29 January 2009


Early flight to Porto Seguro in Bahia, a charming little town off the beaten track, where Chris Holvorcem from Instituto BioAtlantica told us about its efforts to save the Atlantic coastal forests, another hot spot, which have been reduced to a fraction of their original expanse. The main cause is conversion to cattle ranching, another reason not to eat meat. She introduced us to a delightful restaurant called Portinha (the little door), where delicious food was served up, buffet style, with local charm, plenty of vegetables, and cheap.

Stora Enso, the Swedish-Finnish paper conglomerate, one of the world's largest, in partnership with Aracruz Paper of Brazil, has created an ultra-modern pulp plant called Veracel for export, mainly to the USA. They welcomed our visit with a complete tour of the facility and explanation of their cutting-edge practices. We began by meeting with the production manger, a Swedish engineer, Hans Lindberg, and several others. Paper is one of Allen’s specialties, and he was intent on getting the skinny on this place, asking many questions that required our hosts to call the various experts. Paper is, by definition, an environmentally nasty business: trees are cut, trucked to the plant, cooked in a toxic chemical soup, lots of clean water used, lots of emissions created, more shipping, massive amounts of carbon produced in the whole cycle. So use it wisely. That said, Veracel seems to be doing it as well as it can be done. One of the biggest issues in Brazil is the conversion of natural lands to agricultural uses, which inevitably produces a lot of carbon, destroys habitat, reduces biodiversity, and pushes species into extinction. Paper production uses a lot of trees, and they are planting eucalyptus for this purpose, due to its fast growth and strong fiber characteristics, saying they are not converting the disappearing Atlantic coastal forests here, but using land that was already cleared for furniture making and cattle ranching.

Also, they say they are reforesting areas, a vital step toward a sustainable future, and abiding by the very progressive Brazilian Forest Code, which mandates strict natural buffers between agricultural land and all water bodies, and a variety of other measures. The governing body for sustainable forest product harvesting is the FSC (Forest Stewardship Council), and companies hire auditors to verify their compliance, a process Veracel is pursuing now. I have always been fascinated by paper production, so the opportunity to go through a pulp mill (the first step in the process) was fascinating.

After the mill, we went to see the eucalyptus farms- a non-native species that sterilize monocultures, as one would expect, then to a regeneration project of a forest that had been cut in the 1970s for furniture and charcoal (for production of pig iron). Of course a forest is an extremely complex system that will take a long time to regain its diversity, but we must start somewhere…

In our era of trans-continental homogenization of everything from money to dress codes to verbal expressions to sushi, how will we know if it's Tuesday in Bangkok or Friday in Berlin? Cultural extinction is as worrisome as species extinction. Our culture and language define the way we think, and if we all subsist on a diet of Disney, CNN, and McDonalds, the world becomes a very small place, and then who really cares about those sea turtles off the coast of Brazil? We see them on Animal Planet, so everything must be OK. The irony is that we value diversity, but principally as novelty, instead of as the vitality that sustains us. The Pataxo Indians on the coast of Bahia, Brazil are determined to keep their heritage using a variety of approaches: eco-tourism, natural forest products based on their traditions, and a creative melding of the modern world and their inheritance. It was fascinating to meet people that were educated, intelligent, and aware of the modern world while simultaneously celebrating their legacy. We learned about their resuscitation of traditional remedies, reforestation programs, eco-tourism ideas large and small, the plans to preserve their language and culture, and had a glimpse into their way of life.
And, did I mention that they were beautiful, charming, and graceful? You can go visit them as well, an hour north of Porto Seguro, enjoy that small beach town, and eat at Portinha.

A slow day in Porto Seguro, caught up on work, walked along the beach to Portinha, then flew to Sao Paulo and back to Campo Grande. Sandro Menezes (the CI biologist) and his lovely wife Nati met us at the airport (bless them) and we rented a car for the trip to the Pantanal Swamps the next day. Funny the negative connotation of the word swamp, when it is actually a rich place, teeming with biodiversity.

