By introducing an impressive array of environmentally-friendly economic development projects to the Amazon’s most deforested region, Vitória da Riva Carvalho is proving that conservation does not have to come at the expense of economic growth. She is creating entirely new value chains around low-impact tourism, while protecting the forest and incentivizing cutting-edge environmental research and education.
The New Idea
In order to address the Amazon forests destruction resulting from aggressive mining and livestock agriculture, Vitória created an ecologically and economically sustainable endeavor. She is introducing to the region a new and necessary paradigm that ensures biodiversity and development. The Cristalino Jungle Lodge (CJL) and the Cristalino Ecological Foundation (CEF) are nimble organizations that, together, serve the three-fold purpose of creating national parks, supporting research and environmental education, and generating revenue through low-impact tourism.
By launching a new tourism route in the Amazon’s most deforested area, Vitória is introducing viable options for local sustainable development. Beyond simply creating employment alternatives for ex-miners, the CJL is fostering the local production of organic food and bringing value to the region by offering high-quality services to its clients. It does all of this while adhering to strict principles of low-impact tourism. The profits made through the CJL are reinvested into the maintenance of the conservation areas as well as the CEF’s educational projects.
The CEF was created to establish cutting-edge environmental research and literacy programs. In partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens of England, more than 1,370 plant species have been catalogued and nine new species were discovered. Vitória began these projects knowing that conservation units and economic incentives for the sustainable use of natural resources would not be sufficient to stop or slow down the area’s alarming rate of deforestation. Her educational initiatives target children, youth and forest communities, as well as public servants who need to learn about the region’s potential in order to become committed to and respectful of biodiversity. Most importantly, Vitória has become the catalyst for bringing dozens of citizen organizations (COs) and businesses to the region by showing that sustainable businesses and preservation of biodiversity can live together.
As a result of her dedication to conservation and well-earned credibility, Vitória has played a central role in the creation of the Cristalino State Park. The park will be integrated into the Southern Amazonian ecological corridor, thus turning her initiative into a successful example to follow for the new Amazonian economy. Vitória’s near goal is to double the number of students that attend the CEF’s educational activities, implement permaculture and wellspring recovery projects in eleven of the park’s settlements, and transform the city of Alta Floresta into a model for biodiversity in the region.
There are very few environmental facts that have been widely accepted around the world, but the argument that the planet’s ecosystems cannot absorb all the stresses inflicted upon it is rarely up for debate. Sustainability depends on a fine balance between the level of resource exploitation and the earth’s capacity to offset it. Although quite simple to understand, the reality is that environmental degradation continues to grow as a result of deforestation in favor of livestock farming and monoculture.
Humans are principally responsible for the erosion of biodiversity. Plants and animals are disappearing 50 to 100 times more quickly as a result of human actions than as a result of natural causes. Although speculative—there is still no clear data on the adaptation mechanisms of 95 percent of the planet’s species—some studies estimate that 20 percent of all living species could face extinction within the next thirty years.
During the 10th Conference of the Members of the Convention on Biological Diversity, a study highlighting the global economic benefits of biological diversity compared with the costs of not investing in preventive actions showed that investments in biodiversity conversation are more economically viable than shouldering the costs of environmental externalities. For example, the authors of the study estimate that the economic value created by offsetting greenhouse gases through forest conservation amounts to US$3.7 trillion. In the meantime, Brazil—a country comprising one-fifth of the world’s biodiversity—is investing very little in better understanding biodiversity, and in economic models that, at its core, aim to preserve vital ecosystems.
In the Amazon, specifically, its southern region known as the “arc of deforestation” is the most environmentally and socially vulnerable. Fifty percent of Brazil’s livestock is raised on land previously occupied by the lush Amazon forest. Coupled with monoculture and the introduction of foreign species, these changes are having a profound effect on the region’s biodiversity. Regrettably, very few public and private investments are being made to reverse this situation.
The greatest need for initiatives that generate economic, social, and environmental wealth exists in cities located within forests—70 percent of the Amazon’s population in Brazil lives in urban areas. For them, there exist very few sustainable and dignified jobs. In addition, because many of the Amazon’s communities are made up of migrant workers who often lack knowledge about the habitat they live in, the situation of environmental degradation becomes all the more complex.
