Amazon Adventure

Ecotourism Lodges Are Saving a Brazilian River Basin
Photo: Abigail Rome

Imagine a lone fisherman quietly and gracefully paddling his dugout canoe through the submerged grasses of an Amazonian lake. He is there today, following a centuries-old tradition of nourishing his family with the many species of fish which once proliferated in the world’s largest river basin. A few years ago, however, his future was not so secure. In his island community of Silves, 180 miles east of Manaus in Brazil’s heartland, fish stocks are threatened by population growth, improved fishing technologies and destruction of habitat.

But a group of farsighted residents have gotten involved to ensure that the fisherman’s way of life does not disappear. For support, they’ve turned to an unlikely source: ecotourists wanting to experience life in the Amazon.
Silves is one of a growing number of communities in Brazil embracing ecotourism and biodiversity conservation as a means to securing a healthy future. By recognizing that natural environments must be maintained for successful economic development, rural populations are using ecotourism to generate income and spur habitat preservation. Although conditions and motivations differ from place to place, local livelihoods and global biodiversity benefit, and progress is made towards the universal goal of sustainable development.

A Grassroots Effort

Local people formed the Silves Association for Environmental and Cultural Preservation (ASPAC, in Portuguese) to establish and manage fish reserves. By declaring specific lakes off-limits for fishing, they created natural hatcheries to repopulate nearby rivers, many of which are also regulated by the association. ASPAC’s ecotourism program provides funding for ranger patrols, education of the fishing community and habitat restoration. At Aldeia dos Lagos, a simple lodge overlooking the open river and lake systems of the Urubu River, visitors can relax with comfortable accommodations, fresh fish, local fruit and vegetable specialties, and an array of ecotours. Trained guides take visitors out on the water in motorized canoes or hiking through the forest.

Far away in the Atlantic coastal forest, farmers are finding that ecotourism can generate more income than agriculture, while also conserving the precious five percent of this forest that remains. The key here is the golden lion tamarin, a highly endangered monkey found only in eastern Brazil. Tamarins are an attraction for tourists, who want to see these brilliant animals caressing their young and swinging playfully through forest canopies. They are also of interest to scientists and conservationists, who relocate groups of monkeys barely surviving in small isolated forest patches to larger remnant forests on public and private lands. Farmers who own and agree to protect large tracts of forests can receive these tamarins and then generate income by inviting paying visitors to see them.

Luis Nelson, owner of Fazenda Bom Retiro, is an enterprising farmer and forest owner protecting tamarins and enticing tourists. He has built a lodge for 12 visitors, created a pond and arching waterfall which gives back-pounding massages, and planted gardens to attract hummingbirds, butterflies and other wildlife. Luis receives guests on his flower-filled dining patio, presenting them with a spectacular assortment of locally-grown fruits, vegetables and homemade Brazilian fare. He delights in guiding guests through his forest, showing off unique wild plants, including Brazil’s only native banana—small and sweet, with large, tooth-breaking seeds. All the while, he is on the lookout for tamarins. Glimpses of gold swinging through the treetops are cherished by farmer and tourist alike. For Luis and his neighbors, money and environmental pride are the rewards. For the ecotourist, there is the exhilaration of seeing this brilliant creature free in the forest, knowing that one’s presence supports the tamarin’s continued existence.

Three hours from the capital city of Brasilia is another protected area where communities make their living from ecotourism. Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park is in the middle of one of the largest savanna-forest complexes in the world, the cerrado, containing a third of Brazil’s plant and animal species. Residents of the nearby Sao Jorge village have demonstrated their commitment to making tourism a key element of their economic future by establishing the Chapada dos Veadeiros Tourist Guide Association. The organization offers courses and provides certification in environmental interpretation and guiding. Residents who once made their living as miners, exploiting quartz crystals, are now preserving the land, proudly showing off spectacular waterfalls and unique fauna and flora to visitors from every corner of the globe. The community has raised its standard of living through hotel management and tourist guiding, as well as production of jams and wild flowers for sale to tourists and for export. At the same time, the cerrado community is conserved and appreciated locally and globally.