The invisible Lagoa da Turfeira, an environmental disaster foretold…

Originally written by Luciano Moreira Lima, published in Portuguese at Caapora.

One of the last major wetlands in the southern region of Rio de Janeiro state is in serious risk of disappearing

Of the thousands who cross daily the 299 km milestone of Presidente Dutra Highway (BR-116), very few would realize that, outlined on the west by a sharp bend in the river Paraíba do Sul is one of the last great natural wetlands of southern Rio de Janeiro, the Trufeira lagoon (sometimes known as Kodak lagoon). This situation, however, causes little surprise, since the large pond appears to be invisible not only for the drivers concentrating on the road. It’s no use looking for its approximately 700 thousand square meters on the detailed hydrographic map of the city of Resende (produced in partnership with the municipal authorities, available here). You will not see an indication of even a single drop of water on the site. Which is at least odd, since other bodies of water up to 10 times smaller are correctly displayed on the map and that Lagoa da Trufeira can easily be spotted more than 10 kilometers above the surface, through Google Earth.

Panoramic view of Lagoa da Trufeira, where it is possible to see Paraíba do Sul river on the right. Resende, RJ. Source: GoogleEarth

If an area equivalent to more than 70 football fields can go unnoticed, one can only wonder about those who inhabit it, like the tiny Crested Doradito (Pseudocolopteryx sclateri) with its unruly crest and a measly 9 and a half centimeters. As if its size wasn’t enough, this beautiful bird lives only among dense thickets of a southern cattail (Typha domingensis), one of the most typical plants of Brazilian flooded areas. Ornithologists and bird watchers know that, in order to observe it, willingness is not enough; one needs to be absorbed into the taboas, often sinking in water up to the thighs while keeping ones ears sharp to its discreet singing – listen to it here -.

The tiny and handsome Crested Doradito (Pseudocolopteryx sclateri). Picture: Bruno Rennó.

Over 11 years of regular visits to the Turfeira Lagoon and its immediate surroundings in partnership with my friend and fellow ornithologist Bruno Rennó resulted in the record not only of the discrete tricolino but of at least 169 other species of wild birds on site. Representing about 20% of the birds of the State of Rio de Janeiro, some of them are noted as endangered species statewide. There are also various migratory birds to which the lagoon is an important refuge.

The results of this study – partially presented at the XVI Brazilian Congress of Ornithology – made clear the importance of the Trufeira Lagoon for the conservation of biodiversity in Rio de Janeiro and helped raise awareness of the municipal government for actions to be taken about its preservation. Thus, in 2010 the Environment Agency of the city of Resende formulated the document “Preliminary Technical Study for Establishment of Protected Kodak Wetland Area” [in Portuguese], and among the main findings were:

“The creation and implementation of conservation unit Banhado da Kodak is in line with Brazil’s international commitments to protect the environment, according to targets set by the UN, in accordance with the International Year of Biodiversity.

“A criação e implantação de unidade de conservação no Banhado da Kodak alinha-se aos compromissos internacionais do Brasil de proteger o ambiente, conforme metas estabelecidas pela ONU, em se tratando do Ano Internacional da Biodiversidade.

The creation and establishment of the unit will cause an increase in the GST of the municipality, as required by Law.

It follows, therefore, that the unit will have great benefits to the city […]”

Two years went by since the completion of this document and the lagoon was gradually being forgotten again by the governmental agencies, until last week. On the 19th of April, alerted by friends, I found out that the City of Resende had proudly posted an image of the invisible Lagoon on its Facebook page accompanied by a few news paragraphs. However, instead of the title mentioning any action aimed at the conservation of the area, there it was: “the Nissan building site”. In a haze of confusion and not wanting to believe what I had just read I realized that not only nothing was going to be done to save the lagoon but also they were proudly announcing what could become one of the greatest environmental tragedies of recent southern Rio de Janeiro history. I waited for the weekend, then went home in Resende to see with my own eyes the situation of the area.

Lagoa da Turfeira on the Resende Municipality Facebook page.

It was around 2 o’clock in the afternoon on Saturday, the 21st. From Dutra Highway was already possible to see a huge area of exposed land through mists of dust raised by the movement of a literal fleet of bulldozers, diggers and trucks. I follow the dirt road parallel to the lagoon and under the apprehensive stare of the workers, I made my way through the machines. The constant noise of the engines plus the dust were contributing to make that scene of destruction even more desolate and I soon realized that I was not the only one lost there; a Great Egret (Ardea alba) and two Snowy Egrets (Egretta thula) flew aimlessly between two already muddy puddles, being repeatedly scared off by the machines.

I searched in vain for the area at which, in 2001, I had made the first documented record of Bobolinks (Dolichonyx oryzivorus) in the State of Rio de Janeiro and where we often watched the threatened Rusty-collared Seedeater (Sporophila collaris). Too late, the colony had simply turned into bare earth. A little further ahead, in an area that still had some vegetation, there was an impressive concentration of birds, where the colorful Yellow-rumped Marshbird (Pseudoleistes guirahuro) and the White-browed Blackbird (Leistes superciliaris) stood out, resembling refugees crowding by the hundreds and fleeing a massacre.

