When Pedro Carlos de Oliveira Cardoso began clearing his farmland in 1948, he decided to leave a wide swath of forest untouched. “Someday these trees will be missed,” he’d explain to anyone willing to listen.
His behavior may have seemed peculiar a half-century ago, when farmers customarily clear-cut their land. But the 97 year-old is now hailed as a backwoods visionary. In 1998, he registered 173 hectares of his land as a Private Natural Heritage Reserve (RPPN). Now home to an ecotourism operation run by his granddaughter and her husband, the reserve counts among the nearly half-million hectares of privately-owned land protected by federal and state laws in Brazil. Nearly 600 individuals, corporations and activist groups have voluntarily registered private property under the RPPN scheme since 1990. Sr. Pedro’s home state of Paraná in southern Brazil boasts almost one-third of them. His grandson-in-law, Alexandre Martinez, is president of a newly founded National Confederation of RPPNs.
Under the RPPN program, land use is restricted to research, environmental education and ecotourism – forever. Not all RPPNs are open to visitation by outsiders, but many landowners see ecotourism as a way to ensure both revenue and preservation. By allowing private citizens and organizations to solicit registration of their land as RPPNs, the Brazilian government is essentially adopting a "privatized" approach to creating easements or zoning restrictions. “This is something very new,” said Wilson Loureiro, director for biodiversity and protected areas of the Paraná Environmental Institute, a state agency. “When you tell foreigners about this, they don’t believe it. Anywhere else in the world, you would use environmental zoning laws.”
RPPNs are helping to fill a gap left by the absence of a more aggressive conservation policy in Brazil. Whether due to strapped public finances or simply because they have different priorities, Brazilian federal and state governments spend less on conservation than environmentalists would like. RPPNs act as a convenient escape valve. “For the public sector, it is good business,” said Loureiro. “Otherwise the government would have to appropriate land, indemnify owners, and spend money to manage the area. This way, the burden is on the private landowner.”
Landowners must apply for RPPN status with the Brazilian Environmental Institute (IBAMA), the federal watchdog agency, or – where state laws permit - with local officials. If approval is granted, owners receive modest breaks on property taxes and – in principle – priority for certain kinds of public financing like cash distributed by the National Environmental Fund (FNMA), a program backed by the Interamerican Development Bank. As a rule, the tax breaks weigh lightly in the balance, especially since most rural landowners can receive similar breaks under a parallel but less restrictive program. Few RPPNs report much luck with public financing schemes.
Companies like pulp and paper producer Veracel create and manage RPPNs to improve their corporate images. Environmental groups encourage landowners to join the program and provide technical assistance. Some even buy land to create their own RPPNs.
Many private individuals opt for the irrevocable registration because of their emotional ties to the land, desires to invest in ecotourism or just plain idealism. Ivana Braga, owner of the Pousada das Araras in the central state of Goiás, falls into all three categories. Her parents purchased the farm where she lives in 1964. The property includes an archaeological site estimated to date back 11,000 years and natural amenities that became a magnet for visitors who didn’t always leave things as they found them. She opted to register a 175-hectare section of the farm as an RPPN in an effort to help guarantee preservation. With the help of the Brazilian environmental group Funatura she completed the paperwork and registered the area in 1996. The NGO helped her build a visitors center, and with her husband she now runs a modestly successful ecotourism business. “We have revenue, but the expenses are high,” she said.
The concept of privately-owned nature reserves dates back at least 100 years. For early examples, scholars reach back to 19th century Europe, notably to 1899 and the founding of the Wicken Fen National Nature Reserve in England. Today the Nature Conservancy manages over 500,000 hectares of wilderness areas in the United States, and a handful of countries like South Africa have explicit policies that regulate and even encourage private reserves.
Launched by a 1990 decree, the Brazilian program was revised six years later and incorporated into legislation passed by Congress in 2000. Six of Brazil’s 26 states have enacted copycat legislation that mirrors the federal law. The original federal decree was enacted at the behest of the owner of the second tract to be accepted into the program, according to that reserve’s manager Paulo Schveitzer. Russell Wid Coffin, the heir of a Coca Cola distributorship, has been putting his money where his mouth was ever since. For the last 13 years he’s been spending between $50,000 and $300,000 a year to maintain as a strict wilderness preserve on the 4,200-plus hectares that make up the Caraguatá area in Santa Catarina state.