Without having any particular expertise in environmental matters, Vitória took on the challenge, almost fifteen years ago, to prove that it was possible to reconcile economic, social, and environmental development. She decided to prove it in one of the biggest urban centers in the Amazon: Alta Floresta. Though in the beginning she was seen by many locals as someone impeding the region’s development, Vitória is now recognized as bringing viable solutions to the Amazon. The CJL and the CEF maintain and stimulate the creation of conservation units, enhance the advent of ecotourism, and institute environmental research and education projects that are changing the face of the region.
The CJL and CEF’s initiatives complement each other and strengthen local stakeholder’s actions by giving them ownership over their projects as well as their results. These two institutions: (i) create and implement new economic development models that prioritize environmental conservation and revenue generation equally (ii) support the enhancement of existing conservation units and the creation of new ones (iii) produce knowledge about the harmonization of environmental, social and economic goals (iv) provide educational and awareness-raising opportunities to local communities about environmental issues.
When Vitória began her work in Alta Floresta she concentrated on showing that it was possible to introduce viable economic activities to the region without causing damage to the environment. She did so by opening up a very simple hotel in 1992 but also had to establish a tour operator (Floresta Tour) since the region was only known for its cattle and mining industries, and not its tourism potential. The research she conducted in the process not only ensured the success of her enterprises, but most importantly, appreciated the region’s touristic and economic value. In 1997 the hotel transformed into the model it resembles today, and in 2003 it became self-sustainable. Today, CJL has become an international reference for ecotourism. The Lodge strictly adheres to the principles of minimal impact ecotourism, including such practices as composting all organic waste and recycling inorganic materials; using solar-heating and domestic wastewater treatment systems; limiting the types of vehicles that can be used on trails; and employing local workers (i.e. 95 percent of the tour guides are ex-miners). To stay at the hotel, guests pay a US$70 tax, which funds the CEF’s research and educational projects. This tax was instituted to raise awareness about its environmental and educational work. Vitória finds different ways of engaging guests with the issue, be it through contributing money to the CEF, participating in campaigns to influence public policies or sharing their contacts to help her establish new international partnerships. The hotel has also stimulated the local green economy, creating an entire value chain around tourism and encouraging the purchase of organic products from local farmers.
Vitória’s conservation work is intrinsically linked to the CJL. The CJL is located in the Private National Heritage Reserve (RPPN), a protected area of more than 7,000 hectares that was created in 1997. The CJL is in charge of the preservation of this private national park, and its 30 kilometers of trails have become one of its main touristic attractions. Beyond looking after the protection of the RPPN, Vitória is also creating incentives for the creation of new private conservation units and encouraging the development of governmentally-protected units through public, private, and citizen sector collaborations. One of her major achievements to date has been the creation of the Cristalino Ecological State Park, encompassing nearly 185,000 hectares. It is connected to the Aeronautic Reserve and the RPPN, and together they form an ecological corridor that protects a large part of the Amazon’s southern region. By mobilizing strong intersectoral alliances of COs, scientists, politicians, and local and international tourists, Vitória not only established this park but counteracted repeated attempts to reduce its size and cut its operational budget.
The CEF conducts its biodiversity research and many of its educational initiatives within the RPPN. It is able to invest in research through the profits generated by the hotel as well as through partnerships with national and international institutions such as Fauna and Flora International and the HSBC Institute. In partnership with the U.K.’s Royal Botanic Gardens, the CEF established the Flora Cristalino project, thus identifying more than 1,370 flora species of the Amazon, nine of which were previously unknown to the scientific community. These studies are producing a quantity of data that will be crucial to undertaking a more detailed survey of the Amazon’s flora. As a result, researchers from around the world are eager to study in the region; enhancing the credibility and value of Vitória and her team’s work. She is now also beginning to work on wellspring recovery projects in eleven settlements in the Cristalino Park, in partnership with Avina.
Although the CJL and CEF’s impact through economic development, conservation and research work is sizeable, Vitória is adamant about the importance of environmental education. Inspired by the Center for Ecoliteracy, she believes that children, youth, and adults alike need to become environmentally literate. She strives to create a new and healthy relationship between community members and nature. The School of the Amazon program adheres to the three principles of research, action, and evaluation. It involves schools from the region as well as students from other parts of Brazil to help them understand the reality and complexity of the Amazon. In 2007 the program was given the Whitley Fund for Nature Award and it is currently being improved with the support of two Ph.D. students. More than 2,500 people have participated in the school’s classes and Vitória aims to double attendance in 2013. Soon, Vitória plans to add ecology courses to the school’s offerings, targeting local politicians and leaders of the Amazon’s southern most region.
