- The Serra das Almas reserve in northeastern Brazil has benefited from sustained conservation measures that have turned cropland and pasture back into native Caatinga vegetation and allowed the return of wildlife.
- More than 800 animal and plant species are known to occur in the reserve, including the rare three-banded armadillo, a species that, until its sighting here last year, hadn’t been seen in Ceará state since 2008.
- The Caatinga Association, which owns and manages the Serra das Almas reserve, has encouraged the creation of more protected areas throughout the biome, providing support for 26 private reserves and three public conservation units, covering a combined 103,600 hectares (256,000 acres).
- Maintaining the Caatinga’s vegetation is crucial for securing water supplies for neighboring communities, and the association is supplementing that role in the face of a changing climate by providing water storage solutions to communities.
From high up in the Serra das Almas Private Natural Heritage Reserve in Brazil’s Ceará state, the forest spreads out beyond the horizon. It’s April here in the municipality of Crateús, some 400 kilometers (250 miles) inland from the state capital, Fortaleza, which means it’s the end of the rainy season. The trees here in this Brazilian hinterland known as the sertão are still clad in green leaves and bright flowers. The reserve, spanning 6,285 hectares (15,530 acres), is part of the Caatinga scrub forest, whose springs are vital for the water security of the communities living nearby.
Since Serra das Almas was established as a private natural heritage reserve, or RPPN, in September 2000, its landscape has been transformed from cropland and livestock pasture to lush vegetation. That recovery was accelerated by forest restoration, with native wildlife soon returning and resuming their natural dynamics.
The reserve is home to a recorded 485 plant, 45 mammal, 45 reptile, 230 bird and 33 amphibian species. The mustached woodcreeper (Xiphocolaptes falcirostris), white-browed guan (Penelope jacucaca) and Ceará leaftosser (Sclerurus cearensis) are among the birds found only in this part of the world. These species are also among those listed in Brazil’s National Action Plan for the Conservation of Caatinga Birds. Several wildcats are also native to the region: the puma (Puma concolor), ocelot (Leopardus pardalis), oncilla (Leopardus tigrinus) and jaguarundi (Herpailurus yagouaroundi). The red-handed howler monkey (Alouatta ululata), an endangered species, has also reappeared in this area.
Perhaps the most surprising wildlife discovery in Serra das Almas came on July 12, 2022. Biologist Samuel Portela was returning to the reserve when he spotted a three-banded armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus) on the dirt road. The species is an icon of Brazil’s semiarid region, but hadn’t been seen in the state since 2008.
Portela got out of his car, took off his boots, and started tailing the armadillo barefoot while recording video with his phone. Because he was downwind of the animal, he was able to approach it without being noticed. “I could see it walking, sniffing, eating some insects from the road and the field. It dug a few burrows, probably looking for food on the ground,” he recalls.
Portela knew the importance of that rare encounter. As the technical head of the Caatinga Association, which owns and manages the Serra das Almas reserve, he’d organized two expeditions to the Poti River Canyon on the border of Ceará and Piauí states in 2016 and 2017 to study the range of the three-banded armadillo. At the time, researchers found some individuals in eastern Piauí, but western Ceará residents hadn’t reported seeing the species in recent years.
The conservation efforts in Serra das Almas and its surroundings have contributed to the reappearance of this armadillo species in the state, says biologist Hugo Fernandes, who’s in charge of updating the official list of threatened species in Ceará, published by the state environmental department. The case of the three-banded armadillo, considered endangered in Brazil but only vulnerable on the IUCN Red List (despite the species only occurring in Brazil), is even more fragile in Ceará, where the state lists it as critically threatened.
The disappearance of the three-banded armadillo from the state was a process that took centuries but was only really documented since the 1980s. The main drivers were hunting and loss of habitat — the sandy sediment that the insect-eating animals prefer — as well as activities such as mining, says Fernandes, who only learned of Portela’s 2022 encounter this past April.
“Since no [captive-raised armadillo] has been released in that border with Piauí, these images of a native animal from the area are the most recent record within Ceará territory, and it means the possibility of the Serra das Almas RPPN being a key location for the preservation of the three-banded armadillo in the state,” he says.
