Paradise Guardians

    
Paradise Guardians

    Capão is a bird watcher’s paradise. Ocelot, puma and jaguar
    still roam freely. The
    Environmental Commission of Capão Valley
    deals with several issues including control of pollution,
    littering
    prevention and protection of rivers and waterfalls.

    by:
    Phillip Wagner

    Our 4 AM departure for the Chapada Diamantina in west-central Bahia allowed us to avoid much of the sweltering
    summer heat that envelopes the coastal city of Salvador in late December. Our route followed BR-324 for 102 kilometers west to
    the hub-city of Feira de Santana, which connects with Rio to the southwest, Chapada to the west and the little town of
    Senhor do Bonfim to the northwest.

    Bonfim, incidentally, is home to one of Brazil’s premiere Festas de São João * (St. John’s festivals). From Feira de
    Santana we proceeded 30 kilometers southwest on BR 116 to BR242, our main artery to the Chapada. The scenery around us
    gradually bled from the heavily populated and favela
    (slum) laced urban sprawl of Salvador into an arid, sparsely populated,
    countryside. The patchwork of estradas (roads) and
    fazendas (ranches) marking our journey was overseen by scores of
    urubus (vultures) gliding like silent sentries over the diminishing stream of vehicles ferrying passengers and goods into the interior.

    The topography morphed continually as new forms of vegetation and landforms appeared. Livestock grazed on
    brittle-dry grass and cactus covered hillsides. The roads, though paved, were periodically pocked with craters that
    demanded attentiveness and quick reflexes. Peasant children strategically positioned themselves alongside these obstacles,
    shoveling dirt and sand into the holes in exchange for the occasional generosity of coins tossed from car windows.

    Makeshift roadside fruit stands offered coconuts, pineapple, cashew fruit and
    jaca fruit. As we passed through villages, men and boys hawking plastic bags of roasted cashews bracketed speed bumps marking the entry and exit points to and
    from their communities. But, over time, recognizable communities diminished in number, and were separated by increasingly
    greater distances.

    A Little Break

    About 220 kilometers in on BR-242 we allowed for a 24-kilometer side trip to and from Lençóis, a popular, rustic,
    colonial `gateway’ into the Chapada. We strolled along its cobblestone streets peering into little shops, had an iced drink of
    tropical fruits, and secured a map of the region. Then we reconnected with BR-242, circumnavigated Pai Inácio, a mountain
    whose name is associated with popular lore, and proceeded another 34 kilometers before diverting 8 kilometers to Palmeiras.

    Legend has it that, sometime in the
    16th or 17th century, a great landowner near Pai Inácio had been
    breeding a prized male slave. According to the legend, his daughter fell in love with the slave and the two were caught in a moment of passion.
    The slave was made to jump from the promontory, which overlooks the region, but miraculously survived. There is no
    indication as to how severely he was injured, or whether he survived for very long, but the storied romance is consistent with the
    harsh beauty of this lightly trafficked wilderness. Palmeiras, which is not the famed
    region of Palmeiras where escaped slaves established a confederation of `quilombos’ (villages), marked an end to paved roads.

    The Chapada is expansive, covering portions of several states, and geographically impressive. Our ultimate
    destination, Vale do Capão (Capão Valley) is accessible but remains remote and largely pristine. It’s an excellent base camp from
    which to visit Brazil’s tallest waterfall, Cachoeira de Fumaça. The `waterfall of smoke’ gets its name from the fact that its
    cascading waters disappear into a vaporous cloud as they descend 800 meters. It can be viewed from a foot trail in Capão that
    covers 10 or 12 kilometers over rock-strewn trails winding through panoramic grandeur.

    Vale de Capão is intensely focused on ecotourism, and visitors are expected to arrive prepared for the challenge. The
    road out of Palmeiras was under reconstruction, and it seemed apparent that the remaining portions hadn’t been constructed
    with automobiles in mind. The deeply rutted dirt and ancient cobbled stone roads became progressively narrower,
    progressively more uneven and progressively more difficult to negotiate.

