The Forgotten Paradise

It was a moonless night in early September in the Atlantic Rainforest of Brazil. I had spent the last two days on crowded but friendly overnight buses and earth road connections from the sprawling, rapidly post-modernising metropolis of São Paulo, the pulsing economic heart of South America, to the tiny, isolated village of Rosário da Limeira. It was like travelling from Canary Wharf to Senegal without leaving the same country. On one hand are the Microsoft towers, CCTV-guarded apartment blocks and marble and glass investment bank headquarters; on the other, butterflies, hummingbirds and ox-carts between lianas and hanging orchids, mud and timber buildings raised on stilts to avoid the seasonal flood waters.
The Iracambi Atlantic Rainforest Research and Conservation Centre, when I finally reached it, was in a dramatic mountain range known as the Serra da Mantiquera which divides the coast of Brazil from the plains of the interior. There were twenty-two researchers when I arrived, from many countries around the world: the US, Canada, Germany, France, UK, Singapore; each with a specific interest. There were biologists studying the patterns of the bats, zoologists recording species diversity, geographers mapping the area with GPS and a camera crew making a nature programme. We all quickly got to know each other and everybody joined in working on nature trails, the medicinal plant nursery and taking care of the Centre deep in the forest.
It was an incredible sensation to wake up at 6am to the dawn chorus, to look out to see butterflies and iridescent parakeets just outside the window in the misty early morning light, or to climb up the nearest peak to watch the hanging mist clear from the valleys below. The early European navigators arriving in South America, believed they had reached the Earthly Paradise. When Columbus saw the turbulent waters of the Orinoco he thought this must be one of the four great biblical rivers that descended from Eden and from this early association came the legends of El Dorado. Later Francisco de Orellana, the first European to descend the Amazon, described great cities with gleaming gold rooftops and large temples, however since the buildings were principally made of wood they decayed rapidly in the intense heat and humidity of the tropical forest environment. Many of the tribal groups were affected early on by European diseases and did not survive beyond the Seventeenth Century but their legacy is present in the easy-going Brazilian approach to life, the sense of humour, their appreciation of water, streams and waterfalls.
As September wore on, the electricity in the air intensified, the rainy season was approaching and the rumbling in the air caused horses to bolt nervously in the open plains below the mountains. The subsistence farmers became agitated, as the rains were apparently late this year and all of their lives depended on a good ripe harvest. Then the rains came. The release was total; until that point the day had been long and slow, the pressure in the air had left us all half asleep but now suddenly it exploded, washing down the mountains, flooding the valleys and reducing slopes to silty mud. There was a waterfall with a rounded rock pool, where we would go swimming after working in the villages and on the nature trails. Theodore Roosevelt saw something similar whilst travelling in Brazil in 1914. “The river, after throwing itself over the rock wall, rushes off in long curves at the bottom of a thickly wooded ravine, the white water churning among the black boulders. There is a perpetual rainbow at the foot of the falls. The masses of green water that are hurling themselves over the brink dissolve into shifting, foaming columns of snowy lace.” The French researchers told me the river water was so refreshing after a day in the tropical heat that it didn’t matter that there were Piranhas brushing softly against your leg, as long as you weren’t bleeding!
The Research Centre was perched right up at the head of a valley at 1500m altitude, surrounded by a state park filled with shrieking Howler Monkeys, chattering Green Parakeets and majestic Blue Macaws, Armadillos, Coatis (related to the Skunk) and prowling Jaguars. I heard the big cats in the forest at night and on one occasion, a small one had been shot outside the village. The men in the village all carried pistols, for defence against the jaguars, wild pigs (javalí) and above all each other. It seemed that the people in the village had over the past fifty years deliberately distanced themselves from the forest, regarding it as a place of danger, even though they were the ones carrying the guns. I was given the task of working with local Community Groups on Environmental Education so one of the first things we realised was the need to bring people back into the forest.
This is reputedly the area of highest biodiversity on the planet and the teeming insect and bird life testifies to the presence of all kinds of rare and endemic organisms. However, to the people who saw it every day the forest was seen as an unproductive, threatening space; they were recent settlers and wanted to clear the slopes for coffee production, which led only to rapid degradation and intense erosion of the bright red soils.
Ultimately there is only so much to be done by outsiders, it is the residents who can truly change the environment. They are increasingly taking on the role of guardians of their own natural heritage. Brazil is a country with such huge natural resources (70% of the energy needs are met by clean hydroelectric power) that it is important that the people protect their own resources. As awareness grows steadily it could stand as a fresh society, highly conscious and newly environmentally aware. This combined with the powerful music and the heavenly beaches means that the myths of paradise might prove to be true…
ARCHIVE: 2nd Week TT 2003