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A Brazilian NGO restores widely degraded Atlantic Forest amid mining threats

  • Iracambi is a Brazilian NGO in the Serra do Brigadeiro mountain range, located in the heart of the Atlantic Forest, a biome largely destroyed by rampant deforestation.
  • Leveraging partnerships with local schools and communities, Iracambi hopes to replant 1 million native trees by 2030 and restore the lost Atlantic Forest; 250,000 trees have already been planted.
  • The Serra do Brigadeiro region has the second-largest reserve of bauxite in Brazil, attracting mining interests to the region.
  • Relentless activism swayed a prospecting mining company to invest in important social development projects in the region, but activists remain concerned about the possible impacts mining will have on the environment and small producers’ livelihoods.
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Under the watchful gaze of their classmates, 15-year-old Yan Benini balances a rustic tree pruner toward the leafy canopy of a jatobá (Hymenaea courbaril), while 15-year-old Matheus Perna de Faria yanks the rope attached to the blade, quickly closing the shears. It cuts through the stem, bringing a tangerine-sized seed tumbling to the ground from the tree’s lofty heights. They pick it up, throw it in a sack, then steady the pruner to collect the next one.

These seeds will be cultivated in a nursery and later transplanted to transform old pastures into forests, Dayana Duarte says while out on a field trip with local school children. “[In] today’s class we came to collect jatobá seeds, which is a plant native to the Atlantic Forest,” she says. “This Eco-leader Program aims to train young leaders in our region to protect the environment, especially the Atlantic Forest.”

Iracambi is in the Serra do Brigadeiro mountain range, an area of extraordinary biodiversity and varied landscapes, from dense thickets of forests to bare pastures to extensive coffee plantations. Image ©  Sarah Brown for Mongabay.

Duarte is the education coordinator at Iracambi, an NGO working to conserve and restore the Atlantic Forest in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state. With the help of these children and the surrounding community, Iracambi has already planted 250,000 trees since 2000 and aims to hit the 1-million mark by 2030.

Located in the heart of the Serra do Brigadeiro mountain range, Iracambi’s research center is surrounded by a contrasting mosaic of forest thickets and swaths of pastures and coffee plantations. The Atlantic Forest once sprawled down the entirety of Brazil’s east coast, but five centuries of deforestation for wood and farming has left approximately 26% of the original vegetation sprinkled across 10 states. Despite harboring the highest number of endangered species in Brazil, the Atlantic Forest’s biodiversity remains akin to that of the Amazon Rainforest and it’s a vital water source for millions of people.

“Many people say it’s a biodiversity hotspot,” Duarte says. “It’s a biome that really represents a lot of life.”

Protecting this important biome is an uphill struggle that requires a multifaceted approach. But Iracambi, as well as several other national and international NGOs dotted throughout the biome, is taking on the challenge. The nonprofit brings together restoration projects, environmental education with schools, international volunteer programs and workshops about medicinal plants and natural products for local women to help it achieve its overarching goal of long-term conservation of the Atlantic Forest.

Two young students use a tree pruner to cut down jatobá seeds during their eco-leader course, run by Iracambi. The seeds will be planted in the nursery as part of the NGO’s Atlantic Forest restoration program. Image ©  Sarah Brown for Mongabay.

Community-led projects

Collecting seeds out in the field to be nurtured into future Atlantic Forest saplings is just one of the activities that falls under the Eco-leader Program run by Iracambi in partnership with four local schools. The initiative, aimed at children and teenagers aged 5-15, also includes classes about wildlife identification and the history and importance of the Atlantic Forest, with the core aim of instilling a long-term sense of responsibility for the biome, Duarte says.

“There’s no point in planting a new forest if it isn’t going to be taken care of, if there aren’t people who are motivated to look after it,” she says.

Iracambi also works directly with the wider community in a project called Forest Therapies, which works twofold: It increases the value of a standing forest by emphasizing the health and economic importance of its native plants and helps local women explore alternative forms of income. It’s a way of developing a regional bioeconomy, one that simultaneously preserves the Atlantic Forest and allows the society that lives within it to prosper.

