A tale of three communities

Imogen Lepere visits three remote communities fighting to secure their future – as well as that of the land they call home – through ecotourism, against a backdrop of widening inequality in Brazil.

Bobbing in a little boat towards the Ilha do Araújo, off the coast of Paraty, photographer Mark Rammers and I are struck by the fact that everything seems to be painted blue. The pier is the colour of the sky in children’s books, as are the shutters of the church and the doors of the tile-roofed houses. A tiny café, where dreamcatchers made of driftwood shift slightly in the soupy breeze, is daubed the same cheerful shade.

‘How come everything’s blue?’ I ask our guide, Cristiano Fernandes da Fonseca.

‘Probably because it was the only paint they had so they all decided to share,’ he shrugs.

Making the most of what’s available and sharing the rewards is a theme that crops up throughout my ecotourism-focused three weeks in Brazil. At the time of my visit, left-wing Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva has just returned for his third term as president, taking over from right-wing Jair Bolsonaro who chose to fly to Florida rather than attend his rival’s inauguration.

Although political opinion remains bitterly divided among Brazilians – not least because Lula was released from jail for corruption barely three years ago – even Bolsonaro’s supporters don’t claim the environment is top of his priorities. Upon assuming office, he promptly eliminated the Climate Change Division (which had until then spearheaded Brazil’s climate efforts at the UN) and granted numerous new licenses meaning that 2021 saw deforestation in the Amazon reaching its highest level for 15 years.

Despite this, community-run ecotourism projects continue to thrive, although Brazil’s worsening inequality crisis (the World Population Review named it the ninth most unequal country in the world this year) means they’re facing a new set of struggles.

Back on the Ilha do Araújo, we sit down for syrupy coffee with 67-year-old Almir Tã who apologises for the slight whiff of prawn on his shirt. Although he’s been leading the community’s efforts to protect the bucolic tuft they call home since the 1990s and was instrumental in founding the Ilha do Araújo Association – which has been coordinating ecotourism on the island since 2012 – he still gets up at 3am most days to fish.

‘I’m a bit of everything,’ says Almir, who learned to read at the age of 47 and established a public library of 3,000 books (which have since sadly been lost to termites). ‘I take my social and cultural obligations seriously but providing fish for my family all these years is my greatest accomplishment – and pleasure.’

His sister comes over and offers us a still-steaming coxinha (plump dumplings stuffed with shrimp) and a jug of fresh coconut water. ‘The sea is so important to Caiçara people that men often name their canoes after their wives,’ Almir laughs.

The Caiçaras are a distinct group who live in traditional communities in the surviving fragments of Atlantic Forest that wind like an emerald serpent along the coast of southeastern Brazil. Their heritage is a blend of indigenous Amerindians, European colonisers and enslaved Africans, and although fishing and farming still provide the lion’s share of their livelihoods, the younger generation is flocking to the cities of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo.

‘Our traditional jobs are less reliable because there’s no equilibrium in the climate anymore – seven of my siblings died in landslides caused by last summer’s floods,’ he tells me, looking down at his clasped hands. ‘Then there are government-led initiatives. For example, it’s illegal to catch prawns between March and June nowadays.’

He leads the way slowly along the island’s only ‘road’, a dirt track lined by forest that opens up to provide glimpses of men mending nets and gardens shaded by trailing hibiscus blooms. The teal of the Bahia Grande is occasionally broken by the beaks of pelicans plunging through its surface like torpedoes. ‘Electricity only came here in 2018 and young people like all that excitement in the cities…’ His voice trails off vaguely disapprovingly.

Tourism arrived on Ilha do Araújo in the 1980s in the form of sailors anchoring yachts in the bay and rowing ashore for food. By the 1990s, day-trippers were coming to the island’s beaches by the boatload from Paraty, leaving behind mounds of litter but little money.

‘We realised that if they spent more time here it would be a chance to share our traditions with them – and learn from them too. My son, Alex, learned English from a tourist and now works in the Pousada Literária hotel in Paraty. We set up homestays and created a tour that includes a visit to my woodcarving studio, the chance to try fish cooked in banana leaves and an introduction to the plant knowledge our ancestors handed down orally.’ He pauses to pluck a few carrapicho pods from his sleeve, which will later be steeped into tea to treat anxiety. ‘These days, around 30% of the community’s income is from tourism and there are still 130 families living here.’

As we approach the northern shoreline, the blare of daytime TV replaces the whistling of monkeys. More than 55 families have sold to second homers in the last few years and although the Ilha do Araújo Association has stringent policies (new owners must meet the whole community before signing contracts and can’t fell any trees), Tã worries about the inevitable watering down of Caiçara culture.

‘Some months, this part of the island is a ghost town. See these walls?’ He points to a fence more than 6ft high. ‘They are a symbol of town people. We don’t put barriers between our houses because we trust each other. Money can’t buy you that.’ The association is currently funding an ecotourism guiding course for the island’s teenagers in the hope that it will encourage them to stay.

