In Sete Barras, Brazil, the community, marketing and infrastructure came together in an ecotourism development program to protect Brazil’s Atlantic Forest by increasing the numbers of visits to six state parks and providing training to area residents.
Ecotourism helps protect Brazil’s Atlantic Forest
For most of his adult life, Aparecido Alves da Silva made a living by venturing into a nearby state park in the municipality of Sete Barras in São Paulo State to cut down palm trees illegally and then extract the hearts of palm prized by Brazilians and food lovers around the world.
This backbreaking activity—very common among poor communities surrounding several of the state’s parks—undermines government efforts to protect what little is left of the Atlantic forest in a state better known for its world-class manufacturing and sugar cane industries.
However, an ecotourism development program financed in part by the IDB is starting to turn the situation around. By increasing the numbers of visits to six state parks and providing training to area residents, the program has improved economic opportunities for local populations and increased public awareness about preservation.
The program has financed infrastructure works such as visitor centers, signaling, and trails to make the parks more accessible to tourists. Park logos and other marketing materials have been designed and promoted to enable tourism agencies to better sell the destinations to São Paulo residents seeking a weekend refuge from the city.
One local resident who received training was da Silva, who has stopped cutting down palm trees and now plants them—along with manioc and tropical fruit trees—in his previously abandoned orchard. He plans to sell his products in nearby towns.
“I’m trying to change and apply what I learned in the courses,” he said. “I don’t want to have problems with illegal harvesting anymore.”
The program also trained 944 local businesses on how to better serve tourists and strengthened the capacity of 15 municipal governments to further develop tourism in the region. The project was carried out by the State of São Paulo’s Environment Secretariat.
Infrastructure and Marketing
As a result of the program, better infrastructure and marketing helped increase public visits to the parks by 40 percent from 2007 to 2012. “It has been a game changer in terms of promoting the parks,” explained Aelson Apolinário, owner of a tourism agency near Carlos Botelho State Park, 250 kilometers southwest of the city of São Paulo. Thanks to the program the park now has a new visitor center and a wheelchair-accessible trail.
“In the past, the only thing I would sell was a visit to Carlos Botelho. With the project, I sell packages. It is not only about Carlos Botelho anymore but also about the communities and their culture as well as other state parks,” Apolinário said.
With more products to sell, tourist agencies like Apolinário’s are able to keep tourists in the parks and surrounding towns longer, boosting tourist spending. Average visitor spending in the parks jumped more than 50 percent between 2004 and 2012 to 6.38 reais per visitor.
Perhaps the most significant long-term effect impact of the program is that area governments have learned that public visitation, rather than being a hindrance to the environment, can actually help preservation, explained José Luiz Camargo Maia, manager of Carlos Botelho State
Park. As a result, he said, “ecotourism and conventional tourism are seen as a tool to help preserve our conservation areas.”
Behind the numbers: People make a project happen
Providing training in communities near remote parks often involves dealing with poor communication infrastructure and traveling long distances. To overcome these obstacles, the Ecotourism Development Mata Atlantica–Sâo Paulo Program sought out community leaders for help.
Geraldo Aguiar, who owns a small orchard in the Rio Preto neighborhood in the municipality of Sete Barras, played a crucial role by going door to door to invite neighbors to participate. Sixty people from his community completed courses offered by the program in Rio Preto in 2011.
“I learned about the program on the Internet, and I thought this would be good for my community, so I started working hard to get everyone to join,” Aguiar said. “I embraced the cause.’’
“The biggest benefit was in opening people’s minds,” he continued. “Rio Preto is a marginalized community because most of the families here live off the illegal harvesting of palm trees. These courses showed them there are other ways to make a living.”
This story is part of the 2013 Development Effectiveness Overview.