Rusty-collared Seedeater (Sporophila collaris), snapped at Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Ciro Albano.

White-browed Blackbird (Sturnella superciliaris), captured at Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Luiz Ribenboim

I drove further up the road to the top of a hill and from there I could better assess the damage. The extension of the groudned area was impressive and even though at that moment the main water body had been spared, several flooded areas around it had been completely grounded. From there I could also see once again something that always felt like a special omen; an old channel located in the northeast corner connecting the water with the Paraiba do Sul river, that, although partially silted today, has worked as a spillway for the water and could again be used to drain it. On my way back, I drove on a road that had just been opened and that strangely lead to the pool and that made me even more worried, asking myself the purpose of that passage.

Destruction scene by the Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Luciano Lima

Destruction scene by the Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Luciano Moreira Lima

Destruction scene by the Lagoa da Turfeira. Picture: Luciano Moreira Lima

Because of my Masters degree I have to live in São Paulo and I gradually get used to traffic jams, pollution and urban violence. So, I have nothing against the car manufacturer, nor against the said progress that says that the population of Resende will increase about 50,000 people over the next five years. But, it is worth remembering that lagoons are characterized as areas of permanent preservation, so they are untouchable.

Moreover, surely an environmental impact study must have been produced for a project of this magnitude, which certainly should have identified that any activity that affects the lagoon could result in an irreversible tragedy for the region’s biodiversity. Therefore, I would have liked the opportunity to participate in a public hearing where the fate of Lagoa da Turfeira could be seriously debated.

Although its surroundings have already been greatly impacted, there is still time to save what remained of the last great natural wetland area of the southern valley of the Paraíba do Sul river. The implementation of a conservation unit – be it by the municipality or by the state, would be not just a way to ensure long-term existence of the Lagoon and its rich biodiversity, but also an opportunity to create a space where, through interpretative hiking trails and a visitor center, the population of Resende would find a new leisure option that fits perfectly with the environmental vocation of the city. There is also the great potential for the practice of one of the fastest growing outdoor activities in the country, bird watching. Not coincidentally, the Lagoa da Turfeira takes three pages of the book “Birdwatching guide to South-East Brazil”, which provides detailed information about some of the best places for birdwatching in the Brazillian Southeast. Not to mention the numerous photos taken there and available on WikiAves – see here – that show that the environments of the lagoon are often sought after by birders.

Around 4:30pm the cloudy sky evolves into a light rain that helped to hide watery eyes. Indeed, ignorance is the best way to happiness. My greatest sorrow was not for being an eyewitness to such aggression against nature, but mainly for realizing the importance of that place to life and knowing first and last names all those doomed to seek in vain for a new home. I went back home heartbroken but willing to do everything I possibly could to show that the colors and sounds of the thousands of lives that depend on the Lagoa da Trufeira make it anything but invisible. Aware that the tragedy has been announced, it is up to us to let it, or not, happen.

A XIX century Photoshop Disaster

The Atlantic Forest is a little known tropical hotspot in the coast of Brazil. The blog network Rede Ecoblogs released the following image to celebrate the Atlantic Forest Day, in May 27th:
As you probably have noticed, there are four flamingoes displayed conspicuously in the image. However, there are NO flamingoes in the Atlantic Forest! Of course you may find flamingoes in Chile, Peru and Argentina, even in the extreme south of Brazil, but not in the our tropical forests. A very bad mistake for a network that is supposed to be all about ecology.
My first impulse was to blame their designer as the image was clearly photoshoped (the flamingos and their whereabouts were duplicated). Another possibility was that the image was not from the Atlantic Forest but somewhere else. Little I knew that the history behind image is way cool than a common intertube mistake.
The first step was to find the author of the original image and compare it to the one above. Paula Signorini helped me finding another example of the image:
1112003023 Rugendas Mantiqueira.JPG
At this other website, the image is annotated as “Rugendas – Mantiqueira”. In this image, the birds are blue, which was also added afterward as Rugendas published these images as lithographs in the beggining of the XIX century.
Rugendas was a German painter that is famous in Brazil for his illustrations depicting the Brazilian landscape and the people that lived here. His most famous work is the book “Picturesque Voyage to Brazil”, published in 1835. This book is the result of his adventures following the Langsdorff Expedition,which he abandoned (or was abandoned) before it arrived at the Amazon forest.
According to the ornithologist Dr. Guilherme Renzo Rocha Brito, who had help from the book “Rugendas e o Brasil” from Pablo Diener and Maria de Fátima Costa (editora Capivara), “Rugendas brought the original illustrations, made using oil paints or pencils, and part of the texts (actually, nobody knows who wrote those texts)… an editor put some money on the project and hired a few (8, I think) artists to make the lithographs. These artists, who had never been to Brazil, transformed the original illustration in stones. However, they took a lot of liberties in this transition, putting their own interpretations of Brazil and even signing the art!”
In summary: the lithographs where made by people that did not know Brazil and tried to carve the illustrations in stone only reading some texts and looking at Rugendas original work. Many of the artists, like the French A. Joly, the author of the flamingo pictures, interpreted the descriptions in their own way adding plant and animals that were not Brazilian (well, as the original illustrations were lost, it may be wring to blame Joly for the birds).
von Marthius, a naturalist that explored Brazil even commented: “I saw Rugendas’ drawing notebook. It seems to me that there is more aesthetic than truth. There are, for example, African birds in the jungle and Brazilian coniferous with palm trees in the mountains.(…) I have been seeing many of Rugendas’ work. I recommend it as an artistic conception and as a piece of French lithography. However, it is true that it is noticeable that many of these representations were done in Europe.”
Guilherme Brito also notes that the illustration is not from Serra da Mantiqueira, as written above, but the “Forét Viérge prés Manqueritipa / dans la province de Rio de Janeiro“or the Virgin Forest of Mangaratiba, at Rio de Janeiro province.
The lesson we take home is that illustrators try to retouch images since the XIX centuries, sometimes with disastrous results. What we cannot do is to replicate, and duplicate, the error in the XXI century.
Thanks to Lama for the help.
Images: Ecoblogs e As Minas Gerais
This post was translated by Carlos Hotta from the original published at the Brazilian blog Brontossauros em meu Jardim.

