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.

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