Through the Rolex Awards For Enterprise, the Swiss watchmaker gives passionate individuals a platform to further their research and projects in conservation, sustainability and medicine, as part of its mission to help save our planet

When Brazilian conservationist and fisheries biologist João Campos-Silva explained his plans to save the arapaima fish population in the Amazon at the Rolex Awards for Enterprise (RAE) in Washington in June 2019, his passion for his work was obvious. Campos-Silva was one of five laureates honoured at the 2019 edition of the RAE, a biennial initiative by Rolex that recognises and supports enterprising individuals helming innovative projects in the fields of science and health, the environment, applied technology, exploration and cultural heritage. 

Referring to the world's biggest scaled freshwater fish, he said: “It’s very large—up to three metres—and can weigh up to 200kg. It has played a central role in feeding Amazonian people since the development of the first human society in the region.” 

Due to overfishing, habitat fragmentation and destructive human behaviour, however, the fish’s population is dwindling. Campos-Silva wanted to reverse this while also saving the livelihoods, food supply and culture of rural communities in Amazonia who depend on the region’s rivers for survival. 

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Above On the Amazon’s Juruá river, João Campos‐Silva and his colleagues stop the engine and paddle as they approach rapids. (Photo: Courtesy of Rolex)

As part of his masterplan, Campos-Silva intended to tag and radio-track 30 specimens of the arapaima, with the intention to study the species' movement, ecology and population dynamics. Forty fishermen and women will be taught to conduct poacher surveillance and employ arapaima census techniques to manage their fish populations and lakes.

“It's a full time [job] of surveillance and patrols to protect the lakes, and protected lakes work like social security for the community. They are also like islands of biodiversity,” Campos-Silva said.

While it’s still early days to determine if his plan will succeed, he has gathered favourable findings on a local level—on the Juruá River in the western Amazon, small, river-connected lakes have been closed to fishing and, coupled with careful fishery management by the local people, the arapaima numbers have jumped by 30-fold. 

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Above The Amazonian community depends on the arapaima so learning from the research of Campos‐Silva (third from left) is necessary. (Photo: Courtesy of Rolex)

The benefits of running such a management model are aplenty. Not only will the arapaima be saved from extinction, but other endangered species including manatees and giant otters will also be given a lifeline. With the fish numbers under control, the local communities will be able to manage the yield for consumption and trading.

According to Campos-Silva, each “controlled” lake now yields an average of US$9,000 in extra annual income for the local communities. “I believe that community-based management of arapaima is the most powerful tool that we have to ensure a sustainable future for the Amazon floodplains,” he said, adding that maintaining a healthy population of the fish will eventually help more people break out of the poverty cycle.

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Above Video: Courtesy of Rolex

The Rolex Awards For Enterprise

Besides Campos-Silva, there were four other laureates recognised at the 2019 edition of the RAE. This included French medical scientist Grégoire Courtine, Ugandan IT specialist Brian Gitta, Indian conservationist Krithi Karanth and Canadian entrepreneur and molecular biologist Miranda Wang.

Laureates are chosen through a meticulous process that involves peer review, assessment, interview and evaluation of the likelihood of their project achieving its aims. An independent jury of international experts will then select the shortlisted candidates. Besides possessing a spirit of enterprise and leadership, candidates must also show that their projects are original, have a clear objective and possess the potential for significant impact. Applications for the 2021 edition of RAE has since closed, with five new laureates poised to receive a grant of CHF200,000 (US$219,000) to advance their projects.

The Rolex Awards was first organised in 1976 to mark the 50th anniversary of the Rolex Oyster, the world’s first waterproof wristwatch. The awards' worldwide success later spurred Rolex to transform it into an ongoing programme, which has since supported some 150 Laureates whose endeavours have made a significant contribution worldwide to improving life and protecting our planet.

See honourees from the Sustainability category in the Gen.T List 2020.

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