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Innovative community participation supports program to fight environmental degradation of Brazil’s Atlantic forest

IDB helps promote conservation and provide better housing conditions for more than 8,000 families, many of them living in high-risk hillsides in Serra do Mar

A $470 million project backed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo is seeking to protect what is left of the Atlantic forest while ensuring better livelihoods for the local communities. One of the key components of the project is to move residents to safer areas.

Brazil’s Atlantic forest is one of the planet’s most threatened biotic systems, with only 7.5 percent of the Atlantic forest remaining in Brazil. To save the forests, one of the main challenges is to convince local communities living in high-risk areas to move to safer areas. The relocation is key for the program to be able to restore areas that have been degraded by illegal occupation and other associated factors.

This project is being implemented in the Serra do Mar State Park, one of the three areas that will benefit from the investment. Created in 1977 and covering an area of 315,000 hectares, the park is the largest continuum of protected Atlantic Forest in Brazil and home to half the bird species of the Atlantic Forest and 20 percent of Brazil’s bird species.

Thanks to an innovative community participation scheme, the project has already relocated 800 families voluntarily. Communities that were allowed to remain in areas surrounding the park had their housing situation regularized and are being given access to better transportation, education and health services.

Strong Community Participation

To minimize the impact of relocation on the lives of the local communities, the project has launched a community participation scheme, based upon public consultations with the local community.

“We worked with the state to develop a methodology to allow local communities to participate in the decision-making process regarding the types of housing and relocation options,’’ said Helena L. de Piaggesi, co-team leader for the project at the IDB. “Thanks to this, families understood the benefits of the project and participated in the entire decision process, paving the way for a voluntary resettlement.”

The community participation scheme will help the program relocate another 6,000 families and improve housing conditions of another 2,400 living in the Park, according to Piaggesi.

Representatives were elected by their own communities to participate in the discussions. To maximize participation, the program encouraged each neighborhood to have representatives and most of the meetings are held during the evening on weekdays or weekends to increase participation. A total of 1,800 people have participated in the meetings in the Serra do Mar State Park area, where 211 community representatives have been selected, all working on a voluntary basis.

“At the beginning people did not understand what the project was trying to achieve. There was a bit of resistance,’’ said Josevaldo Barbosa de Moraes, a 50-year old nursing assistant who was elected to represent his community in the project. “But, with time, I managed to show the positive things about this project. We talked during community meetings, house visits. They realized that even though they never suffered mudslides they were in an area that could be affected by them.”

Training and Social Programs

The project opened seven social work spaces, which provide art and craft classes and training for the local communities. It also supports the creation of newsletters, radio and even a television program run by community members to depict their local stories, anecdotes and aspirations (Com-Com project).

“Arte nas Cotas” (Art in the Cota neighborhoods), which teaches art and crafts, has become hugely popular in the communities after providing workshops on painting techniques and mosaic construction. The project also supported courses to form 68 community agents to qualify them as promoters of socio-environmental recovery of the Serra do Mar and trained 203 community members in civil construction techniques.

“These social programs are helping people in the community discover their own personal capability,” said Moraes, who is an active participant in the newsletter, radio and TV programs. “The Com-Com project has given our communities a sense of identity. “

The IDB is also helping finance the training of community members to work as gardeners and plant nursery workers, and implementing a school nursery project that will contribute with seedlings for the reforestation activities of the program.

“The community participation and social activities developed in this program have empowered the local communities and have paved the way for the success of this project,” said Joseph Milewski, co-team leader for the project at the IDB. “We will continue to foster the upmost transparency and invest on social programs in the following years of project implementation, in which more than 6,000 families are expected to be resettled.”

Support for resettled families

The project also offers social services for families that were resettled into formal housing, usually apartment buildings. The program offers regular visits from social workers, intended to help families integrate into the new area, find schools for their children, improve their education and to help those people that do not have employment to re-train or to develop new income generating activities.

“It also provides the families with support to organize and administer the condominiums and to pay for communal expenses, such as lighting, cleaning and security. The plan also includes a conflict resolution program, which helps the families to live together and resolve any disputes that arise between neighbors before they develop into major crises” said Jonathan Renshaw, the project team’s anthropologist.

The project is expected to restore degraded areas in Serra do Mar State Park in the municipality of Cubatão as well as clear hundreds of hectares from non-native plant and animal species. The program will also finance the creation of a botanical garden, improve management of the park and other conservation areas and upgrade monitoring and inspection systems of the areas under conservation.

“We can clearly see that the community is different now,’’ said Moraes, who does all his community activities after work hours or during the weekends. “People are more optimistic. We are trying to show that man and the environment can be together.”

Future activities

In the following years, the program will start implementation in the Juréia-Itatins Ecological Station, as well as in the Mosaic of marine and coastal conservation units along the littoral of São Paulo.

Juréia-Itatins protects large expanses of Atlantic Forest, which are vital for the flow of genetic material between ecosystems within the state and between the Atlantic Forests of Rio de Janeiro and Parana states. In the Juréia-Itatins Ecological Station, the program will principally build infrastructure for protection of its valuable ecosystems. Similar conservation investments are foreseen for the marine and coastal mosaic conservation units. All these investments will be coupled with support for improved monitoring and surveillance systems.

The conservation of the Atlantic forest is expected to improve carbon retention, provide better local and regional climate regulation; stabilize rainfall periods and improve the retention of rainwater run-off; as well as protect tree species that are crucial for the survival of the biome.

The IDB is supporting the project with a $162.5 million 25-year loan, which covers 35 percent of the total cost of the project. Forestry Foundation, controlled by Sao Paulo State Environment Secretariat, and CDHU, a unit of the State’s Housing Secretariat, are the executing agencies for the project.