But it is also the subject of a local fish farming project aimed at protecting this precious resource, while preventing predations by illegal fishermen in the indigenous territory of the Javari Valley.
For the Kanamari, one of the seven ethnic groups identified in this river valley, the mythical story of the pirarucu (Arapaïma gigas) is told as follows: "a tree leaf fallen into the water and became a giant fish," says the cacique Mauro da silva Kanamari.
Long anonymous food of Amerindians living in these confines of the immense Amazon rainforest, pirarucu now features prominently on the menus of gourmet restaurants and other "fusion food" of Rio, Bogota or Lima.
A fisherman with a pirarucu (Arapaïma gigas) in the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve (RDS) in Fonte Boa, Amazonas state, Brazil, November 5, 2022 © MICHAEL DANTAS / AFP
A success that makes its misfortune: its purchase price breaks records on the illegal markets and illegal ice sheds of Atalaia do Norte, Benjamin Constant, Tabatinga (Brazil) and its neighboring twin city of Leticia (Colombia), the main localities of the triangle of the three borders.
Resistant to piranhas
The pirarucu is one of the largest freshwater fish on the planet: omnivorous, it can reach up to 3 meters long, for more than 200 kg.
Its scarlet, tail-tapering dorsal fin, as well as its awkward flattened head and bulging eyes make it look like a prehistoric fossil.
Fishermen unload pirarucus (Arapaïma gigas) at a dock at the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve (RDS) in Fonte Boa, Amazonas state, Brazil, November 4, 2022 © MICHAEL DANTAS / AFP
Everything is good in the pirarucu, flesh and fillets of course, succulent, almost without bones and without the usual mud taste of freshwater fish.
We use even the tripe, its leather and scales (resistant to attacks by piranhas) which are sold as keychains for tourists.
It is fished with nets and harpoons, the fish coming to breathe on the surface at least every twenty minutes. It is seen at the beginning of the year - when the waters are at their highest - in the lakes and ponds of the meanders of the Amazon and its tributaries.
Victim of overfishing throughout the Brazilian Amazon, the pirarucu almost disappeared in the 90s, until the implementation of a strict regulation in 2004 by the environmental police, Ibama.
Fishermen carry Pirarucu (Arapaïma gigas) on a boat in the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve (RDS) in Fonte Boa, Amazonas state, Brazil, November 5, 2022 © MICHAEL DANTAS / AFP
In the state of Amazonas, its fishing is strictly regulated. It is forbidden in the Javari reserve, except for the own consumption of the natives.
"Beautiful and good"
Supported by a Brazilian NGO (CTI) and managed directly by the Kanamari Amerindians, a natural fish farming project is currently being tested in the Middle Javari, inspired by sustainable management successfully implemented elsewhere in the country.
A fishmonger cuts the flesh of a pirarucu (Arapaïma gigas), in the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve (RDS) in Fonte Boa, Amazonas state, Brazil, November 7, 2022 © MICHAEL DANTAS / AFP
"The idea is that indigenous people feed themselves, provide for themselves, while protecting their territory," Thiago Arruda, local head of the CTI, told AFP.
This project of the "manejo", according to its Portuguese name, "is very important for us", underlines Bushe Matis, general coordinator of Univaja, the Union of Indigenous Peoples of the Javari Valley.
"People used to fish anyhow. From now on we will take care of lakes and fishing areas, to always have fish in the future, while contributing to the fight against intrusions," he said.
But the task is arduous, perilous, in the face of illegal fishermen. "They are the ones who steal from us!" lashed out Joao Filho Kanamari, one of the project's coordinators.
A fishmonger shows the skin of a Pirarucu (Arapaïma gigas), in the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve (RDS) in Fonte Boa, Amazonas state, Brazil, November 7, 2022 © MICHAEL DANTAS / AFP
Organized in vigilante groups, the Kanamari play the card of awareness and dialogue, facing smugglers who are often aggressive and possibly violent.
After five years of gestation, the project comes to an end this summer 2023, with a final count of pirarucus and the first catches. Ibama has already given its approval, and authorized the marketing of future catches.
But there are still many pitfalls. Logistics for example, with the organization by the rustic Kanamari of a cold chain from the depths of the forest. Or the thorny sharing of benefits within the community.
The "manejo" also arouses the growing greed of local political and economic actors "not necessarily well-intentioned and probably involved in illegal fishing networks", worries a promoter of the project.
A fishmonger rolls Pirarucus (Arapaïma gigas) skins in the Mamiraua Sustainable Development Reserve (RDS) in Fonte Boa, Amazonas state, Brazil, November 7, 2022 © MICHAEL DANTAS / AFP
In the meantime, the Kanamari praise in song this "beautiful and good" project. "The manejo is the future of our children!" smiled Cacique Mauro.
© 2023 AFP