The large changes that have ensued as a result of Vitória’s work have not pleased everyone: She has had to leave Alta Floresta a few times as a result of security threats. Most recently, six hydro-electricity power plants were planned to set up “shop” in the region as part of the Federal Acceleration Program. Realizing that she would not be able to stop their construction, Vitória is working tirelessly to ensure that all the possible environmental and social precautions are being taken. She also strives to ensure that the environmental impact taxes being collected by the federal government as a result of these developments are being directed toward the affected regions.
Vitória’s conviction that it is necessary to educate cities in order to preserve biodiversity has given birth to a consortium of sixteen municipalities called Portal da Amazonia (Gateway of the Amazon). Together with the Local Governments for Sustainability and the Secretariat of the Convention on Biodiversity (ICLEI) it will promote the concept of planned urbanization with a special focus on socio-environmental impacts and benefits. This consortium was launched at COOP 10 and attracted a lot of interest from funding partners. Curitiba’s Institute of Urban Planning will open up an office in Alta Floresta as a result, and will be incubated at first by the Cristalino Ecological Foundation.
Vitória’s success has given her the credibility and the ambition to attack perhaps the biggest environmental challenge facing Brazil—protecting the last remaining belt of the Amazon, which protects the fragile state of Amazonia from the onslaught of cattle farming and the deforestation that ensues. She has become the catalyst to bringing various actors from civil society groups to businesses to work together to preserve this critical battleground belt of the Amazon region. Vitória is working on fourteen different programs to incubate more sustainable businesses, to catalyze environmental groups across three states to work together in joint educational, media, and lobbying to raise awareness about the gravity of the problem and to demonstrate that there are practical and sensible alternatives to cattle farming in the region.
Vitória has been able to use her example of ecotourism and biodiversity preservation to convene leading environmental groups like Nature Conservancy, World Wildlife Federation, and Greenpeace to participate in this effort to create more parks and “green” cities; yet she also has earned much credibility from the success of her sustainable business model to convene more than a dozen ecotourism programs and lodges. Finally, Vitória has become a political force to be reckoned with among regional politicians who know they cannot blindly follow the cattle farming interests without having to deal with the formidable political action Vitória has proven she can convene.
Vitória was born in the state of Minas Gerais. Her father, Ariosto da Riva, influenced and inspired her throughout her life to be mindful of the environment. In the 1960s and 1970s he began a business to develop environmentally sustainable “cities of the future.” These cities included urban parks and incentivized local organic agriculture, uncommon concepts in Brazil at the time.
Vitória’s experiences as a child living in the interior of the country with an environmentally-conscious father brought her closer to nature. When she first heard that the municipality of Alta Floresta in the Southern Amazon was being negatively affected by gold mining activities, she was profoundly disturbed. Gold was never found but rumors and optimism were sufficient to attract large numbers of people to the region. With limited prospects for professional development, most migrants began working in the growing livestock agriculture business, leading to alarming rates of deforestation. Confronted with this reality, Vitória, a mother of five and looking for a new life-project, decided to invest in tourism to bolster the local economy while protecting nature.
Vitória’s never-ending search for environmentally-friendly solutions for economic development led her to meet a core group of people also interested in sustainable tourism. In 1990 her leadership skills and commitment to the idea eventually led her to introduce the first course on strategic planning for ecotourism in Brazil, in partnership with International Conservation. They selected leaders throughout the country to disseminate the content of the course through a sort of train-the-trainer methodology. More than 800 people took the course and Vitória became the “disseminator” for the Northern region of Brazil. The content of the class was so innovative that it is still considered a reference in ecotourism.
At the same time, Vitória bought a piece of land in the Amazon in Mato Grosso, where she opened a small hotel in the forest. She completed a course in Business Administration in one of the country’s most respected business schools—Fundação Getulio Vargas—and began applying her newly-acquired knowledge to her initiative. Nevertheless, the concept of combining tourism with conservation was so new that she learned her greatest lessons in the field. As one of the pioneers of this movement, Vitória became one of the co-founders of EcoBrasil in 1993—the first ecotourism CO in the country whose objective is to use tourism as an effective tool for economic development, as well as for the conservation of Brazil’s natural and cultural resources.
Vitória’s leadership in the region led her to become the Coordinator of ProEcotur, in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank, for eight years. Today, the CJL and the CEF are recognized internationally and have received prestigious awards in recognition of this model for sustainable business and environmental conservation.