Participants chant during the climate march along Ipanema Beach on September 21, 2014 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Protests calling for curbs in greenhouse gas emissions were scheduled for 150 countries ahead of a UN summit on climate change. The Amazon rainforest, mostly located in Brazil, produces about 20 percent of the earth's oxygen but is threatened by deforestation.
Credit: Mario Tama

Editor's note: This essay is the third in a series, “Conservation Innovation: Voices of a New Generation,” which has been produced by the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy in collaboration with The GroundTruth Project on GlobalPost. The essays were written for presentation in Sydney, Australia during the November 2014 World Parks Congress organized by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. 

RIO DE JANEIRO — Mauricio Ruiz grew up surrounded by one of the last refuges of primary forest in Rio de Janeiro. As a teenager, Mauricio and some of his friends would walk for days inside the Tinguá Biological Reserve, oriented only by the flow of the waters and the singing birds.

During a groundbreaking journey to the Amazon rainforest with his father, Mauricio at age 14 encountered the biggest tree in his life. A metaphorical seed was planted, and then a young tree took root in his heart. When Mauricio returned home, he pledged to devote himself to conserving the Atlantic Forest of Brazil.

Mauricio, his father and some friends founded Instituto Terra de Preservação Ambiental (ITPA, translated into English as the Earth Institute for Environmental Protection). It started in 1998 as a tree-planting initiative funded with pocket change. Today, it has grown into an internationally significant organization with 130 employees, working at the vanguard of a remarkable effort to create a large corridor of protected areas along Brazil’s Atlantic Coast.

Since World War II, biodiversity loss in the Amazon, and in other tropical forests around the globe, has increased at an alarming rate. The rapid disruption of the Earth’s tropical forests probably imperils global biodiversity more than any other contemporary phenomenon. To address the problem of fragmentation and habitat loss, conservationists has become increasingly focused on landscape-scale approaches, especially through building extensive corridors and mosaics of open land protected by government agencies, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private citizens, institutions, corporations and indigenous peoples.

The Brazilian Atlantic Forest figures as one of the Earth’s 25 biodiversity hotspots — one of the world’s biologically richest and most endangered terrestrial ecological regions. Today the Atlantic Forest encompasses only a small fraction of its original cover. Appropriately, it has become a global biodiversity conservation priority.

Despite its global priority status, however, mobilizing the forces to restore many highly degraded landholdings along Brazil’s Atlantic Coast is no simple task. In Brazil, as in other nations, there is little coordination among federal government agencies, and between federal, state and local governments, private landholders and a wide variety of other institutions. If they want to have a lasting impact, conservationists in Brazil like Mauricio Ruiz have little choice but to become environmental entrepreneurs in establishing large corridors of protected land.

And so, with the support of the Critical Ecosystems Partnership Fund, Ruiz and his associates did exactly that. Having led he struggle to establish the Tinguá Biological Reserve in the early 2000s, Ruiz was a good choice in 2005 to help lead the effort to build a corridor of protected lands in Rio de Janiero state between Tinguá and the Serra de Bocaina National Park to the south. The new entity, the Tinguá-Bocaina Biodiversity Corridor, encompasses an area of some 195 thousand hectares, or more than 480,000 acres.

With the soil severely degraded by relic coffee plantations and, more recently, cattle ranching operations, the rural population of the region had few good choices for making a living. Leaving some of the poorest municipalities in the state, many of the residents were heading for Rio to find whatever work might be available. What they were leaving behind was a territory that provides enormously valuable ecosystem services to the city. Some 80 percent of the water supply of Rio de Janeiro comes from the corridor. Furthermore, 20 percent to 30 percent of Rio’s energy supply comes from hydroelectric plants in the region.

With help from the CEPF (whose members include the World Bank, the Global Environmental Facility, Conservation International, the MacArthur Foundation, the Government of Japan, and l’Agence Francaise pour le Developpement), the ITPA and its partners (ranging from small landowner unions to large international NGOs) were able to create several dependable sources of income to underwrite the reforestation and restoration of the landscape.

The income sources they helped to establish include: the ICMS Ecológico (a transfer scheme that allocates a legally-defined share of state tax revenues to municipalities for several purposes, including the acquisition of conservation lands critical to watershed function); and a set of consolidated State Payment for Ecosystem Services programs that compensate private land owners for environmentally appropriate land management practices.

