Cristalino Jungle Lodge, Matto Grosso, Brazil

Donna Vitoria Da Riva Carvalho is a remarkable woman!  Since 1990, she has been responsible, almost single-handedly, for buying and preserving 26,000 acres of pristine Amazonian rainforest at its very vulnerable Southern edge.

Her creation, The Cristalino Private Forest Reserve, is of particular importance, both as a protective barrier against rainforest destruction pressure from south of the Teres Pires River – and because of its high habitat diversity, unusual in an Amazon Reserve.

Its value is further dramatically enhanced because it is contiguous with and surrounded by the 456,000 acre Cristalino State Park, itself part of a network of private and State Reserves totalling 5.5 million acres of primary forest.

Last night, before dinner, in the library at Cristalino Jungle Lodge, Donna Vitoria told us a little of her story, with the help of power point, pictures and videos.

It really started in 1975 when the town of Alta Floresta, some 30 kilometers south of the Cristalino Forest Reserve, was founded by Vitoria’s father.

Fourteen years later, with Vitoria in the thick of raising a family of five children, Brazil’s embryonic eco-movement started – and she was very soon in contact with its founders.  Through her new friends, she came into contact with Conservation International, the pioneering US organisation founded 20 years ago which focuses on helping local communities around the World to make conservation part of their livelihoods.

CI were trying to further their conservation objectives in Brazil by encouraging some of its citizens to set up eco-tourism projects.  They initially trained 40 Brazilians in the arts of eco-tourism (Vitoria with her sharp business brain was one of them), training consolidated by attending eco-tourism conferences outside Brazil.  The 40 Brazilian pioneers subsequently trained another 800.

By 1990, Vitoria knew what she wanted to do – and she wanted to do it close to Alta Floresta.  Her idea was to combine the preservation of rainforest and the running of a profitable business.

Her first move, that year,  was to buy the first 700 acres of the Cristalino Private Forest Reserve.  This was followed in 1992 by the setting up of the Cristalino Jungle Lodge.  Initially, the Lodge attracted scientists because it provided easy access to this diverse area of Southern Amazon rainforest for the first time.  Famous ornithologists like the late Ted Parker, Roger Tory Petersen and Robert Ridgeley came to research the Reserves spectacular birdlife and Dr Haffer did his pioneering research on the impact of rivers as barriers for species separation here.

In 1997, Vitoria set up house in Alta Floresta to devote all her energies to her project.  She achieved RPPN status for the Cristalino Private Forest Reserve, which is the Brazilian Government’s legal instrument allowing private individuals to create nature reserves in perpetuity with the aim of conserving biological diversity.  Significantly, if you own forest areas in Brazil but don’t use them in some way, you pay higher taxes than if you chop them down and cultivate them – and if you don’t cultivate them, you are required  to sell them after five years.  RPPN status for your forest exempts you from these land taxes and enables you to retain your right to tenure in perpetuity.

Vitoria told us that applications for RPPN status are now coming in thick and fast to the Brazilian Government and 400,000 hectares are now protected in the country in this way.

As the years went by, Vitoria steadily expanded the acreage of the Cristalino Private Forest reserve and attracted increasing numbers of visitors to Cristalino Jungle Lodge.  In 2003, she set up the Fundacao Ecologica Cristalino,  the aim of which is the preservation of more rainforest and, critically, the provision of a programme of environmental education for local people in the Alta Floresta area, including farmers and landowners – itself part of a series of efforts to promote environmental awareness in the wider region.  We were told that part of what we had paid for our visit to Cristalino was donated to the Fundacao to further its ends.

It is the Fundacao, working with the Royal Botanic Gardens in Kew and Matto Grosso State University, that has put the unusually high habitat diversity of the Cristalino Private Forest Reserve on a scientific footing.  This far-flung trio have identified eight different types of forest and transitional forrest in the Reserve, identifying 1,200 species of plants along the way.

So came time for questions.  I recalled what Bill, my American interpreter had told me, on our drive to Cristalino Lodge on the first afternoon of my visit – that the State Government of Matto Grosso had recently decreed that in the Amazon region of the State, farmers would now only be allowed to cultivate 30 per cent of their land and must let the remainder revert to forest.

Who better to ask about the impact this would have but Donna Vitoria?

‘Well, first of all’ said she ‘that percentage has gone up to 80 per cent. But the State Government has also said that the reforestation does not necessarily have to be with native species.  It can be oil palms or eucalyptus or other alien commercial tree species.’  To me that meant, two steps forward and one step back – or even one step forward and two steps back. Probably OK to help with greenhouse gas emissions and attendant climate change but not a lot of good for natural diversity.

But Vitoria added that the State Government was also requiring farmers to preserve the water catchment value of  the many hilly watersheds scattered throughout the region and that was likely to be by allowing regrowth or retention of natural forest.

The devil – or the angel – will, of course, be in the detail of how individual farmers respond to the new regulations – and indeed whether these regulations  become modified over time to achieve a balance between farm incomes and viability and the preservation of natural diversity.  And how the whole shooting match is monitored!

And so to the really big question.  What did she think about the future for the Amazon rainforest and its conservation?

To that she said quite simply ‘All conservationists have to be optimistic and something is changing here!’ She instanced an enormous project involving the Brazilian Federal Government, the various relevant State Governments and the World Wildlife Fund to preserve a 30 million hectare shield of rainforest aimed at protecting the Amazon basin’s Southern flank.  And proudly announced that the Cristalino Private Forest Reserve was a vital piece in this vast jigsaw!

I’ve got to get away from this screen now and pack to go back to Warwick Parkway and a welcome kiss but I plan to put some more flesh on the bones of  this scheme, itself part of ARPA – the Amazon Region Protected Areas Programme –  in a future blog.

Don’t think there isn’t a lot of bad news from the Amazon too!  There is! But I leave you with one statistic to put things into perspective for the holier than thou in the ‘developed world’.  It comes from Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, the President of Brazil, in a statement made on June 6th of this year.

‘Brazil’s record of environmental preservation is equal to that of any country in the World.  Europe, for example, only has 0.3 percent of its native forest still standing.  Brazil still has 69 per cent!’

Stick that in your green credentials pipe and smoke it!

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