    I became alarmed 10 or 15 kilometers out of Palmeiras, as the path before us continued to deteriorate. Glancing over a
    large hill I pointed to what appeared to be little more than a cow path. "That’s probably our road" I joked. We laughed and
    our tensions eased a bit, until we realized that actually
    was our road. Whenever we saw a `local’ emerge from the swirl of
    dust about the rocks, cactus and barbed wire that bordered our passage we stopped to
    ask "how much farther to
    pousada Candombá?" The answer was always the same: "way up there", as a straw hat shaded finger pointed to the distant horizon.

    Owing to our tediously slow forward progress, the 20-25 kilometers from Palmeiras to pousada Candombá seemed
    like hundreds. We were constantly shifting gears and initiating a series of stops/starts/pirouettes to avoid pitfalls, sand
    traps, jagged rocks and other physical obstacles. We scraped bottom periodically, and my heart raced whenever the road fell
    away precipitously on my side. But in the end, our reward seemed worth the challenge. Vale do Capão is magnificent. And
    pousada Candombá, nestled in a hidden corner of the valley, is as picturesque as we imagined it would be.

    Claude’s Journey

    Pousada Candombá is owned by Frenchman Claude Samuel and his Brazilian wife Suzane (Portuguese spelling), who
    have lived in Vale do Capão for more than a dozen years. Claude lived in Salvador from 1981 to 1986, where he operated a
    restaurant in Pelourinho and a creperia on the island of Itaparica. He also gave French lessons and attempted to establish an
    ecotourism business on the northern coast of Bahia with Jacuípe river journeys. But his tourism business struggled financially and,
    to capitalize on his degree in mechanical engineering, he returned to France in 1986.

    At the end of 1989, Claude returned for a 10-day vacation. He spent some time at the house of a friend in Boca do
    Rio, a pleasant district in Salvador. One day Suzane, who lived in the Chapada, happened by and Claude’s eyes were opened
    by her descriptions of its raw, wild beauty. His interest was piqued, but there would be no immediate opportunity for him to
    make a side trip. The Chapada is a great distance from Salvador, and Claude had to return to Paris two days later. He talked
    with Suzane about returning, and his increasing interest in
    her added fuel to his longing for a return visit.

    On arriving in Paris Claude spoke with his manager about leaving his job. He already had someone in mind to take
    his place handling the Spanish market of the steel industry served by the enterprise. He vacated his apartment in Monmartre
    and informed his astonished parents that he was returning to Brazil. Six months later he arrived with only a backpack in
    Palmeiras, so many hours distant from the coast, after hitchhiking 10 kilometers from the village of Carne Assada because of a bus
    strike. Suzane was waiting for him and, together, they went straight to Capão.

    Claude reminisced, "I immediately adored that place. I was very attracted to the idea of living in the midst of such
    natural beauty. It was a dream come true". He and Suzane had already considered opening a
    pousada, "although at that time there was little tourism and we were without electricity or a telephone". After all, Claude had already worked for some time in
    Salvador managing itineraries for French ecotourists. "The experience I gained in that first failed attempt in ecotourism", he says,
    "helped me succeed in Capão".

    More than a Pousada

    In 1995, Claude and Suzane finally made the decision to invest in a
    pousada. The number of tourists was gradually
    increasing. They constructed a restaurant and the first few rooms, taking as much advantage of local resources as
    possible. "We looked for, and used, many stones that we found along local roads and made bricks from the earth and other
    natural materials in the area. And we began to create our orchard by planting fruit trees, along with beans, with the idea of
    integrating our efforts to establish a
    pousada with our lives in the countryside".

    Claude credits establishing an association for the protection of the environment with helping him and Suzane to
    integrate their livelihood with their passion for protecting the waters, recycling organic waste, preventing fires, providing
    environmental education and enhancing the National Park. "Our movement to protect the environment" he said "began in 1995 when
    fires consumed half of the Capão valley. Some of the fires originated from the work of clearing land and many other times
    from a person who was burning something without taking care to make a fire break around the fire to prevent it from
    spreading. We met with some friends, natives of Capão and other people, and resolved to begin an environmental education
    campaign in the valley".

