One thing I have learned this week: Coming face to face with the challenges of balancing economic development and protecting biodiversity quickly reveals whether you are a forest-half-full or a forest-half-empty kind of person. The problems are complex—and there are rarely easy solutions. Answers must go beyond the feel-good and have real economics at their core. This means ensuring that what is good for the forest is also good for the farmer and the local economy.
Climb to a high point overlooking the Iracambi preserve and you’ll quickly grasp the scope of the challenge. A rocky ridge offers a good vantage point over a series of undulating, stretching valleys that reach to the horizon. It’s a mosaic of land holdings of different shapes, size and colors: On the heights, towering cliffs are shrouded in dense green. This is federally protected land that is part of Serra do Brigadeiro national park and a critical remaining bastion of the Eastern Atlantic Rainforest. The forest, which used to stretch for thousands of hectares, has been reduced to just a fraction of its former self. It’s now a patchwork—a scattered set of parcels sliced by roads and intermingled with farms and villages. Lower down, grassy green pastures and farms dotted with grazing cows are scattered across the hillsides and valley floor. Scattered here and there, pieces of forest remain, thanks to a few environmentally aware property owners, and laws (increasingly being enforced) requiring landowners to keep 20% of holdings forested and protect trees along streams and rivers.
There’s another critical piece in this landscape: The protected lands of Iracambi. A patchwork themselves, they represent a hopeful series of experiments requiring patience and often years-long timelines. Specialists here are gathering data on farming approaches that protect and support both the local economy and the ecosystem. Using techniques like shade growing to protect wildlife habitat, planting ground cover to prevent soil erosion, and establishing fast-growing eucalyptus as a cash crop less damaging to the land than coffee, the team at Iracambi is working to shift the balance in Minas Gerais in favor of the forests. Critically important is Iracambi’s work in creating forest corridors. Connecting parcels of protected land maintains a critical mass of forest, supporting flora and fauna and protecting water resources for communities. Iracambi is experimenting with making these corridors more economically viable (and therefore more appealing to farmers) by integrating cash crops like eucalyptus into connecting strips of forest so that the land does double duty—creating direct economic value for the landowners while helping protect the ecosystem.
This is challenging work, requiring practicality, patience and an unshakeable sense of optimism. Even the best solutions can be imperfect, falling short of fully meeting the needs of a complex array of stakeholders. Ever-shifting economic pressures and stakeholder needs make for a constantly moving target: For decades, poverty drove desperate acts against the environment and impacted the forest as farmers cut down trees and exploited resources, driven by short-term survival needs. Now, as Brazil lifts millions out of poverty, increased prosperity is taking its toll on the forest. Increased consumption and the needs that come with a better lifestyle are continuing to drive a short-term focus and increased resource extraction.
With the world careening towards 10 billion people, the momentum of increased pressure on the environment will inevitably continue to build. What Iracambi, and other creative and deeply committed NGOs like it are doing, is to challenge that momentum and question that inevitability—showing us a positive path forward that relies on more efficient use of resources, systems-based solutions and the creation of more resilient, sustainable communities. Looking for a positive vision of what the future might be? Come to Iracambi. It’s a magical, inspiring, forest-half-full kind of place.
Originally published 10/3/2012