Deforestation does not lead to development

ResearchBlogging.orgScience magazine has published a paper that is extremely important for the Brazilian Amazon. Brazilian researchers (IMAZON), in collaboration with researchers from other nations, evaluated the impact of the deforestation in the social and economic development in the affected Amazonian towns. The paper starts with some pretty impressive numbers: this country has 40% of the remaining tropical forests in the world. However, between 1998 and 2008, we took our forest down at a rate of 1,8 million ha/year (almost a third of the world’s tropical forest deforestation), releasing around 250 million tons of carbon every year. There are two patterns in Brazilian deforestation: we take the best wood first then we burn everything to make pastures or to make new crops. We are doing this conversion in a few decades, while it took centuries to other countries to do the same.
The advance of the deforestation in Brazil is justified by its advocates by the increase of the quality of life of the population around the forest areas. That’s it: environmental degradation leading to the increase of quality of life. In this context, the authors of the paper divided 286 Amazonian municipalities in 7 classes divided by when the deforestation took place and its extension. The classes ranged from pre-frontier (intact forest and no sign of the start of the deforestation) to post-frontier (severe deforestation and the shift to other economic activities). They also estimated the Human Development Index (HDI) for each municipality to estimate the development stage of each area. The HDI is the average of three other index: life expectancy, literacy and GDP per capta.



The HDI and its components in each municipality class (from the most preserved, A class, to the most degraded, G class).


As you amy observe, there is a pattern in the HDI and its components. There is a fast increase in the region HDI soon after the start of the deforestation. However, after this first moment of deforestation and resources over exploitation, there is the decrease of this index back to its original legal (there is no statistical difference between the A and G classes). This means that you may have development for a while but it vanishes with the natural resources. The authors of the paper also point out that Brazil’s HDI increased in the studied period but the HDI of A class and G class municipalities decreased.
What is the reason for this pattern? It is possible that the increase of the HDI is the result of the migration of people to the towns with intermediate deforestation levels as people with higher education levels and better financial status would arrive. However, this would not explain the sharp increase in the initial levels of deforestation, when the immigrants are largely poor people looking for a fresh start. An alternative explanation is the construction of infrastructure around the town, like roads and the initial profit with natural resources which allow a better access to services like doctors, etc. However, after a while, the profit levels decrease and the initial benefits are gone.
This shows how wrong the chaotic exploitation frame of the mind is. The whole “We are developing the Amazon region”is a lie! As everything in Brazil, only the richest benefit from the transitory development, accumulation all the profit from the natural resources. The poor are left with nothing. Deforestation do not increase the quality of life of the population that lives around the forest!
This means that it, in a first moment, is urgent to stop this model of deforestation followed by agriculture expansion. Next, we need to start the reforestation of degraded areas and to start investing in a sustainable exploitation of the forest (if such thing is possible). The authors also suggest the investment in carbon sequestration projects, as Brazil has large carbon stocks and a has advanced technologies to track changes in the forest. Once the Brazilian government understands that the forest worths more intact than destroyed, then we might understand what is development.
Rodrigues, A., Ewers, R., Parry, L., Souza, C., Verissimo, A., & Balmford, A. (2009). Boom-and-Bust Development Patterns Across the Amazon Deforestation Frontier Science, 324 (5933), 1435-1437 DOI: 10.1126/science.1174002
This post was translated by Carlos Hotta from the original published at the Brazilian blog DIscutindo Ecologia.

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