Brazil, Expeditions and Travels

Two Countries One Problem (cont.) – A Problem in Common

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Historically in the United States, an alliance of sportsmen and animal lovers formed coalitions that aided politicians to get the job done. Now sportsmen are more concerned by gun rights and conservative politics than their own wildlife (bobwhite quail for example), and the people who love wild animals pretend they have no useful role in their conservation and sit by idly paying nothing for the privilege of their recreation. Both groups buy into industry-led efforts to draw conservationists into fratricidal bickering over issues that divide, as they do in most issues of importance in our nation.

From my perspective Brazil fares no better, probably worse. A coalition of conservation interests doesn’t exist, and might never exist. Industrial interests control more political power, and let’s face it: the allure of short-term economic gain will attract more people living in poverty and a greater number of powerful politicians, especially those whose greatest concern is their own wealth. Isn’t that the sad condition of our own congress, where nearly every member of our house of representatives is a millionaire? The oligarchy has even more influence in Brazil.

Two fishing boats from the port of Riposa fishing in the waters of Curupu Island. Fishing anchors the economy of this area, and nearly all of the harvest comes from small boat fishermen. Exploitation at the industrial scale, as is done in the United States along the mid-Atlantic Coast, would not only ruin the fish populations but the main source of income for local people. A similar impact has occurred on Delaware Bay, where most fish are overexploited, barely functional, or classified as endangered. Equally endangered are local economies that are dependent on fishing, such Fortescue.

Two fishing boats from the port of Riposa fishing in the waters of Curupu Island. Fishing anchors the economy of this area, and nearly all of the harvest comes from small boat fishermen. Exploitation at the industrial scale, as is done in the United States along the mid-Atlantic Coast, would not only ruin the fish populations but the main source of income for local people. A similar impact has occurred on Delaware Bay, where most fish are overexploited, barely functional, or classified as endangered. Equally endangered are local economies that are dependent on fishing, such Fortescue.

At least in Brazil, the choices created by industrial self-interest are clearer. Every day of our stay in Brazil, we watched beautiful indigenous sailing and power vessels venture out onto the wind-tossed seas of the Atlantic to gill net or seine the productive and diverse fishery of the area. The pilot and crew of these elegant but simple craft can support themselves and their families because the area has yet to be the target of the modern commercial fishery. But they are not far away, and will inevitably play the political game to take the fishery away from these poor hardworking people. Our own conservation coalition in New Jersey couldn’t stop the east coast industrial fishery from demolishing many of the Delaware Bay fish populations, on which local fishermen depended to eke out a modest living. The list of lost or nearly lost includes weakfish, flounder, Atlantic sturgeon, American eels, and horseshoe crabs, and the list still grows. In both the United States and Brazil, the cards are stacked against wildlife and local people.

What can be done? Perhaps a more focused question might be “where can something be done,” because the area in which we work lies on the eastern edge of one of the greatest mangrove ecosystems in the world. The Brazilian government has officially designated the area from Belem to São Luís as a national treasure because of the importance of this vast productive wetland to world environmental health. Not coincidentally, it is also home to the main wintering population of many arctic nesting shorebirds, including the red knot, ruddy turnstone, black-bellied plover, willet, greater yellowlegs, and many other species. If one was to search for an area of equal importance for shorebirds as the Delaware Bay, it is this 350-mile long wilderness of mangrove swamp and adjacent intertidal mudflats and sandy beaches.

A Google Earth image of the swamps now devoted to shrimp farming. This estuary is about 300 miles east of the Maranhão mangrove swamp.

A Google Earth image of the swamps now devoted to shrimp farming. This estuary is about 300 miles east of the Maranhão mangrove swamp.

But industrial-level shrimp farms are inching their way up the Brazilian coast. Most biologists believe the protections created by the Brazilian government, though well meaning, are squishy and could allow development on massive scale. The mangrove system is the beating heart of this productive system. Shrimp farming would still that heart by ripping out mangroves, diking the wetlands, and flooding them to raise shrimp. After a few years, the wasted land is discarded and a new section of mangrove falls to diking. Look at the destruction on Google Earth in almost real time. The animals that depend on the mangrove fall first, but soon after the local fishing community collapses as well. Without its heart, this productive system no longer produces and local people can no longer make a living fishing. Destitute, they will move on to squalor in the cities. The wealthy corporations that caused this cleansing of natural wealth move on, all the richer for their unconscionable destruction.

A flock of red knots, semipalmated plovers, sanderlings, and semipalmated sandpipers flies from one inlet to another. In addition to being an important wintering area for large proportions of many shorebird species, the Maranhão region of Brazil is also a critical stopover site on the both the northbound and southbound migrations for other populations that spend the winter further south – for example, red knots that winter in Tierra del Fuego.

A flock of red knots, semipalmated plovers, sanderlings, and semipalmated sandpipers flies from one inlet to another. In addition to being an important wintering area for large proportions of many shorebird species, the Maranhão region of Brazil is also a critical stopover site on the both the northbound and southbound migrations for other populations that spend the winter further south – for example, red knots that winter in Tierra del Fuego.

In both New Jersey and Maranhão, the problem is the same: industry disguised as community builders, leaving both natural and human communities impoverished. Conservationists should not be drawn in by the argument that any threat to industry is a threat to the economy. Natural wealth can flow to rural communities just as well as investors. The former can result in sustainable economies, while the latter nearly always ends badly for both people of the area and wildlife. We conservationists should amend our focus: we are not just about saving animals, we are also about saving rural communities and animals with smart new efforts that benefit both.

After this expedition’s trapping efforts, about 650 geolocators are currently deployed on red knots and around 150 more on ruddy turnstones. We will next attempt to recover some of these geolocators at Delaware Bay in a few months.

After this expedition’s trapping efforts, about 650 geolocators are currently deployed on red knots and around 150 more on ruddy turnstones. We will next attempt to recover some of these geolocators at Delaware Bay in a few months.

Our team intends to return to this rough, magical, diverse and productive ecosystem to ply our craft, cannon netting shorebirds and studying them. But over the next year we hope to join others who also seek to initiate smart new efforts to help people and wildlife. Who knows, in the process we might be able to solve our own problem in the same way.