Celebrating the Environment in Praia do Forte

Post originally uploaded on Sunday, June 6th, 2010 at http://mbmtravel.tumblr.com

After only two and a half days in Brasil, I have more to talk about than I could possibly convey in one post.   Amanda and I arrived in Salvador do Bahía at around 0830h.  Our flight had been pushed back for two hours due to heavy thunderstorms in Miami so our poor driver, Domingos, had been waiting since 0630h!  We were apologetic but he didn’t seem to mind.  We packed our things into his small Fiat and drove north on a highway out of Salvador.

As we neared Praia do Forte, scrubby vegetation and palms along the road turned into lush, low-standing forest.  We saw several signs advertising the concert that is to take place next Saturday commemorating Tamar’s 30th anniversary.  We continued further into the town and saw that almost every sign for a lodge, store, or neighborhood incorporated some kind of turtle imagery (sometimes even sculptures).  Even the grocery store was named “Supermercado Oliveira” after the Olive Ridley sea turtle.  It soon became very apparent that this was only the tip of the iceberg. We were received very warmly by a Tamar employee, Betania, who is the research coordinator for Tamar.  She took us to Tamar’s visitor center and headquarters, which sits right at the edge of the beach and directly adjacent to the town square.  With a rehabilitation center, hatchery, and several tanks containing recovering or rescued turtles, it’s an impressive sight and brings in 1 million tourists per year.  We went to have lunch (moqueca, a local seafood dish, absolutely delicious) with her and a couple other employees and learned more about the origin of Tamar’s presence in Praia do Forte and the town itself.

Praia do Forte is one of the first places in Brasil to be colonized by Europeans, with Garcia D’ Ávila and Thomé de Souza being the first visitors in 1549.  The colony deteriorated some throughout the 17th century due to attacks from French pirates and Dutch invaders, and was rebuilt in the early 18th century. The area remained fairly undeveloped and sparsely populated until a man named Klaus Peters visited the area in the 1960’s and fell in love with the natural beauty of the place.  He decided to buy the land and preserve its forests and beaches, all the while maintaining the dream of turning Praia do Forte into one of the world’s most important ecotourism destinations.  Peters proceeded to establish refuges to protect the Atlantic rainforest (Mato Atlántico), a habitat which has now been highly reduced due to growth in Brazillian coastal areas.  He also implemented laws that restricted the size of buildings, and the cutting of trees (some houses and sidewalks and buildings here are actually built around trees, instead of over them).  In 1982, still the early stages of implementing his plans for sustainable development, Neca and Guy Marcovaldi, who had already been successful in establishing other Tamar bases, visited Praia do Forte and forged a strategic alliance with Peters.  The beach here is the most important nesting ground for loggerhead turtles in Brazil, so both saw the need to preserve to region’s sea turtle nesting sites and the potential opportunity that ecotourism provided for Tamar’s conservation agenda (and the development of Praia do Forte as an ecotourism hotspot).  Since then, Tamar has been an integral part of the development of Praia do Forte, both providing jobs for local people and actively monitoring and sea turtle activity along what is now 30 km of beach.  What’s more, Praia do Forte still remains a sustainably developing town, and many laws regulating development still stand despite the huge amounts of tourism it sustains.  I was told that at night, standing on a boat in the ocean, you can barely see any light coming from the town save for the lighthouse.

Walking through the small town and down the beach, Tamar’s influence is blaringly evident. Vendors sell knick knacks and t-shirts of turtles, many locals boast Tamar shirts and hats, and the surprisingly clean beaches have signs reminding people to pick up all their trash and to not disturb the nests (all clearly marked).  I was lucky enough to visit this town on o día do meio ambiente (environment day), the Brazilian equivalent of our Earth Day.  On Saturday I watched a skit put on by local kids who are involved with the Institute for Humpback Whales, which partners with Tamar.  The skit taught the attentive audience (also a throng of local kids aged approx. 4-16) about the anatomy of whales and the importance of conserving them.  Tamar had a local band singing songs about sea turtles; the local children sang along to all the lyrics.  Also on Saturday: a parade including a giant humpback whale model made of plastic bottles, a beach cleanup, arts and crafts with plastic collected from the beach, and to top off the day: a rehabilitated turtle release, which was equally attended by both tourists and locals.

I could go on forever about how much I’ve learned and seen in just a couple of days.  The most impressive part of this entire experience is how a conservation organization has been able to successfully embed themselves in the infrastructure and local culture of this town, at an advantage to both themselves and the local community.  Throughout my entire life, I’ve constantly seen Tamar cited as one of the most successful flagship species conservation programs in the world, but seeing it in person is overwhelming and inspiring.  In the coming week, I hope to learn more about the education and outreach strategies employed here in Praia do Forte.  Work with Tamar starts tomorrow.  Thanks for reading and check in soon…