Carla Mariana Faccina, Iracambi’s Forest Therapies coordinator, gives a workshop to a collective of women, showing them different plants and their uses as well as teaching them to make natural products that they can use themselves or sell. Image ©  Sarah Brown for Mongabay.

Under the scorching sun, Carla Mariana Faccina, coordinator of the Forest Therapies program, collects the leaves of the aroeira (Schinus terebinthifolius), known as the Brazilian pink peppercorn, from some of the 100 trees that grow in an old pasture transformed into a diverse agroforest blooming with pitanga (Surinam cherry), guava and other native trees and plants. She fills bags of the aromatic leaves, careful not to take too many from each tree.

“[Aroeira] produces an essential oil rich in anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties,” Faccina says. “It is part of the traditional culture of Brazilian folk medicine.”

She takes the leaves and distills them in a laboratory on-site at Iracambi’s research center to create an essential oil to be used during a practical workshop with an all-women collective from the surrounding community. Using the oil, the women make a natural lip balm that eventually they’ll be able to sell, bringing them another source of income in an area where small-scale farming is a key livelihood. One group of women has already bought a distiller among them to start making their own oils and lip balms, which Faccina estimates they could sell for up to 15 reais ($3) a pot.

“The premise of this program is research, education and, consequently, the conservation of medicinal plants native to the Atlantic Forest,” Faccina says. “We started a year and a half ago, and we’re working with eight communities. The idea is to value the essential oils of the Atlantic Forest and show that it is a source of wonderful products that can also bring a return to the community.”

Two women learn to make all-natural lip balm from essential oil extracted from local Brazilian pink peppercorn leaves. The products can eventually be sold, helping to generate additional income and increase the value of the standing forest. Image ©  Sarah Brown for Mongabay.

Advocating for new policies

Besides its biodiversity and coffee plantations, the Serra do Brigadeiro region is also known as the “vein of Brazilian bauxite,” having the second-largest reserve of this aluminum-rich material in the country.

This reserve has proved impossible for large mining companies to resist, which have sought ways to extract the material for the last 30 years. The expected lifespan of the deposits in the region is at least another 30 years, so the mining presence “is here to stay,” Robin Le Breton, founder of Iracambi says to Mongabay.

Iracambi’s education coordinator, Dayana Duarte (left), teachers two young students participating in the Eco-leader Program about the properties of jatobá seeds while out on a field trip. Image ©  Sarah Brown for Mongabay.

A growing local awareness of potential mining activities in the region and their possible impacts, largely driven by Iracambi’s activism, has led Brazilian Aluminum Company (CBA), which claims mining rights in the region, to ramp up its PR efforts and invest in positive developments such as road maintenance and education and health facilities, locals tell Mongabay.

However, activists remain concerned about the environmental and social impacts that mining in the region will have on the Atlantic Forest and the livelihoods of small producers who have land within potential mining zones.

The Serra do Brigadeiro is a state park and is protected from mining activity. However, large buffer zones that surround the park by a radius of 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) can potentially be open to mining activity as long as the Minas Gerais government issues the necessary environmental licensing. All of Iracambi is within the buffer zone, and not within the state park. “We are keen to observe that these conservation areas are protected,” Le Breton says.

While the impact of mining will unfold over time, transformations within the community are already apparent, largely thanks to Iracambi’s relentless efforts to promote the Atlantic Forest conservation. “When [people from the community] came to work here at the NGO, they ended up changing their vision toward nature, about the restoration,” Arielle Canedo Campos, general coordinator at Iracambi, told Mongabay. “I believe that in all areas, the NGO has really been transforming lives.”

Restoration turns pastures into wildlife haven in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

Banner image of an outdoor nursery at Iracambi Research Center, in Minas Gerais, Brazil. Image by Sarah Brown/Mongabay.

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