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Winning hearts and minds

By Roger Hamilton, Silva Jardim, Rio de Janeiro State, Brazil

The 106 families in the farming settlement of Cambucaes, east of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, are mainly concerned with making ends meet, not worrying about the fate of a little monkey, no matter how cute or close to extinction.

Yet today, many of these same families have become players in a plan to save the golden lion tamarin, one of the world’s most endangered species. In so doing, they have joined forces with two other groups with whom they formerly had practically nothing in common.

The first group is the scientists and conservationists with the Golden Lion Tamarin Association, which is headquartered in a large nature reserve that abuts one side of their settlement. In fact, their natural inclination would be to use the reserve for hunting and cutting firewood.

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A banner marks the 12th anniversary of the takeover of a large ranch by landless settlers.

Even less do the farmers identify with the region’s big landowners, mostly wealthy professionals and government officials who live in Rio (see article “Mico mystique”). In fact, the Cambucaes settlement itself was carved out of one of these large ranches in as part of the countrywide landless movement that has sometimes achieved its goals through intimidation and violence.

These odd bedfellows have coalesced around a conservation mission that, while far from being won, is proving that local people with radically different interests and points of view can be mobilized in the cause of protecting a valuable natural heritage. In the case of the golden lion tamarin, the challenge is to stitch together a safety net of forest fragments with corridors of trees, mostly on private land. The tamarins need these corridors to travel from one area to another, where they can meet, mate, and create a viable gene pool that will ensure the health and reproductive success of future generations.

Communication problems. The Cambucaes settlement, located at one terminus of the planned forest highway, is the missing link in the chain of forest fragments and corridors (see map). The association had to convince the settlement’s farmers to allow it to plant corridors on their land. That was seven years ago.

Relations got off to a bad start. Part of the problem was the association’s inexperience in dealing with small farmers. 

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Oliveira had to get to know local communities to enlist crucial allies for saving the endangered monkey.

“We only knew about tamarins,” said Paula Procópio de Oliveira, the association’s technical director and coordinator of a project funded by the National Environment Fund with support from the Inter-American Development Bank. “Our concern was tamarins—their ecology, their biology, their behavior.”

And the local people? “At first they didn’t understand what we were doing,” said Oliveira. “When they did learn, they wanted to know why we were spending so much money on monkeys when so many people are suffering from hunger.” (See sidebar “Monkeys vs. people?”.) Furthermore, they were reluctant to try something new. By their nature, farmers are conservative anyway, and many of these particular farmers had previously worked in sugar cane processing plants or came from urban areas, and so had no experience on the land. On top of it all, many believed that the association was secretly out to take their land from them. The community split into two mutually suspicious groups, one favoring cooperation and the other opposed.

Clearly, the Golden Lion Tamarin Association had to try something different if it was to win the small farmers’ hearts and gain access to their land. “We could see that you can’t go into a community and say, ‘do this, don’t do that,’ without offering something in return,” said Oliveira.

So the association set out to learn as much as they could about the farmers and their problems. In visit after visit to the Cambucaes settlement, they heard farmers tell them how they struggled to eke out a living on poor, unproductive land. The association's response was to propose ways to improve the land, boost productivity, and at the same time provide habitat for the tamarin. “We worked like ants,” recalled Oliveira.

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In the community nursery, Lessa (right) and Silva inspect saplings that monkeys will use for food and shelter.

Eye on the future. Now their efforts are paying off. As proof, the association’s Rosan Fernandes would spend the afternoon planting a new forest corridor on a 14-hectare farm owned by a woman he identified as Dona Leda. Fernandes’ specialty is agroforestry, in which native trees, fruit trees and crops are grown together. While people have practiced variations on the agroforestry theme since the dawn of agriculture, the advent of industrial farming has made single crop systems synonymous with modernity and efficiency. Today, agroforestry is being rediscovered as a way to both increase production and conserve soil, water resources and biodiversity.

The first stop was the tree nursery in Cambucaes. The association provides the seeds and technical advice, and then buys the seedlings, plants them, and makes sure that the fledgling forest is properly maintained.

