What is good for the park, is good for its people

Since our arrival in the Chapada Diamantina National Park, we feel that its history represents a strong symbol for our search. The contrast between the diamond extraction on one hand and the conservation of nature on the other, combined with the ongoing challenge to reduce poverty teach important lessons for those who envision a new balance between Earth and Man. The history of this park is mixed up with the life history of the man who first envisioned it, Roy Funch, an American biologist and naturalized Brazilian. We had the privilege to get to now him personally, and this post is an attempt to share what we learned in our conversation with him.

Roy Funch and us

Roy arrived in Brazil in 1977 as a Peace Corps volunteer from the United States. He knew very little about Brazil. He did not know that the language of the country was Portuguese and imagined that the Amazon covered the entire country. As a biologist passionate about nature, it was the image of a paradise. Hence, at his arrival, he was disappointed. In Brazil there where cars, big buildings and life was much more urban than he had thought.

After a short stay in Lavras in Minas Gerais, he was sent to Brasília to work on management plans for national parks at the Brazilian Institute for Forest Development (Instituto Brasileiro de Desenvolvimento Florestal (IBDF)), today the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (Instituto Chico Mendes de Conservação da Biodiversidade (ICMBio)). In theory, the work was interesting, but in practice he spent few days in the parks and a lot of days in an office in Brasília. It was not what he wanted.

He managed to get transferred to Recife but that post also was not what he wanted. Traveling with friends through the interior of Bahia for São João (big celebration in June) he got to Lençóis, Bahia for the first time. Lençóis is today the main tourist center of the Chapada Diamantina. His life would never be the same: “No exaggeration, I did not look for a place, but still in the bus, I thought, I found it!”

He went on some hikes with local miners, got to know the Fumaça waterfall from below and other places of the Sincorá ridge. His friends left after a week but he stayed. He rented a house in Lençóis where he lives until today. There, he had many roles and functions: Guide, Director of the National Park (which he calls a punishment since he had fought for its creation), Mining Inspector, head of the city’s tourism department and today of its environment department.

When Roy arrived in Lençóis the city was very different from today. Mining for diamonds and carbonate, the dominating activity in the region, paid little. The city was very poor, the historical heritage was not well taken care of, and the population was made up of mainly old and very young people, since all working age adults migrated to the Southeast (mainly São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro) in search for a better life. In the words of Roy, the city seemed to be the scenery for an old Western movie.

Yet the Sincorá ridge, its rivers and waterfalls were still there. Mining had, up to that point, been mainly manual and the degradation coming from diamond exploration, while existing, had not yet compromised its beauty. Roy became friends with the mining community and spent his time discovering the mountains. He hiked the ridge so often that he became an expert for its history and trails.

One time, in 1979, hiking in direction of Vale do Capão, the sky opened and he was overwhelmed by the incredible scenery. In that moment, he had the flash of an idea: “if this place were in Europe or the United States, it would certainly be a national park.” That was when he began to fight for the plan of a national park to protect the Sincorá ridge.

It was not an easy task. During those times, there was little environmental consciousness in the country, economic progress was the main driver for development and very few people could imagine that nature’s resources are limited. Even some friends did not believe in his campaign for the creation of a park!

In addition to Roy’s persistence, various other factors helped the process along. The main factor was the construction of a hotel by the state to promote tourism in the region. Several important people of the political scene of Bahia stayed there: ministers, members of parliament, senators and future governors. When these people arrived in Lençóis, they often asked for a guide to get to know the area. The local people would answer: “Guide, what guide? Talk to the American, he likes walking around the mountains.”

So Roy, besides being paid for what he did anyway, was able to sell his project to important figures of the Bahia state government. Some of them bought his idea and after a long journey, the park was created in 1985. But this did not happen without challenges. In 1982 almost everything was ready for the inauguration, the opening date was set and the official ceremony organized, when the government, under pressure from the miners and the “run for the diamonds”, decided to stop the process.

Diamond exploitation had seen a revival. Exploration entered into a new cycle in the early 1980ies using machines to extract the diamonds. That exploration was not regulated and was controlled by a few people. Still, in this extremely poor region, the little the local population gained was more than before. As Roy put it: “Every little thing was something, the old times were relived.”

Initially, Roy had not included their main exploration area as part of the park, but the federal government did, confronting the diamond miners. Mining for diamonds was illegal and as such did not generate taxes. Moreover, there was a strong media pressure for the closure of the exploration activities. TV Globo (the main national TV channel) produced several reports against this activity, and, around 1992, filmed the soap opera Pedra Sobre Pedra (Stone over stone) in Lençóis, which became a big national success. This contributed to an increase in eco-tourism in the region and strongly supported the conservation of the park.

The diamond miners fought as long as they could to continue their activities. During that time, Roy worked as mining inspector and as such had the role to reconcile the conservation of the park with the diamond exploration. He tried to convince the miners to use cleaner, yet more expensive techniques, to protect the water of the rivers. Despite his attempts, they reached no agreement, since the diamond explorers were not interested in increasing their costs to protect nature. In 1996, 6 months after leaving his job as inspector and mediator, the army closed the all non-manual mining activities.

Today, there is no machine mining left and the park receives thousands of visitors from all over the world. Lençóis and the other cities in the region grew and have more resources for conservation, not just of the environment, but also of their historical heritage.

The Chapada Diamantina National Park, like the majority of Brazil’s national parks is still not fully implemented. There are neither fences nor gates, nor enough resources for their maintenance. Yet, there can be no doubt that the park exists. It exists in the hearts of many people, in particular in those of the local population. The guide associations clean its trailswithout extra remuneration, many local citizens are volunteers in the fire brigades, and the new generations see in the park their heritage that has to be preserved.

There are still many challenges to be confronted. Roy reminded us that besides companies without a sense of environmental responsibility, poverty is another big enemy of nature. To overcome poverty, people invade protected areas to live, plant, hunt or search for precious stones. They often are not environmentally conscious since their main concern is to survive. In Lençóis, ecotourism lead to economic growth in the city, but poverty still persists, since the newly generated opportunities attracted thousands of people from the surrounding areas in search for a better life.

This is why today through ecotourism and in the past by promoting clean mining Roy fought and continues to fight for the importance of reconciling conservation with economic activities to the benefit of both nature and people. For his history and his role in the creation of Chapada Diamantina National Park, Roy is for us a great example.

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1 comment to What is good for the park, is good for its people

  • Carlson Menezes Ribeiro II

    I think that, he was a pioneer, showed to the wold, one of the places more beautiful that the human eyes can see,  rare, incomparable. disseminating the importance of preservation.

    Carlson

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Translation support - Suporte nas traduções: Manuela Sampaio

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