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Finding gold in Brazil’s past

After more than three decades working as a miner in Brazil’s heartland, digging for gold and diamonds, Belmiro Nascimento has found a new type of treasure: tourists.

Over the past two years, Nascimento has been bringing a growing number of tourists to his mine in the region of Diamantina, in the Brazilian southeastern state of Minas Gerais, thanks to a sustainable tourism project funded by Multilateral Investment Fund (MIF). The MIF is an affiliate of Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) that supports projects for small and microenterprises in Latin America and the Caribbean.

“I want to show visitors that we can mine without hurting the environment,’ said Nascimento, 46, responsible for Garimpo Real, an area of 50 hectares (124 acres) where he looks for gold and diamonds on a river bed. “We have more than 300 years of history mining this region. By using old methods, I do not use any chemical product or do any digging that would destroy the river.’’

The IDB-funded project has helped put into the spotlight Brazil’s rich colonial and imperial history and diverse landscape, creating a new route for tourists in a country that is mostly known for its stunning beaches. The IDB—working closely with Minas Gerais state, the Federation of Industries of the State of Minas Gerais, and Instituto Estrada Real, a nonprofit organization in Brazil—helped mobilize the local community and small entrepreneurs to provide and market tourism services and products along Estrada Real, or “King’s Road.”

“There is more to Brazil than meets the eye,” said Luciana Botafogo, team leader of the project at the Multilateral Investment Fund. “A lot of Brazilians have heard about Estrada Real’s history and this project has allowed them to actually experience it.”

The Roads

Estrada Real is made up of 1,600 kilometers of routes, whose origins can be traced back to the 1700s. Portuguese-descendants living in Brazil—many of them half indians—created a trail to transport gold and precious stones to be sent to the king of Portugal out of mines and river beds located in what today is known as Minas Gerais state. The roads were also used to supply goods for towns supporting the mines and it linked the mines to the ports in Rio de Janeiro.

Cities along the routes are well-known for their exquisite baroque architecture and beautiful landscape that includes mountains, valleys, waterfalls and rivers. The region has a very strong culinary tradition, widely known for its cheese bread and guava hard jelly, and its culture and legends are considered a significant part of the Brazilian psyche.

The MIF and the Federation of Industries each provided $1.7 million in grants for the project, which was approved in 2005. The project, implemented by Instituto Estrada Real, comprised of an array of actions, including signaling the road for tourists and the creation of diverse tourism products among small entrepreneurs, cultural organizations, local communities and artisans and local city governments.

Since the project began to be implemented in 2006, the number of tourists visiting the region of Estrada Real rose by a third, allowing local businesses—not only ones linked to tourism—to flourish.

Jaci’s Bakery

At Jaci’s Bakery, dozens of tourists are brought by tourist guides to get a state of his freshly made rolls filled with fruit jellies and “doce de leite,” or caramel paste. Jaci de Oliveira Andrade, 57, the owner, said the project allowed him to network with tourist guides to advertise his rolls.

“I have received people from all over the world,” said Andrade, who said the number of customers in his shop jump as much as 60 percent in the past five years. “I always make sure to have one attendant that speaks English.”

Tourists can trek, bike. drive and horseback-riding along the routes and do other sports such as white-water rafting and rappelling. Others more interested in history can hire bilingual local tour guides to take them to places that seem frozen in time.

“The idea was to create a variety of activities so local and foreign tourists, the young or the old, can each choose what it is most interesting to them,” Botafogo said. “The project is aimed at allowing Estrada Real to meet its full touristic potential in a way that not only preserves the environment but in which business are profitable and local communities are preserved.”

Full Moon

The project has changed lives of entire communities. At the town of Ipoema, the project offered an opportunity to revive and cultivate local traditions.

Every full moon, Eleni de Cássia, director of the local museum, organizes a folk concert for tourists. The local community provides typical food, such as corn breads, and local groups such as “lavadeiras,” women that wash their clothes on river beds, sing their songs, and children show their musical abilities by blowing into a bull’s horn, a ritual to herd cattle.

When the concerts started, five years ago, no more than 100 people would participate. Nowadays, as many 1,500 people, most of them tourists, attend the shows.

“People here are not ashamed anymore that they use wood-burning stove or eat home-made food,” said de Cássia. “The project showed that they should value their traditions. It gave us an identity.”

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