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Small steps on a fantasy island

Jennifer Rich looks at efforts to educate the young and mitigate environmental losses on a small island in Brazil’s fabulous Mata Atlantica.
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The campsite at the Isle of Cardoso was getting a final going over and half a dozen camp counselors wolfed down lunch before the arrival of their latest guests. More than 60 school kids were due to descend on the site for three days of learning about the importance of preserving the Atlantic rainforest, or as it’s known here, Mata Atlantica.

This is one of the small steps Brazil has taken to ensure that the next generation better understands the relationship between the health of its environment and the health of the nation - and, ultimately, the world.

“If it weren’t for the environment, we wouldn’t be here,” said Eduardo Chammas, one of the children who had arrived from Our Mother of Mercy school in Sao Paulo.

Environmental education is starting to gain popularity in grade schools in the region, and the staff at the Isle of Cardoso is trying to ride the wave by providing the kids with a hands-on look at the country’s rich patrimony. They are hoping to stimulate awareness among the country’s young people in the hope that Brazil’s next generation will feel a kind of stewardship that has escaped the current one.

“Some of the kids live right here on the coast and have never even seen the Mata,” said Lazara Gazzeta, coordinator of an environmental education program in the region for SOS Mata Atlantica. “We are trying to show them what the area has to offer.”

Located on the southern coast of Sao Paulo state, the Isle of Cardoso is a perfect laboratory for environmental education. Over the years, researchers working in the state park have cataloged 438 species of birds, 86 different mammals and 986 species of plants, one of the highest concentrations of biodiversity in a country teeming with it. Many of the animals that live on the island, like the yellow-bellied alligator and the purple-faced parrot, are threatened with extinction.

Protecting this habitat is not merely a matter of preventing development. “Flower poaching” is common on the island, which, like most of the southern coastline, brims with orchids and bromelias, ornamental plants that are highly coveted in the rich markets of North America and Europe. The

federal environmental agency Ibama estimates that 300 tons of medicinal herbs are illegally removed from the protected areas in and around the park every year.

The price of a purple-faced parrot
Complicating the situation are the scores of traditional communities of native peoples that ring the area. Subsistence fisherman, hunters and farmers live on an average per capita income of $250 a year. To protect the nature around these communities, local government agencies and environmental groups are working with residents to find alternatives to harmful practices.

“Do you know how much a purple-faced parrot sells for in the United States and Europe?” asks

Wilson Alameida Lima, coordinator of the southern coastal region for Ibama. “Up to $5,000. The locals may only be paid $10 for catching the birds, but it is money they can’t earn elsewhere. We have to find viable alternatives for these communities to earn a living.”

Ibama’s first step has been to legitimize some activities so that the impact on the environment can be monitored and regulated. This has been an exercise requiring a lot of patience and negotiation. Lima said the effort is slowly paying off, however. To the north of the Isle of Cardoso on Long Island, a community of ornamental flower collectors was recently licensed by the government and formed into a cooperative to coordinate the supply of bromelias. The hope is that regulated harvests will save the species and also the creatures that, in turn, need the bromelias to survive.

Mollusk management
Perhaps the greatest success story in the region has been in the community of Mandira, where oyster collectors, along with more than a dozen concerned groups and environmental agencies, fought to create a nature reserve for the sustainable extraction of the mollusks.

Still, the groups are far from stabilizing the mollusk habitat. Each of these projects helps little more than 100 people to shift their economic activity away from environmental degradation.

“I’m sure we’ll all die before we can do 20 percent of the things that we have seen need to be done around here,” said Jocemar Tomasino Mendonca, a researcher for the State Secretary of Agriculture’s Fishing Institute. “But despite all of the problems with funding and with bureaucracy, our projects only take a little time to show a lot of results. It’s really gratifying.”