27 January 2009


We were supposed to fly a chartered plane from Campo Grande to Emas National Park, a journey that would have afforded us an aerial view of the Pantanal, but bad weather forced us to travel by car. We met Mario Barroso, a Conservation International biologist, specializing in the Cerrado Region, an extensive savannah, rich in biodiversity, with the Emas in the center. Mario is as knowledgeable and sharp-eyed as Sandro, able to spot a baby fox in a den from a speeding car. The Cerrado seems monotonously endless and unvaried, revealing itself to be fantastically diverse and fascinating only to those with patience and curiosity. The Cerrado has been declared one of the world’s 25 environmental hot spots by Conservation International, due to its unprotected incredible riches. While the world fixates on the Amazon, the Cerrado, just as biodiverse, is rapidly being slashed and burned for cattle ranches and sugar cane for biofuel (56 refineries are in construction or planning, each of which will require 40,000 hectares of sugar cane to feed).

On the road we saw a carcara (falcon) trying to kill a rattlesnake (young female); Mario rescued and I photographed her.

We all have this biblical fear of snakes, but like all predators, they play a vital role in their ecosystems, and the fact is that human deaths by snake-bite are extremely rare. Of course, we were actually just depriving the poor hawk of a meal; getting in the way of the natural order again.

We were met at Emas by members of Oreades, a local environmental group, and ate a great meal with lots of vegetables and delicious barbecued beef and hung out with park staff. That night we walked in the park and drove to see bioluminescence of termite mounds. Lampiridae larvae luminesce to attract prey and grab them with a pincher.

We woke up at 6:30am and walked to Formoso River, where we saw some birds which were, unfortunately, hard to shoot. At 10:00am, we left the park to go to the recycling station at Chapadao do Ceu. Good effort separating the garbage, simple things like glass and metal are repurposed, a lot is buried, much of it will be burned in a simple incinerator, and the thought of all that plastic being burned improperly is frightening. Burning garbage is a science, or a virtual pandora's box of dioxin, acid gasses, heavy metals, chlorinated organics, and the list goes on. According to Allen, an expert on solid waste, time, temperature and turbulence are the keys to successful incineration. The smell was not so pleasant. Back to Emas for lunch; on the way in, we were graced with a bunch of blue and yellow macaws on a termite mound. So beautiful. Fantastic complaining voices. It's a crime that they are kidnapped and shipped to North America and Europe as pets for misguided people. Filmed, photographed and listened to them for a nice while.

We hung out with the park staff over lunch, then headed north for a meeting with Oreadas, a local environmental group. On the way, we went to the Avoador River Mirante (within Emas), an overlook from the plateau down into the river valley. Eventually one uses all of the synonyms for beautiful, and you start again.

There had been a fire nine months before that was arrested along the road. The fire area had trees with burned trunks, but the vibrancy of the vegetation was amazing: brilliant green shoots, a multitude of colorful flowers with fascinating bugs happily exploring; birds chasing the bugs, and so on. Immediately upon leaving the park, Mario, our Conservation International scientist (what an eye), spotted a crab-eating fox in her burrow with a kit (from a speeding car). I got good photos of her trying to lead us away, but the kit stayed in the burrow, and all I saw was a nose and one eye.

In the morning, we went to a nursery in Mineiros, which Oreades is building to propagate native tree species in the Cerrado, and then the long bumpy drive back to Campo Grande, where we would fly to Sao Paulo. Ecosystems can recover from man-caused devastation, but it is a long process, even with the help of well-meaning humans. Hats off to Oreades. Then a long slog back to Campo Grande where we would take another series of flights to the Atlantic Coastal Region, meet an indigenous tribe, and investigate a “sustainable” paper mill.

