processes

- Carrying out patrols to reduce illegal harvesting

- Development of plans to build a business from legally harvested arapaima

In 2003, as part of the Plan, a community-based aquarium fisheries business was also initiated to create alternative income generating opportunities for indigenous communities. Initially, Iwokrama commissioned market research in Europe to identify species attractive to the aquarium industry and to establish fair pricing standards.

The project concentrated on Loricariid catfish which are of high value on the international aquarium trade. The high value of these species meant that harvesting levels could be kept within sustainable limits. Harvesting was carried out by members of the local community, for which they were paid a daily wage, and employment was shared evenly between interested parties.

The fishing methods used were specific to the target species to reduce by-catch. After an initial donor-funded phase, the project developed into a self-sustaining community-based business headed by the NRDDB. During 2005, the project reached financial sustainability and continued to export fish to international markets, with profits of over US$3,000 (in 2007) fed back into the NRDDB trust, where it was either reinvested into the project or used to support other NRDDB projects.

In 2009, harvesting of the arapaima to create profits for local communities was granted by the Government. The system relies on determining the number of individuals to be harvested based on annual counts of arapaima. Individuals harvested are shared between fishermen and the harvest is then sold to local and Brazilian markets.

The strategy

Strengthening disincentives for illegal behaviour

Strengthening and supporting traditional norms and sanctions against IWT
Further detail

Use of "invisible" social mechanisms from local leaders who were supportive of arapaima conservation. This community-led social pressure seemed to play a larger role in enforcing the ban than the formal structures.

Increasing incentives for wildlife stewardship

Subsistence resource access/use
Legal trade
Further detail

North Rupununi fishermen were trained to use a survey method for monitoring arapaima populations to calculate a future harvest quota for sustainable trade. Communities were involved in the formation of both an Executive Fisheries Committee and a Community Fisheries Committee to manage the surveys and subsequent harvest. Although harvest permits took longer than expected to be granted, in 2009 communities were allowed to harvest arapaima after a population count had been confirmed.

A community-based aquarium enterprise was implemented, involving legal trade in non-threatened, high-value fish species for international aquaria markets, and providing an alternative source of income for local communities that eased the pressure on arapaima.

Improving education and awareness

Further detail

A Community Environmental Workers (CEW) programme originated when community representatives raised the idea of community rangers. Each CEW was paid a stipend by Iwokrama and tasked with raising awareness and carrying out local research, as well as to be the face of any environmental education programs, particularly for the arapaima fishing ban and management. The outreach and awareness activities of the CEWs, and their presence within all of the communities, played a significant role in the social enforcement of the arapaima fishing ban.

As most North Rupununi communities are small, the CEW activities and other in-situ education and awareness campaigns were able to tap into their informal network, benefiting significantly from interpersonal, word of mouth communication. This led to increased community-level monitoring and social pressure to adhere to the ban and were very effective means of monitoring and enforcing the moratorium on arapaima harvest.

Has the initiative made a difference?

Poaching rates have decreased and the population of arapaima is increasing:

- Four surveys (undertaken annually) have been conducted in the management area since 2001, with the total count of adult and juvenile arapaima increasing from 425 in March 2001, to 1200 in December 2003

- In 2009, a population count showed there were 3,062 arapaimas of at least one meter in length

- A survey in 2011 suggested there were over 3300 individuals

However, the most recent estimates from 2014 indicate a 31% depletion of stocks over two years due to overfishing.

Although income generation from arapaima harvesting didn’t begin until 2009, an average of 17 individuals per year from within the communities earned a salary from annual surveys between 2001-2003.

Alternative income based on the collection of small numbers of high-value species for the international aquarium trade also provided increased income security and eased the pressure off arapaima. This activity, initiated in 2003, generated both community wages as well as profit for the NRDDB and potentially improved the ability of households to adapt to changes. Despite this, the number of individuals directly earning from arapaima management, including the aquarium project, remained limited.

In addition to income, a new positive conservation ethic developed amongst the communities, mostly resulting from the re-emergence of informal social mechanisms, including community sanctions against poaching. For example, three instances of illegal fishing of arapaima were reported to the NRDDB by both the local CEW and other villagers.

What works and why

Although the traditional arapaima taboo is no longer effective among the Makushi of the North Rupununi, the social mechanisms that made it so effective are still critical to contemporary efforts at community-based conservation. The first step in attempting to incorporate these mechanisms in current management is understanding the local culture and the legacy of traditional restrictions. In the case of the North Rupununi, the taboo, and the lack of a strong arapaima fishing culture presented a very receptive environment for certain management interventions. In addition, using local knowledge of the species as an entry point proved very effective in gaining initial local support and buy-in to the management process.

Secondly, a strong outreach and awareness campaigned based in the community and run by community members was critical in employing the aforementioned social mechanisms in contemporary conservation initiatives. This is important in situations where formal institutions are culturally inappropriate, non-functional, or slow to develop. However, this level of support is only possible if all the actors, both local and outsiders, share similar objectives and a working relationship based on trust and mutual respect. These types of relationships take time to develop and the right personalities to work.

