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.

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