22 January 2009


In October 2008, I went to Brazil for three weeks with Allen Hershkowitz, senior NRDC scientist, on a fact finding mission to explore some of the vital, but less-known, ecological “Hot Spots.” (Brazil might be the most important place in the world from a biodiversity standpoint.) Some examples: The Atlantic Forest is one of the most biodiverse regions of the world, even after having been 90 percent deforested. The Cerrado, the central plateau, is also rated as one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots. Emas National Park is an oasis, rich in a plethora of species, sandwiched between sugar cane and cattle ranches. The Pantanal “swamps” (funny how negative the connotation, and, am I being repetitive here?) let’s just say it’s the place where the knowledgeable wildlife watchers come.

Being south of the Equator, springtime, the rainy season in much of the area we would see, was just beginning. As “Yanquis,” we went armed with the best western vaccines and preventatives known to “man,” which usually turned out to be detrimental to our salvation. One thing that amazes me is the ubiquity of the modern electronic realm; the world is shrinking, especially the “great unknown.” Ironic that western man and his religions spent so long “subjugating the beast,” and suddenly we realize that our vanquish is our own detriment. The “beast” is what gives us our clean air, clean water, and more important, though entirely ethereal, our spirit.

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Our flight from New York to Sao Paulo was uneventful and, after a cautionary check on our luggage, we went on to Campo Grande, capitol of Mato Grosso do Sul, a booming ranching state. Since the time zone is the same as New York, we had minimal travel weariness.

The next day we connected with Sandro Menezes, Pantanal program manager for Conservation International. It's always a joy to meet people that are experts in their field and can give you the nitty gritty on the ground, and we would meet many on this trip; dedicated, experienced, knowledgeable people working on the issues. Sandro took us to meet with Neo Tropica Foundation at its office in Bonito; this is a group that is working to save the Pantanal (largest swamp in the world), which stretches across three countries: Bolivia, Paraguay, and Brazil. They are doing good work, but due to the lack of a donor base, must accept money from corporations whose activities might conflict with the goals of the foundation.

We stayed at the Hotel de Cabanas, a delightful eco-tourism lodge with a friendly, dynamic staff. That afternoon, we did their Canopy tour, essentially a Marine Corps obstacle course, 30 feet off the ground. Imagine tight-rope walking through the trees. It's quite a thrill to be in the tree-tops, but not for the faint of heart, and the end is a zip ride into the water, a finale we all declined as it was late and cold.


Distances are long in Brazil, prompting an early departure the next morning for the drive to Jardim. The cowboy culture created in Hollywood and revered around the world actually exists in The Pantanal. Cattle-raising has been the main industry in the region for hundreds of years.

The Cabecira do Prata Cattle Ranch was inherited by a maverick son with a passion for the environment, and an obstinate will. In spite of the protests of his family, he created Rio de Prata Eco tours, the main attraction being a snorkeling tour down the Olho Dágua River to the Prata River. Visitors are outfitted with a wetsuit, mask and snorkels, introduced to their very knowledgeable guide, and then take a walk through the remaining cattle operation down to the river, during which a history of the ranch, and the local environment is imparted. By the time one gets to the river, a bit of perspiration has developed (wetsuits don't breathe well), so the water is a welcome refreshment. Strict rules are in place so as not to disturb the river ecosystem, and off you go. The experience is like flying in a dream: the river takes you, passing over an amazing variety fish, underwater springs resembling volcanoes of sand, under fallen trees, and through rapids. Afterwards, there was a delicious lunch, much home-grown organic fare, and the joyous camaraderie of having experienced a once-in-a-lifetime thrill.

Our guide, Marcos, urged us to go to Buraco das araras (hole of the Macaws), a limestone sinkhole which is a haven for red and green macaws; what an amazing site, a pair of macaws, who mate for life, alighting on a tree just in front of us and engaging in a wonderful display of play and grooming behavior. We also saw a toco toucan and a peach-fronted parakeet.