What began as a somewhat top-down, externally driven project has become strongly dependent on bottom-up support. In the end, it is the change in community attitudes towards harvesting, combined with social enforcement of the ban, which has been the true success of the Project. These social mechanisms appear to be more effective than the formal management institutions and can be credited with the apparent increase in arapaima numbers. Every community-based conservation project will have different challenges and require different approaches. However, community-based Arapaima management in the North Rupununi demonstrates the importance of developing multilevel partnerships, effectively engaging Government, understanding local culture, and targeting informal social mechanisms with a history of success. In particular, the Project shows that although the process may be rocky and unpredictable, the potential benefits of community-based conservation are worth both the time and the mistakes.

Factors for success

Sufficient time investment in building relationships and trust between the initiative and local communities

Devolved decision-making power so local communities have a voice in creating or co-creating solutions (as part of the initiative)

Effective and accountable community-based natural resources management institutions

Effective and trusted community leaders

Clear and tangible benefits to local communities from wildlife (These may be financial and/or non-financial)

Further detail

Iwokrama’s participatory approach (community consultations, recognition of local knowledge as a management tool) resulted in the development of a very positive relationship with the NRDDB and communities. This relationship is grounded in shared objectives, a long history of person to person interaction, and a high level of trust and reciprocity. Local input was also critical in modifying the institutional structures from the initial Brazilian project to better cope with the multi-community conditions in the Rupununi.

Iwokrama played a key role in both the formation of the NRDDB and the development of the project and dedicated substantial funding and effort to the development and strengthening of local institutions. Iwokrama’s collaborative approach has resulted in a strong relationship with the community.

The need for arapaima conservation was recognised by important community leaders prior to the project and they supported the initiative from the beginning, resulting in local support and buy-in from many community members. The monitoring regime, and its use of both local and transferred knowledge, also increased community participation and support.

Although harvesting of arapaima took longer to permit than originally intended, local communities received indirect income from annual surveys, as well as direct income from the international aquarium trade. This has been distributed in the form of salaries to individuals, as well as used by NRDDB to fund further community-enhancing developments.

What doesn’t work and why

Lack of Government support

What was difficult to achieve was getting the government to lift the ban on harvesting arapaima. There were many reasons for this, including inconsistent lobbying from project personnel to get the Government to ratify its verbal commitment. This was largely due to the inexperience of researchers and managers in the political process. Without appropriate training, it was difficult to understand, and maneuver within, the political superstructure around community-based conservation, highlighting the importance of political knowledge in facilitating these types of initiatives.

With the delay in Government approval, the plan to engage in the sustainable harvest and trade of arapaima had to remain on hold, delaying the economic benefits for the communities. Furthermore, the institutions created to implement the plan began to break down. For instance, many of the community level fisheries committees were dormant or non-functional as these structures were created primarily to manage quota harvesting, which hadn’t yet taken place. However, although inactive, many local fishers still identified themselves as “fisher committee members”, and felt that once harvesting was approved they would perform their roles in harvesting and monitoring.

Local capacity

Although on the increase, the lack of local capacity was a limiting factor in achieving true community-based natural resource management in the North Rupununi. For example, the capacity needed to implement the management and other such systems have to be built and community members need to be further empowered to take ownership for managing their resources. The project implementation has also shown that some amount of decentralisation is needed from the NRDDB to the communities for the system to work.


There are limitations for marketing the arapaima beyond local and Brazilian markets. Communities need to build the business prior to expanding into unknown markets.

Sustaining incentives

Illegal commercial fishing continues to be a problem despite the successes, suggesting that strong management and support and involvement from the Ministry of Natural Resources and the Environment; Ministry of Agriculture, Department of Fisheries; Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and other stakeholders are needed to ensure the health of this species and (its) environment.

Factors that limited or hindered success

Lack of supportive national policy/legislation on sustainable use of natural resources

Ineffective and/or untrustworthy community leaders

Further detail

The lack of political will at senior levels in the Ministry was a primary obstacle that delayed the full implementation of the arapaima management project. When the plan was presented to the Ministry in 2002, it gave its full endorsement, committing to a provision in the Fisheries Act which would allow harvesting of an annual quota under the plan. In 2009, however, harvesting permits were granted to local communities.

The NRDDB lacks strong political links, which has proven to be a major barrier to attempts at getting government support for NRDDB initiatives. Approval of the Plan stalled at Governmental level, due to bureaucratic processes, lack of political commitment at senior levels, and the low national economic importance of the fishery.

Organisers, donors and partners

North Rupununi District Development Board

The Iwokrama International Centre for Rainforest Conservation and Development (Iwokrama)

The Ministry of Fisheries, Crops and Livestock, Guyana

Netherlands Committee for the IUCN

UK Department for International Development (DFID)


Mamirauá Sustainable Development Reserve

For further information contact (