Fernandes was greeted by Benedito Lessa, a genial man who proudly conducted a tour of his seedling beds.  “When you plant a fruit tree, you don’t harvest tomorrow,” he said. “We have to make a compromise between the present and the future.”

It will take three or four years for the fruit trees on Lessa's land to start yielding. In the meantime, he is planting annual crops, such as cassava, corn, and vegetables.

How is business at the nursery? “Many people in Cambucaes want at least a small patch of forest,” said Lessa. So sales are good, at least during the wet season, and provides a welcome addition to his income. “It all helps,” he said.

Fernandes loaded a bundle of stakes into the back of his pickup truck and headed off to the farm of Dona Leda. In the distance, he pointed a corridor they had already planted on the land of a large property owner that ended at a small road. Dona Leda’s corridor, which would measure between 35 and 50 meters wide, would pick up on the other side of the road and continue for some 510 meters.  The tamarins will be able to cross the road because the trees selected for either side will develop large interlocking crowns.

In all, Dona Leda’s corridor will occupy more than 10 percent of her farm, an unreasonably large chunk of land if tamerins were the sole beneficiaries. But with the help of Fernandes and the support of the association, she will be earning money from fruit and eucalyptus trees (for wood production), pineapple, coffee, and other crops, all planted together with the native trees. Meanwhile, the mini forest will be protecting her water sources.

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Fernandes and Lessa plan a forest corridor that will someday obstruct the view of the communications tower.

Like many small farmers, Dona Leda began as a skeptic. But when Fernandes pointed out that most of her land was in poor shape—eroded, stripped of its topsoil and incapable of supporting more than a few cows—she had to agree. The clincher came when she observed good initial results on some of her neighbors’ farms.

Fernandes sympathized with her initial hesitation. “Investing a large portion of her land in a new technique could be very risky.” But he is convinced that Dona Leda made a wise decision. “Agroforestry will really increase her production,” he said.

Eusemiro Silva, who was also spending the afternoon planting seedlings with Fernandes and Lessa, has already reaped the benefits of agroforestry. He claims that his pineapples, grown together with native trees, produce better than pineapples planted by themselves because the neighboring trees help the ground retain moisture.

“It’s not theory,” Silva said. “It actually works.” Neighboring farms have had similar success. “Each species, both native and productive species, helps the others,” he said.

Keeping in touch. By making frequent visits, talking with the farmers and keeping their promises, the association has gained creditability in settlements such as Cambucaes.

“Before, all the people here knew was to cut the brush, burn it, and plant,” said Lessa.

But the association has shown them new options, in this way playing a role normally reserved for government extension agents. But government extensionists come to the settlements “only when the association brings them here,” said Lessa. Likewise the environmental protection agency Ibama sometimes extends an invitation to attend a workshop, “but only when there is a problem that they want to tell us about.” The local municipalities provide some support from their limited budgets. But in the end, the association provides nearly all technical assistance that the farmers receive.

The association is now helping local people in other ways as well. For example, it is working with women’s groups establish handicraft businesses. It even occasionally plays the role of honest broker. For example, it can step in when a settlement has a problem with the Brazilian land reform agency or if a matter has to be resolved with a local municipality.

The association is also employing members of  local communities, not just as laborers, but also as technicians. Maria Inês S. Bento, daughter of a settler, has worked for the association as an environmental extensionist for more than 10 years.

“I show the people how to improve their land,” she says. “For me, conservation must be linked to production. This is very important, because it doesn’t do farmers any good to conserve if they don’t also produce.”

But while the association and its collaborators have made a great deal of progress in very few years, a secure future for the tamarin is still far from assured, said Oliveira. “People continue hunting and cutting down the forest. The fragments have gotten smaller, even while we are building corridors between them. And there are still a lot of charcoal ovens,” she continued. “We are dealing with a dual reality.”

Is she optimistic that the tamarin can be saved? “Sometimes yes, and sometimes no,” she replied.

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