As reported in a report on the impact of the CEPF in the Atlantic Forest, the tangible results of these efforts were significant, including the establishment of more than 100,000 hectares of protected areas, the creation of more than 300 green jobs, the establishment of a local fire brigade, and the compilation of a detailed geographic information system covering the area.

Note that the ITPA is only one of several successful entrepreneurial conservation organizations focused on the conservation of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. Another organization that provides a bright example of entrepreneurship and policy advocacy in the region is the Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas – IPÊ (the Institute for Ecological Investigations), created by Claudio and Suzana Pádua.

In the 1980s, the Páduas and their three children left their comfortable city life, and careers in business and design, to devote themselves to wildlife conservation. They conducted research regarding the black lion tamarin, a highly threatened – and very charismatic – primate. From these studies and interactions with the local people, Claudio and Suzana came to understand that effective species conservation required the support of communities surrounding the tamarins' forest home – and that working with the children in those communities through outdoor education was one of the best ways to plant the seeds of change that would lead to long-term forest conservation.

Working with local residents, Claudio and Suzana raised local awareness that tamarin conservation not only preserved the Atlantic Forest, but also improved local people’s lives. Investing years of work to the task, IPÊ developed an integrated model, combining research, environmental education, habitat restoration, community engagement with sustainable development, landscape conservation and policy advocacy. Working from this base of experience, the Institute grew and prospered to become one of the largest environmental NGOs in Brazil, with about 90 employees and projects in 40 different locations throughout the nation. It has been recognized with several awards for its innovative work, including three Social Entrepreneurship awards.

It is conservation entrepreneurs like Mauricio Ruiz, and Claudio and Suzana Pádua who persistently engage in new hubs of activity, deepen their networks, build capacities and share innovative ideas. Over days and decades, they are tremendously effective at shaping our local, national and international conservation cultures, and at influencing the policy making process.

As young conservation practitioners, with our own love stories with nature, can we find inspiration in these examples to catalyze change and scale up our actions? Which lessons can we draw from it?

Our search for answers can be informed by a video produced in 2010 by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) titled: "Love. Not Loss." The video postulates that the way we have been talking about the enormous biodiversity challenges we face can be alarmist and ineffective. It shows that inspiration and wonder with nature is the most effective way to spark lifelong passion for biodiversity conservation.

According to the IUCN, “Research on adults who care about biodiversity reveals the single most important factor behind taking action is an emotionally powerful childhood experience of nature, from a visit to a city farm to stroking a wild animal. When people experience a memorable natural encounter as a child, that experience can be reawakened in the adult. People who got outdoors and enjoyed nature as children are more likely to be environmentally responsible adults.”

Many academic institutions continue to struggle to find ways to bridge the science-policy gap by producing numbers, figures and “sound science” to influence policy makers. Expert panels appear to have low capacity to guide the formulation of decisive environmental and conservation policies.

It appears that science alone is not enough. To address the huge challenges we face, we also need the passion and entrepreneurial drive of young people following the path of the Pádua family and Maurico Ruiz. Their love stories with the trees and animals that inhabit the forest show us exactly the kind of passion that moves us in face of the challenges and risks – that push us to explore new paths.

We will need to nurture the seeds of love for nature planted in our own hearts as children, and which we are helping to plant in the hearts of today’s children. It will be the entrepreneurial drive that grows from these seeds that can make a lasting difference, giving us the persistence to patiently address seemingly huge obstacles, to overcome shortfalls of political willpower, and to effectively address the indecisiveness of policy makers.

As conservation scholars, can we see a new way to bridge the science-policy gap? How should the scientific narrative be reframed to achieve policy change? What can conservation science learn from entrepreneurial practitioners? Let us start by considering the poetry of Robert Frost:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.


Priscila Franco Steier is an environmental analyst in the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation in the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment (ICMBio/MMA). She received her masters of science in environmental governance from Albert-Ludwigs-Universitat Freiburg (the University of Freiburg) in Germany. Her thesis and current work are focused on social entrepreneurship for biodiversity conservation.

Read Part One of the series: How to keep the American Southwest from drying up altogether

Read Part Two of the series: Why military lands make great conservation areas

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