From wax source to carbon sink
In the late 1990s, U.S. businessman Samuel Johnson, from the S.C. Johnson business clan, established the Caatinga Conservation Fund, managed by The Nature Conservancy. Some of the money went into creating the Caatinga Association in October 1998. Another portion was used to buy land that would protect the natural habitat of the carnauba palm tree, emblematic of this biome and whose wax was the backbone of the family’s business empire since the 1930s. At the turn of the millennium, the two landowners who still had farms in the Serra das Almas agreed to sell their properties for an offer above market value.
“There was a lot of thicket, but it wasn’t very well preserved, because people used to cut it to plant their crops and raise cattle,” says Aureliano da Silva Neto, the first ranger of the Serra das Almas reserve. “It was good only because it was a quiet place. But it was mostly deforested.”
Neto moved to the area as a child, with his parents working the corn, bean and cassava fields. He didn’t learn to read or write, instead spending his childhood in the forest, “walking, stopping, paying attention.” He credits this upbringing with turning him into one of the leading experts on the local biodiversity.
Now married with eight children, Neto has lived for 22 years in Jatobá Medonho, a community that neighbors the reserve but that falls within the jurisdiction of the municipality of Buriti dos Montes in Piauí state. He still returns to the reserve to guide teams of researchers, including a group conducting a survey earlier this year to assess the carbon stock in Serra das Almas. They put the number at 1.6 million metric tons: 30% of it in the aboveground biomass, and 70% in the soil, litter and root systems.
A vulnerable biome
The Caatinga covers a tenth of Brazil’s landmass, or an area of about 862,000 square kilometers (333,000 square miles) straddling nine states, and home to around 27 million people. Human activities such as cattle ranching and cotton plantations have wiped out 46% of the original vegetation of the Caatinga, the only biome in Brazil that sits entirely within the country’s borders.
Pressure on the Caatinga remains strong, according to mapping initiative MapBiomas. From 1985 to 2021, the biome lost 10.1% of its native vegetation, had 16% of its area burned, and saw a 23% reduction in water bodies. In the same period, the amount of land in the biome dedicated to agriculture and livestock expanded by 24%, and human-use areas amounted to 31 million hectares (77 million acres).
There are 234 conservation units in the Caatinga, covering nearly 8 million hectares (20 million acres). This gives the Caatinga the third-highest proportion of protected territory (9.14%) of all Brazilian biomes, and the fourth-largest number of conservation units. However, the disconnected nature of fragments of native and secondary vegetation poses a major challenge to the recovery of the Caatinga.
“It is a seasonally dry biome, but the riparian forest was the original connection not only between fragments and large continuous areas of Caatinga but also with the Amazon and the Atlantic Forest,” says Fernandes, the state biologist. “These ecological corridors, which are very dependent on the riparian forest, have historically been extirpated.”
In 2019, the Caatinga Association proposed the creation of a federal environmental protection area and seven more conservation units in Piauí and Ceará. These, along with 12 existing and proposed protected areas, would together form a 494,000-hectare (1.22-million-acre) corridor along the Poti River Canyon, the habitat of the three-banded armadillo. Three conservation units were subsequently created in the region with the association’s support: Poti River Canyon State Park in Piauí, Poti River Canyon State Park on Ceará, and Boqueirão do Rio Poti Environmental Protection Area in Ceará.
“Along the river there are several very interesting areas that include archaeological sites, with some kind of environmental attraction or appeal,” says Portela, the biologist. “Because of the large demographic void, these areas can be connected by fully protected or sustainable-use conservation units in places with more human occupation.”
The Caatinga Association has already contributed to the creation of 26 RPPNs and three public conservation units that cover a combined 103.600 hectares (256,000 acres), in addition to 15 management plans. These actions were expanded in 2011 with the No Clima da Caatinga project sponsored by state-owned oil and gas company Petrobras, which focused on the surroundings of the Serra das Almas mountain range and encouraged the creation of other private reserves in Crateús.
José Wilmar de Sabóia was the first landowner to be assisted by the Caatinga Association in creating an RPPN in Crateús. Sabóia grew up in the Monte Nebo community, where his grandparents had moved to in the late 19th century. “I didn’t know anything about reserves, but I had this wish to conserve,” he says.
