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News from the rainforest

Iracambi Research Center, situated in the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest, is becoming steadily better known among our community,  since students from our university, (Wesleyan) spend their summers interning there. Although I’d never visited the Center myself, I’ve been sending students there for about a decade now. I’d met co-founder Binka Le Breton, and was instantly sold on her keen, informed, dynamic, and passionate accounts about the non-profit she and her husband have been running for over twenty years. Students returning from the site are visibly transformed, though they often find their experience challenging to put into words. There’s a bit of rainforest magic involved, no doubt.

Earlier this month, the stars finally aligned, and I had the opportunity to visit the site myself.  Iracambi and Wesleyan are exploring signing an MOU, so I’d like to share what I learned with our community.  When Robin (originally from Kenya) and Binka Le Breton (British-ish) first purchased the parcel of land that Iracambi is located on, they already had successful global careers behind them, working for the World Bank and writing books on sustainability issues.  Robin had a degree in law from Oxford, Binka had studied classical music.  They came to Brazil to see how forest conservation  actually worked. Can the rainforests of the planet be saved?  Not surprisingly, the question is incredibly complicated to answer. 

 Today, Iracambi hosts researchers and volunteers from around the world who study and engage in all aspects of conservation ecology on site while staying in the center’s cabins and enjoying the friendly company and support of the local staff. Simon, a British guy who’s traveling for 9 months between jobs, is interested in the agroforestry projects and accompanies Luiz, head of agroforestry, on field excursions.  Simon is super friendly and open, and is often  to be found in the forest, along with Esther, Gaia, and Paola – three researchers from the University of Bologna. When they set up sound recorders to record the soundscape or camera traps as part of the fauna survey, Simon is there to help.

Luciana and Larissa trade off daily as the center’s cooks; they both live locally and cultivate coffee for cash. Fran and Deivid run the tree nursery, and Valdeir runs operations. Dayana runs a phenomenal environmental education program with regional schools, and the magnificent Gabi connects all the visitors to the different opportunities as volunteer/research coordinator. All truly lovely folks with generous laughs, patient mastery of google translate, and genuine affection for their guests.

After my third breakfast of delicious “crepioca” (a crepe made of the ubiquitous tapioca mixed with eggs and slathered in local jam), I headed off for a “Robin tour”. Robin, who has lived and worked  on 5 continents, can read land like no one I’ve ever met. He takes me over the hills in his Land Rover, explains the eucalyptus plantations used for the charcoal business, the different styles of coffee farming, the patches of reforested areas. He explains the complexity of reforesting – “If I want to create a wildlife corridor, do I ask the landowner to plant up on the ridge for the pumas and jaguars, or down along the valley for the bats?  If I can’t do both, which do I choose?” Also, the economic realities – “Which farmer will give up a square meter presently occupied by a cash-delivering coffee tree to plant a rainforest species which will need care, maintenance, and a decade to grow?” We come by a road cut and he stops the car, points to some streaks of red in the rainforest soil.  It’s a mineral – bauxite.  Mining and conservation don’t work well together. 

Later that day, I meet with Luciana and she shares that earlier that week, two guys barged onto her property unannounced and without even knocking at the gate – prospecting for bauxite. Carla, the glorious medicinal plants specialist, had a similar story – her 10 dogs were going crazy when she also noticed two guys roaming around her property, unannounced and uninvited.  She chased them away.  Miners.  Bauxite is the key ingredient in aluminum, useful in electronics, and other applications.  An enormous market.  Where does it come from?  The mineral-rich areas of the developing world, just like copper, silver, mica, etc. 

Our Wesleyan students will be down  there soon, passionate about protecting the rainforest. But back home, we use electronics and aluminum products with little thought, driving those miners to destroy the rainforest. Bauxite mining requires huge dump trucks to dig up earth, and transport it to a washing station.  After extracting the bauxite, the soil is stored in  earth dams which occasionally collapse, causing huge damage.  The bauxite is trucked hundreds of kilometers to São Paulo state to be processed into aluminum and later into some of the products that we use daily. The coffee plantation a family depends on, the forest habitat for wildlife, and the painstakingly restored forest, gone for years. 

As Director for Intercultural Learning, I often talk about positionality and voice. Wesleyan is in a position as a leading institution of higher education to sign an MOU with Iracambi, allowing them to apply for grants to support their work. Luciana’s and Carla’s voices? Our students can amplify them by learning what it’s like on the ground for the countless families who find themselves caught trying to make a living in the middle of extreme tension – on the one hand, the world’s hunger for rain, oxygen  and forest products,  and on the other, the demand for the minerals that our lifestyles consume at unstoppable speed.  After their time at Iracambi, what lifestyle choices will our students make?  The effects of these choices may directly affect people thousands of kilometers away,  but just like boomerangs, they make their way back to us. Loss of rainforest and arable land causes climate change and forced migration, and affects us all. May the voices of those who live closest to the earth guide us all into our collective future.

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