    So Claude, Suzane and their friends formed the Environmental Commission of Capão Valley. They organized
    meetings to encourage local ranchers and farmers to make `fire breaks’ whenever they used fire to clear land. "Our campaign was a
    great success" Claude says proudly, "the number of fires in the valley decreased significantly within a year".

    Then the commission organized a number of issue-specific groups. One was dedicated to controlling pollution and
    preventing littering, another to protecting local rivers and waterfalls, another focused on environmental education and ecotourism.
    They obtained some land in the valley that had been ravaged by fires and initiated a reforestation project by planting
    seedlings. The Forestry Department of (the state of) Bahia provided Capão’s commission with fencing materials to secure the
    targeted area.

    An Evolving Legacy

    The Environmental Commission of Capão Valley helped to consolidate its influence in the region over time by
    eliciting progressively more involvement in environmental issues. "We worked with the local population to encourage them to
    separate organic material from their garbage, for composting. We organized the production and strategic placement of elevated
    wooden platforms, called girais, so that garbage could be placed out of the reach of dogs and other animals." The commission
    also worked with Bahia’s Secretary of Tourism to create an environmentally friendly plan to help sustain the valley’s economy.

    "Our environmental commission worked for several years to encourage the establishment of other associations. For
    example, we encouraged formation of the Associação de Condutores de Visitantes do Vale do Capão (ACV-VC)", the local
    association of trail guides." Initially, ACV groups in different places like Capão and Igatu worked closely together under an
    umbrella organization called ACV-CD, presenting a consistent face to the region’s visitors. But now they’re not cooperating as
    much. Each local group is functioning more independently. This concerns me, although at least they each still claim to be
    members of ACV-CD. So there are some setbacks, but we continue to make progress. The president of ACV-VC is a member of
    our commission". The guides in Capão regularly monitor the trail to Cachoeira da Fumaça, and other trails, and the
    organization still conducts classes for its members. The guides have also formed a volunteer fire brigade to fight brush and forest
    fires that break out.

    Other members on Capão’s commission have formed an association of the thirty beekeepers in the region. They call
    it Flor Nativa (Native Flower). They’re augmenting their focus on producing honey with protecting the forest. It’s
    interesting to note that the bees in this region, as throughout Brazil, are the more aggressive "Africanized" variety known as "killer
    bees" in the United States. A local beekeeper/pizza shop owner assured me that they’re manageable and significantly more
    productive than their more docile European counterparts.

    The commission began a project called "Flor Vale" (Valley Flower) to establish a research center to study the
    medicinal qualities of native plants in the region. The project was approved by local government entities with promises of financial
    support, but the support never materialized. Claude and others are attempting to revitalize the project under another umbrella
    organization called "Barbado", which technically translates as "bearded" but, in this case, refers to the local name for a
    monkey in the region.

    Barbado represents a larger regional presence
    and
    supported forums conducted in 1997 and 1998 by a league of
    pro-environment organizations. Participants included Grupo Ambientalista de Palmeiras, Grupo Ambientalista da Bahia,
    Grupo Ambientalista de Seabra, SOS Chapada, Brigadas de Incêndio de Lençóis, Associação de Guias de Andaraí e
    Lençóis, Ibama, Secretaria de Turismo do Estado da Bahia, Corpo de Bombeiros da Chapada, Secretaria de Recursos
    Hídricos, Prefeituras de Mucugê e Andaraí, Associação de Moradores do Vale do Pati, Associação dos Moradores de Boninal.

    It was hoped that an outgrowth of Barbado’s efforts would be the establishment of not for profit
    non-governmental organizations, NGOs, serving the long-term best interests of the national park in Chapada Diamantina. "We want our
    voice to be more than just an organ of Ibama (the primary environmental protection entity at work in the State of Bahia) and
    other nationally recognized ONGs," says Claude. "We want Barbado to have a more definitive, and more significant, regional
    impact. It needs to participate directly in the Consulting Council of the National Park. I’m very pleased to be participating in all
    of this. We’ve formed a fraternal movement that seems ideally suited to serve the needs of this paradise. I know we’ve
    created something good for the region, something that holds great promise for the future of Capão."

