By Cadija Tissiani
In the heart of Paraná state, a traditional, rural activity that has been passed on over generations by delicate feminine hands is an alternative to saving one of the most complex ecosystems known.
It´s called the Araucaria Forest and it is within the realm of the Atlantic Forest. Its most emblematic representative is the Araucaria Pine tree, and its cylindrical, straight trunk and its crown add a special touch to the landscape. At one point the Araucaria Pine tree covered more than 200 thousand square kilometers in several states in Brazil (an area roughly the size of the U.S. state of Nebraska), including about 40% of Paraná, 30% of Santa Catarina, and 25% of Rio Grande do Sul to name a few. Today only an unbelievable 3% of its original area remains after centuries of uncontrolled timber extraction and misguided policies; and according to the Ministry of Environment (MMA), only 0.7% is considered to be in good condition.
Rural producer Maria Lucia Carriel smells the scent of herbs that grow on a small, 3.7 acre property, and describes the therapeutic characteristics of each: sage, chamomile, lavender, artichokes, rosemary, macela, calendula, and melissa. Maria Lucia was born in the municipality of Turvo where one finds the last and most significant remnants of what was once the largest forest in southern Brazil – of its 916 square-kilometer area, 64% is covered by native vegetation.
Maria Lucia and another dozen mothers from the region found a way to increase household income by combining the extraction of erva-mate leaves (which has long been the engine of the local and regional economies), and today that effort helps them support their families. "I used to grow the medicinal plants to help cover expenses, or to buy something extra I needed. I never imagined that growing these plants would help us get this far", says Maria Lucia.
This type of endeavor has become a booming business in a consumer-goods market guided by the theme of sustainability. And even if none of the producers involved could predict such a successful outcome a few years back, there were those who did see far ahead.
The Bernardo Hakvoort Agroforestry Institute (or IAF in its Portuguese acronym), founded in 1995 by a group of people willing to protect what remained of the Araucaria Forest, did have that vision. They believed that agroecology concepts applied to the cultivation of medicinal plants and erva-mate - activities that had long been performed by most families in the municipality - was the solution to recovering degraded permanent preservation areas, protecting biodiversity and enhancing the economic base of family farms. It also gave property owners the opportunity to become compliant with the Forest Code.
That was the start signal to the social mobilization and capacity-building effort meant to help communities apply the most appropriate management techniques to the cultivation of native species. At the time, producer Pedro Carriel was one of those who scoffed at the idea. "I planted corn, beans, rice. To me, that was what was going to work. I did not believe there would be interest in medicinal plants”, he says. "When the women began bringing money home, the husbands began to wonder if they had been right after all. Gradually, they realized that it was a viable alternative", recalls Roseli Eurich, IAF president.
Roseli is a firm believer in what she preaches and explains that what they are seeking is the sustainable use of the land with practices that do not harm the trees and plants, and ensure the conservation of the forest. And the argument for that is on the tip of her tongue: "It is an activity that takes place in a small area with high profitability potential. Consequently, in addition to working on the environmental restoration and conservation of the property, we add an important, income-generating component for local communities", she says.
The best erva-mate in the world
In addition to medicinal herbs, the IAF also supports the sustainable harvest and commercialization of organic erva-mate. Supported by studies that show that leaves taken from trees that grow in the forest are of a much higher quality than those produced under the full sun, the organization has worked to rekindle the interest of farmers in a practice that was once this population´s main source of income. And IAF´s efforts gained supporters.
In 2004, The Nature Conservancy joined the Project, and as a result of the partnership, the Turvo Agroecological, Forest and Craft Products Cooperative (Coopaflora) was founded in 2006. The creation of the coop was also an answer to rural producers´ search for a more organized and effective commercialization of medicinal plants and forest-grown erva-mate. Currently, Coopaflora has 84 members, 90% of whom are women.
A new proposal
The successful track record of forest conservation initiatives in the region of the Araucaria Pine Forest led by the IAF and the Conservancy over the past few years has paved the way for the inclusion of a new forest restoration model that focuses on sustainable economic development.
The project started in mid-2012, with the support of the National Bank of Economic and Social Development (BNDES), was an alternative to complementing and ensuring the sustainability of conservation actions underway. It also included the restoration of Permanent Preservation Areas (APPs) in the properties and their enrichment by the planting of native species of economic interest such as erva-mate, the araucaria and the Mimosa scraella (popularly known in Brazil as bracatinga); the effort focused especially on non-timber forest products.
According to Aurelio Padovezi, coordinator of the Forest Restoration strategy at the Conservancy, this restoration project became real when IAF recruited approximately 30 rural producers and secured usage of 123.5 acres of land belonging to them. Participants in the project receive technical assistance in all aspects of the restoration process: soil preparation, planting, and the early stages of managing the areas to be recovered, areas that have been enriched with native species. In addition, producers also receive fences and other resources needed for planting.
"Basically, all rural properties in Brazil need to undergo some kind of forest restoration in order to be in compliance with the Forest Code. But as it turns out, this is very costly to the owner. Therefore, by including an economic component to the process and making restoration economically interesting to the landowner, the prospects for conservation increase significantly”, says the Conservancy specialist.
In addition to these areas in Paraná, the project covers the states of São Paulo and Santa Catarina as well. There are over 50 acres in the EMBRAPA / EPAGRI de Caçador Forest Reserve, in Santa Catarina, a partnership with EMBRAPA Florestas; and 148.2 acres in conservation units at Jacupiranga Mosaic in southern São Paulo, in partnership with the Foundation for Conservation and Forest Production of the State of São Paulo (Fundação Florestal).
Specific models of restoration and native-forest enrichment are being created to allow for sustainable economic development based on the natural occurrence of tree species. With this goal in mind, the Conservancy and partners began a series of workshops in July that will bring together property owners from the three municipalities. In addition to lectures on legislation pertaining to restoration and economic development, the producers will participate in activities such as building fences and firebreaks to insulate restoration areas.
"These models value the socio-biodiversity products of our Atlantic Forest, generate high-value environmental services and can also be an interesting source of income for communities. Furthermore, such models may help boost public policies that promote more sustainable types of production in Permanent Preservation Areas (APPs) that have been consolidated and are a priority for biodiversity conservation. "