He formed the 205-hectare (506-acre) Neném Barros RPPN in 2012, of which 63 hectares (156 acres) came from his own property. The Caatinga Association now assists in managing the reserve, including opening trails, adapting areas to receive visitors, and hiring a park ranger.
“This reserve focuses on two points: conducting scientific research and raising student awareness,” says Sabóia, who plans to expand the RPPN by another 100 hectares (250 acres).
With the support of the Caatinga Association, he reforested a 7-hectare (17-acre) area next to the reserve and, since early this year, has been hosting restoration experiments on his land using specially developed seedlings, in partnership with the Restoration Ecology Laboratory at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte. The seedlings have elongated roots, which aims to increase their survival rate when planted in the Caatinga from 30% to 70%. More than 15,000 of the 20,000 planned seedlings have already been planted. With research and environmental education, Sabóia says he can ward off the current pressures weighing on the land: burning on neighboring properties, and invasions by hunters and loggers.
Resilience in a semiarid region
The preserved vegetation of the Serra das Almas mountain range also contributes to the water security of nearby communities. An external audit by the company LimnoTech found that the reserve sequesters an additional 4.8 billion liters (1.27 billion gallons) of water per year — that is, without the intact forest, the region would lose this much water in runoff each year.
This is a critical issue in Ceará, where more than 100 of the state’s 184 municipalities were in a state of emergency from 2012 to 2017 due to a prolonged and extreme drought. But the four springs of the Serra das Almas Nature Reserve remained stable, helping recharge of the water table and seven watersheds of the Poti River and, consequently, neighboring populations’ water supply.
That makes it all the more important to protect the biome from the impacts of a changing climate, says Daniel Fernandes, head of the Caatinga Association.
“The Caatinga is highly vulnerable to climate change. There are already three desertification spots in Ceará, with environmental, social, economic impacts, including a potential new cycle of rural flight — people who can’t make a living from the land and migrate to urban areas,” he says.
About 15,000 people live in 40 communities around the reserve; 30 of the communities are in the municipality of Crateús and 10 in Buriti dos Montes. Most live off subsistence farming, retirement pensions or government welfare. The Caatinga Association provides assistance to help the communities adapt to the rapidly changing conditions in this semiarid region. Since 2007, it has distributed 1,419 forms of assistance, such as slab cisterns, biowater systems and bioseptic gardens, and trained 3,381 people to use them.
In his backyard in Jatobá Medonho, former Serra das Almas ranger Neto shows off his biowater system. It filters wastewater from bathing and washing dishes and clothes, cleaning it up so that it can be used to irrigate his fruits and vegetables. Farming now is a huge improvement over before the system was installed, Neto says.
“It was bad. I often had to get water from the well. I’d carry it on my head to water [the plants],” he says. Now, he adds, he can water his plants even through the dry season: “All the time.”
In the same community, Antonia Elisabete Soares received a slab cistern in 2014, a year of extreme drought. “Without that, I would’ve gone somewhere far away, because there was no water and I was pregnant at the time,” she says.
Her backyard also features a bioseptic garden: an ecological septic tank where sewage from the house where she lives with her mother goes. The “bio” part of it is the banana tree that receives that wastewater, filters it, and evaporates the water out, all without allowing it to contaminate the water table.
Soares opens the lid of the cistern and celebrates that it’s almost full, with a total capacity of 16,000 liters (4,200 gal). It’s the end of April, the winter rains are about to end and will be followed by at least eight months of a summer drought typical of the Caatinga climate.
“We’ve already covered it there, with all the protection, because now I don’t need to use it, except when there’s a power outage and we can’t pull water from the well,” Soares says. “It’s still raining.”
Banner image of coroa-de-frade (Melocactus bahiensis), a species of cactus native to the Caatinga, in the Serra das Almas reserve. Image by Kevin Damasio.
Editor’s note: Mongabay Brazil’s reporter traveled to the Serra das Almas Private Natural Heritage Reserve at the invitation of the Caatinga Association. Mongabay maintains complete editorial independence over the story reported during this visit, and the Caatinga Association has no editorial input on Mongabay content.