Karen Lawrence, WWF UK´s Design & Impact Advisor
Working on various projects and programmes in the Amazon I wanted to get a feel for the Amazon rainforest and for the protected areas that make up about 25% of the biome. So I chose to visit a park on the edge of the Brazilian Amazon boarding Peru in the only mountain system of Acre state, where very few people ever visit. Serra do Divisor was one of the earliest parks created in Brasil, in 1989 and covers about 846,000 ha. In 1998 there were 522 occupants living in the park and about 996 families living in the buffer zone but dependant on the park. 2014 is its 25th anniversary as a national park and I was curious to find out what its situation is now after all this time, as it forms part of the Brazilian Amazon Region Protected Areas programme, ARPA.
The journey to reach this park on the edge of Brasil is long, but you are promised a series of waterfalls, the only ones in Acre, embedded in the Amazon rainforest. The five-hour boat ride to get to the park first goes through the low flood forests and after an hour the flood forest gives way to the typical Acrean forest types, bamboo, palms and huge rainforest species in various combinations and variations. As we go further in more people have cleared the vegetation and settled on the riverbank. Finally the boat slowly comes to a stop at the bank and I walk up the wooden steps from the decking to reach the home where I will stay at the village in the foothills of the park.
There are seven waterfalls altogether in this protected area most accessed by boat along the river Moa, which takes you deeper into the park where the rock formations and rainforest covered hills surround you. Suddenly an old rusty boiler comesinto view. This is not the only legacy of the Petrobas exploration for gas in the 70´s. The water gushes out of the bank where they drilled a large bore hole. The seemingly bottomless hole flows with sufficient force to carve out pools from the rocks it flows over.
The journey goes on up river to the waterfall known as the Air Conditioning. The white sand and clear water make intricate patterns as they pass through the forest roots and rocks. The big rainforest buttress trees and the thin younger saplings mottle the light as we wind our way through. Then the canopy opens, the temperature falls and we see the 2 metre waterfall in the clearing. Later during the week we visit the other 4 waterfalls.
On the final day I leave early in the morning for the 18 km walk to the waterfall called Famoso. Very soon the heat and humidity of the rainforest envelopes us as we walk through the multiple buttressed rooted trees. The walk is amazing as we pass through various different types of forest ranging from the very delicate and fragile rainforest on sandy soils, whose susceptibility to drought and to the effects of development in coastal zones make it one of the rarest types of rainforest, to a patch of palms in the more humid areas, then rainforest with palm-dominated undercover and thinner trees, on into riverine forest.
The forest floor changes and the canopy architecture shifts, but always permeated by the smell of lush, green, vibrant growth. After navigating a series of orange slabs of rock in the stream, the canopy suddenly opens and before us is the double cascading waterfall roars, and it is spectacular. The water is mesmerizing as it cascades through the different stages of orange rocks; the black still pool in the middle offers a calm contrast to the turbulent energy of the falls both above and below it. After putting up the tents we watch the sun go down. The moon rises across the small patch of sky left by the forest canopy, stars glitter, and the roar of the falls is the last sound to be heard. Dawn sees an early start and the long walk through the forest to the community.
After the passing through the same river route, forest paths and balancing precariously on the log bridges, our four-hour rainforest walk is coming to an end, but before we get to the community the canopy suddenly opens up and we are face to face with a scene of utter destruction and devastation. One of the resident families has decided to cut the forest and burn it; growing manioc (cassava) for a few years and then abandoning it as pasture for cattle. The rainforest will never return as the sandy soil will never provide the rich nutrients needed or retain the water and humidity key to its regeneration. The stumps stand drying in grisly rows and even after a day the leaves are cracking dry under foot. To avoid the huge tree trunks barring our way we return to a route that passes through other fields, and the manioc is thin and weedy, a sad replacement for the forest that once stood there.
There is a huge contradiction here. Officially some protected areas do not have people in them, but where they do, they are not expelled; they and their children feel they have the right to live in the park, but they do not always have access to government assistance programmes. Many do not want to stay, they want to sell and leave, but officially they do not own the land so the government will not buy it from them; it cannot legally do so. In the north the residents have moved into cattle ranching; with limited capital they can afford a few head of cattle and they are no longer known as agriculturalists, their status has changed to that of rancher or ‘fazendeiro’.
As my visit to park of waterfalls comes to an end I remember that the recent creation of a new fund to support ARPA, facilitated by WWF and signed this June should increase the support for protected areas like Serra do Divisor. If combined with another law (Decreto 4340, 2002) that allows joint management in conservation units, this and many other parks in the Brasil Amazon may have a brigher future. The reality of most protected areas in Brazil is that people live within their limits, but unofficially; joint or co-management needs to be more frequently applied if they are to have a future and be able to protect the high level of biodiversity that is the Amazon.
I reflect on my trip and cannot help feeling concerned that this amazing place must have an alternative to being abandoned at the edge of Brazil in a faraway state.