The Brazilian program is considered unique among international schemes because of its scope and the strategic role it plays in key conservation efforts. Environmental groups like the WWF and The Nature Conservancy encourage and help landowners to create RPPNs, especially when land is located near already existing public nature reserves. The Pantanal Matogrossense National Park is augmented by land acquired by Ecotrópica, a Brazilian environmental group. A similar mosaic of private reserves surrounds the Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park in the central state of Goiás. Near the Una Biological Reserve in Bahia state, the Socio-Environmental Institute of Southern Bahia (IESB) provides agricultural extension services to farmers who create RPPNs as a form of “payment.” Where ecotourism is viable, as in the Itacaré region, IESB provides technical assistance to landowner-entrepreneurs who establish RPPNs.
Experts consider the private reserves as key elements in Brazil to the “corridor” strategy, a method now in vogue to preserve biodiversity. Under the approach, larger areas like national parks and wilderness areas are linked by corridors of smaller nature reserves that allow species to roam over a wider area, thus encouraging greater genetic diversity among sometimes dwindling populations.
Ninety-eight percent of Paraná state was covered by Atlantic Rainforest in 1500. Only 7% is forest today. Most of that is scattered about in isolated “islands.” The state received an $8 million grant from the World Bank, to which it is adding $24 million of its own cash, to create corridors connecting forest islands in three crucial sections of the state. The money will be used in part to help farmers maintain what remains of the natural environment on their properties. “Some animals won’t stray more than five or 10 kilometers from the forest,” said Mariese Cargnin Muchailh, head of the biodiversity department of the Paraná Environmental Institute. “The idea is to create corridors along riverbanks. The RPPNs are the most important communication links.”
RPPNs adjacent to a public nature reserve called Poço das Antas, a slice of Atlantic Rainforest in Rio de Janeiro state, are credited with helping revive the population of the endangered golden lion tamarin. In 1971, researchers estimated that only 200 of the primates were left in the wild. After a concerted effort by a coalition of environmental groups, in March 2001, the 1,000th baby tamarin was born out of captivity. By the end of 2002, 11 RPPNs totaling 1,700 hectares were augmenting the 9,500 hectare habitat covered by two public protected areas. Another dozen RPPNs, totaling over 3,000 hectares, were in the pipeline for approval by IBAMA. This November the species was removed from “critically endangered” list compiled by The World Conservation Union.
Scientists believe that the tamarin population must reach 2,000 to achieve long-term stability and that an area of 25,000 hectares would be required to sustain that many animals. The Brazil-based Golden Lion Tamarin Association is trying to implement an ambitious corridor scheme, involving several current and future RPPNs that would help physically link the public nature reserves to another large area 20 kilometers away. “By creating corridors, you allow the population to flow between the areas,” said Rosa Lemos de Sá, superintendent for nature conservation at WWF-Brasil, which supports this and other RPPN-related initiatives. “You increase the gene pool – and not just for the tamarin, but for other species as well. The creation of RPPNs by local farmers is key.”
As despoiled areas are reinvigorated and hunters kept at bay, long-absent animals and birds are returning to once familiar haunts inside RPPNs. Puma sightings were reported recently in two distinct regions of the Atlantic Rainforest, one in the Caraguatá reserve in the south and another in the Estação Veracruz reserve in the northeastern state of Bahia. “The puma arrived all of a sudden,” said Caraguatá manager Schveitzer, who lost one of his workhorses. “We had a visual sighting, and the puma also killed a mare.” Birds like the king vulture and the white-browed guan began appearing again at Serra das Almas, a 5,600 hectare on the border of Ceará and Piauí states in the northeastern scrubland, three years after its inauguration as an RPPN.
Sometimes the benefits of private reserves are less tangible than puma sightings. Many RPPNs work closely with nearby schools, sponsoring regular fieldtrips for students. Many offer monitored visits for the general public. “The Santuário Vagafogo, the first RPPN in Goiás state, in a town called Pirenópolis, has just 17 hectares of reserve,” said Verônica Theulen, coordinator of Protected Nature Areas for the Boticário Foundation, the philanthropic arm of a leading cosmetics firm. “We’re not talking much about biodiversity conservation, but you have to remember that an average of 1,000 people visit the area every month.”