    An Oasis

    While Claude and Suzane are always looking to secure Capão’s environment for the future, their
    pousada offers something very suitable for present-day environmentally conscious visitors. Pousada Candombá is well situated for access to the
    many trails and spectacular sites in the surrounding mountains. It boasts the
    pomar, or orchard, with its bananas, mangoes,
    maracujá (passion fruit), manioc, pineapple, sugar cane and various other plants, which provide farm fresh offerings at each
    café da manhã, or breakfast table.

    Home made breads and pastries, fresh eggs and Brazilian
    cafezinho supplement these offerings. And Claude has
    created marked paths that wind through the
    pomar, some with humorous and entertaining surprises. Individual and/or groups of
    plants and trees are marked for identification, so the botanical novice will have the pleasure of knowing each for future reference.

    The rooms at Candombá are surprisingly spacious. Ours had three beds, two singles separated from a larger bed by a
    small wall. Our apartment was one of four that connected and faced a grove of trees overlooking the orchard. On our first
    night at Candombá several large `guinea like’ fowl argued loudly, competing for roosting sites, while hummingbirds flitted
    about a feeder at arms length from my hammock.

    On our second night a large troupe of "lion star" monkeys invaded the grove. We gathered with other guests to
    enjoy the show and counted more than a dozen, suggesting there were probably twenty or more. Several were females with
    infants clutching tightly to their bellies. They didn’t seem at all afraid of us, and a few approached to within 10 or 15 feet.

    Flora and Fauna

    Capão is a bird watcher’s paradise. A pair of small turquoise colored Macaws and many variously colored other
    birds captured my attention on our hikes. A good field guide would have been indispensable. Ocelot, puma and jaguar
    (`onça’) still roam freely. Near a grouping of waterfalls at Rio Preto (the Black River) I encountered tracks that our guide said were
    made by a smaller patterned wild cat. I was impressed by the magnificence of Rio Preto’s cascading waters. We showered
    there, among great rock formations, welcoming the refreshing massage of cool water on hot tired muscles. We swam in a
    tranquil pool of naturally purified water tinted by the iron content of the rock formation that contained it.

    We frequently saw borboletas, or butterflies, dancing on the high mountain breezes. Once we found ourselves in
    the midst of a cloud of them, approximating biological `snow flurries’. The dancing movement of butterflies periodically drew
    my attention from the trail under foot to an ever-changing horizon. One mountain I viewed from several angles looked so
    much like the Devils Mountain in Close Encounters of the Third
    Kind that I found myself frequently humming the distinctive
    harmonic tune associated with that place in the story.

    On our return trek from Cachoeira Fumaça we stopped for cold coconut water and freshly pressed sugar cane juice at
    a small stand manned by a local vendor and his family. The enterprising entrepreneurs had literally humped the coconuts,
    sugar cane, sugar cane press and ice half way up the mountain to service the few hikers passing by. The coconuts were
    opened with a machete, and sugar cane was pressed on site to order. Each glass cost about 50 cents U.S., a real bargain
    considering the labor involved.

    We rarely passed by other hikers on the foot trails, and the trails were always free of discarded trash. Largely owing
    to the efforts of ACV-VC, the hiking trails and adjacent hillsides remain pristine and unspoiled. Through the common
    efforts of guides and pousadas, grazing cattle have been relocated from the valley and nearby mountainsides to other areas.
    Our guide was well versed, professional and very capable. The staff at Candombá was equally impressive; Claude and his
    staff treated us like family.

    You can learn more about Candombá, Vale de Capão and Chapada Diamantina at
    http://www.infochapada.com  If you live in Brazil and want to phone or fax Claude, the number is 75-344-1102. From the United States you can call
    011-55-75-344-1102.

    * You can read about the Bonfim Festa de São João experience at my web site referenced below. Select
    "Cultural Event, September 2000, Festival of St. John not for the weak of
    heart" from the selection bar in the left
    frame.

    Phillip Wagner has contributed several articles covering many topics to
    Brazzil over the past several years, and can
    be reached at pwagner@iei.net. Phillip invites you to visit his web site at

    http://www.iei.net/~pwagner/brazilhome.htm.

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