1997, Patrick Garton, Study Tour, North East Brazil

<h1><b>Northeast Brazil, land of contrasts</b></h1>
<h2>By Patrick Garton</h2>
<p>Having visited Brazil for the first time in 1996 I was determined
to go back and visit another region of this vast country, larger
than the U.S.A. excluding Alaska. On August 6th 1997 I set off
on a four week travel scholarship to visit four sites spread over
three states within semi-arid Northeast Brazil. The Northeast is
also the poorest region, containing one third of Brazil’s 150 million
people, but making up only 18 percent of the land area. It is for
this reason that Plantas do Nordeste (P.N.E.), an organisation
supporting projects at three of the sites I visited, have been
so successful in their fund raising.</p>
<p>Set up by Kew in 1990, but now based in Brazil, P.N.E. is a multidisciplinary
research programme contributing to the identification and sustainable
use of plant resources in Northeast Brazil. It combines conservation
with improving the ecosystem for the benefit of the local community.</p>
<p>My first port of call was the 16th century city of Recife, state
capital of Pernambuco. Here at the university (U.F.R.P.E.) I joined
a team collating data from a series of field collections of plant
species to be found inland in areas of upland rainforest called
Brejos. Rising to a maximum of 1,200m these peaks are the highest
around, catching added water from the moisture laden air blowing
in from the Atlantic. Consequently Brejos harbours rich plant communities
which show links with the Amazon flora. Ongoing plant collecting
for the herbarium at Recife is being supported by P.N.E. as part
of its plant identification and recording programme.</p>
<p>Five hundred miles up the coast towards the equator lies another
equally old city, Fortaleza, the capital of Cear&aacute; State and the
next leg of this Northeast adventure. On arrival I travelled four
hours west by bus to reputedly the driest town in Brazil, Sobral,
lying within the most arid vegetation type in the country, caatinga.
Here I met Dr. Filho of the National Goat Research Centre whose
work is also being supported by P.N.E. He has conducted field trials
to find the most suitable management for a land that is used primarily
for browse and agroforestry.</p>
<p>Traditionally farmers cut and burn vegetation compounding the
problems associated with this harsh climate which for at least
six months of the year sees no rain. In contrast to the nomadic
lifestyle in many parts of North Africa here the land is under
ownership where an individual is responsible for the land he or
she is on. Devising a sustainable form of agriculture Dr. Filho
has come up with a system based on a 21 year cycle. On the premise
that maintaining tree cover is the greatest priority, he suggests
coppicing a scrub made up mainly of <b>Leguminoseae </b>and for
seven years cultivating crops, while using the year’s regenerated
growth from the stumps as green manure. For the next seven years
the land is used for grazing where sheep and goats are allowed
to roam. For the last seven years the land is left fallow to produce
the wood required for local uses such as charcoal and fencing.
Seventy percent of the fuel used in bakeries and household kitchens
in the Northeast is derived from wood.</p>
<p>A week later I was back in Fortaleza to meet a remarkable man
who has set up a number of medicinal plant nurseries, `Living Pharmacies’,
within the poorest parts of the city and outside. Here homeless
children and locals are encouraged to look after their own medicinal
plants and, with the help of hospital technicians, produce and
sell the plants as affordable medicines. I visited Quatro Varas,
a nursery that also served as a hospice, held massage sessions,
self-help theatre groups and a counselling service. The activities
within the place appeared limitless and it was a highlight of the
tour to be shown round by the warm hearted professor who knew many
of those there that day. Back at his laboratory within the university
was an outdoor nursery of medicinal plants that supplied not only
the research material for his students but a stock of rare and
common species for transplanting elsewhere including other pharmacies.</p>
<p>Before flying back I spent a few days in one of Brazil’s most
impressive national parks, the Chapada Diamantina, within Bahia
State situated along the Brazilian Highlands. Weathered rock formations
tower above the surrounding flat lands like the `tepuis’ of Venezuela.
This is a green oasis within the dusty sert&acirc;o and the astonishing
display of very different plants not encountered elsewhere on the
trip made it a perfect way to end a visit to a country with extremes
of such magnitude.</p>

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