Larger reserves backed by big foundations and corporations receive even larger numbers of visitors. The Salto Morato Nature Reserve, run by the Fundação Boticário in the company’s home state of Paraná, has welcomed more than 45,000 visitors since its inauguration in 1996. The reserve also hosts training programs for environmental professionals and ecotourism guides.
The Estação Veracruz, run by pulp and paper manufacturer Veracel, has received 22,000 visitors, counting students and ecotourists, since 1996. Owned in the 1960s by a group of 29 altruistic American conservationists led by a woman named Iva Hartman, the land that is now the Estação Vercruz represents the largest RPPN in the Atlantic Rainforest with 6,060 hectares. Over 30 scientific studies, including seven PhD dissertations or M.A. theses, have been completed on the area’s fauna and flora since the RPPN was established.
“The reserve is a differentiating factor for the company,” said Danilo Sette de Almeida, a forestry engineer in the Veracel environmental department. The reserve helped the company qualify for certification under the European Union’s ISO 14,000 environmental program, said the company official. It should also be a plus should the company opt to apply for certification under the Forestry Stewardship Council’s responsible logging program.
According to the federal legislation, the environmental agency IBAMA is supposed to promptly respond to requests for registration and even offer technical assistance to interested property owners. One of the biggest complaints about the program, however, surrounds delays by IBAMA officials in scheduling required site visits and processing paperwork. “We went to Brasília and brought the official here,” recalled Caraguatá’s Schveitzer. Tellingly, perhaps, the IBAMA official designated by the agency’s press office as a spokesperson on RPPN issues failed to return repeated phone messages left by BrazilMax.
That lack of responsiveness helps explain the popularity of the Paraná state program. Of the 179 RPPNs there, all but seven registered with state rather than federal officials. After registration, the rights and responsibilities of the property owner are essentially the same. But during the preparation and approval process, Paraná residents can call upon one of the 20 local offices of the state environmental agency. They also receive free technical support. Partly as a result, the state boasts over one-third of all RPPNs nationwide.
The state hopes to pass new legislation that will cut even more red tape. “Our goal is to have 300 RPPNs in the state by 2006,” said state official Loureiro. “The proposed bill would create procedures that are more secure from a legal and institutional point of view. And we want to make the system more agile.”
Paraná counts among six Brazilian states that apply environmental criteria to a rather arcane federal scheme that earmarks for revenue sharing a portion of cash garnered from a value-added tax (ICMS). Under Paraná state law, environmental protection means more revenue-sharing money for City Hall, so mayors have been encouraging rural property owners to apply for RPPN status.
Mayors often sweetened their pleas with promises of financial assistance for cooperating property owners, but those promises proved empty, said Alexandre Martinez, who married Sr. Pedro’s granddaughter and now heads the national confederation of RPPNs.
Now the Paraná association of RPPNs has launched a campaign to pass municipal ordinances that would require mayors to provide financial assistance from revenue sharing funds to RPPNs within city limits. Two cities already passed such legislation and another is on the verge. “I think we’ve found a mechanism,” he said.
Founded in November, the national confederation headed by Martinez brings together 12 state and regional groups. Beefs most often heard from members include lack of training programs and planning assistance, high costs of implementation, poor relationships with local governments, unresponsiveness by environmental oversight agencies, and lack of marketing assistance for ecotourism and other activities.
Many public officials wish them luck. “Those of us in the public sector who care about these issues should encourage the associations,” said Paraná state official Loureiro.
Travel to Brazil: some RPPNs that welcome travelers
Estação Veracruz, Eunápolis, telephone: +(55-73) 281-8000
Pousada das Araras, Jataí
Vale das Araras
Cristalino Jungle Lodge, in the southern Amazon Rainforest
Salto Morato Nature Reserve of the Fundação Boticário
Rio de Janeiro state
El Nagual Artbergue, in the Atlantic Rainforest
BrazilMax Pledge Drive - Did you like this article? Consider making a contribution to BrazilMax.