Back on the mainland, the four-hour drive to Rio de Janeiro winds through a landscape that looks as if it has been plucked from the pages of The Hobbit. Waterfalls gleam like knives hundreds of feet above us, while vast Brazilwood trees cradle ecosystems of bromeliads in their expansive arms. The iconic beachfront of Copacabana, where luxury hotels such as Emiliano Rio gleam above the Malecón, gradually gives way as the road curves up again towards the Vale Encantado.

‘We’re the end of the road both literally and figuratively,’ says sixth-generation resident Otavio alves Barros, leaning against a wooden slide and surveying the skyscrapers of Barra, one of Rio’s glossiest neighbourhoods, spread out like a carpet far below.

Rain clouds swirl around the peaks of Tijuca State Park above our heads, giving everything a secretive, insulated air. We’re so far above the city it feels as if we’re floating. The metal roofs of the Vale’s houses stand out against the emerald of the forest, which grows so verdantly on all sides it feels as if it might swallow them in the end.

There’s a crash. Mark has climbed up on the slide to get a better shot and shot right through the rotten wood. Otavio helps him up and sighs. ‘The government built this playground in the run up to elections years ago so they could say they cared about the favela families, but there’s been no money to maintain it. Now it’s a danger to kids – not that there are many left.’

Rain clouds swirl around the peaks of Tijuca State Park above our heads, giving everything a secretive, insulated air.

Although it’s barely more than a 30-minutes’ drive from downtown Rio, this picturesque community is also battling population loss due to the closure of the granite mine, which once provided much of the villagers’ income, and a lack of public transport. In 2015, there were 140 residents; now only 100 remain.

‘Only ten people in the village have cars and we’re always helping each other out,’ says Otavio (who is a licensed tour guide), leading the way past an anaerobic sewage system he fitted himself with the help of YouTube. ‘The reality is it’s hard to get into work, which is why both my children moved to the city. But I’m so proud to come from this place and we know ecotourism can help protect all this for generations to come.’ He gestures at a blue Morpheus butterfly the size of his fist, flitting towards a banana blossom. ‘Where else can you find tranquillity like this so near the city?’

When researching the Vale Encantado, I came across an article in a local newspaper from 2015 which described it as ‘Rio’s most sustainable favela’ (although the term ‘community’ is currently considered more politically correct), citing self-made achievements such as solar panels and a kitchen garden nourished by food waste from a restaurant that catered to hiking groups. All were overseen by a community cooperative founded in 2005, with initial funding provided by a French NGO called Abaquar Paris (which ceased to operate in 2012).

Today, both the administrative and physical infrastructure is still in place and Otavio remains committed to his vision of creating an ecotourism haven complete with several guest rooms, hiking trails and a farm-to-table restaurant. As I stand on the former and hopefully soon-to-be-again restaurant’s deck drinking in spectacular views, I understand why. However, the kitchen below is coated in dust and none of the appliances are plugged in.

‘Since Abaquar closed down we’ve relied on private donations and they pretty much dried up in the pandemic,’ admits Otavio, cooking dinner in a home decorated with rosary beads and family photos. ‘We need around US$15,000 to finish the guest rooms and kitchen and don’t know where we’re going to find it. Right now, that is.’ He wraps his hands around my bowl of feijoada (black bean and pork stew) to check it isn’t too hot before handing it to me.

Just before sunrise, I lie in a crochet hammock and listen to the forest’s fanfare. The ocean blushes opalescent peach. Otavio is cheerfully slicing home-grown papaya by candlelight as the valley is experiencing one of its frequent power cuts. He’s one of the warmest hosts I’ve ever met and the beauty of the landscape is otherworldly but I can’t help feeling concerned about the project’s future – and what might happen to the community if they can’t raise the funds to see it through.

Although it’s based on similar principles, the luxurious Ibiti Project feels like another world. While the Ilha do Araújo and Vale Encantado have emerged organically, this patchwork of 6,000 hectares of degraded farmland in the mountains of Minas Gerais has been acquired by Brazilian businessman Renato Machado, specifically with the vision of creating a regenerative community powered by ecotourism. A key part of the vision is funding low-impact microbusinesses owned by locals throughout the country.

One example is Engenho Lodge, which we approach in the lilac evening when its lights dance on the lake’s surface to the sound of a grand piano. It looks every inch the hacienda from Brazil’s colonial past but was in fact built entirely from upcycled and local materials in 2008. In comparison to the building site I slept in at the Vale Encantado, my bedroom seems even more exquisite: a Scandinavian-meets-Latin-American dream complete with a standalone bath, door as thick as a monastery’s and an embroidered wall hanging in the dazzling fuchsia of bougainvillea flowers.

For all its charm, I initially feel a little biased against the Ibiti Project, particularly with Almir and Otavio’s worries so fresh in my mind. It seems its professionalism must come at the cost of its heart. However, my scepticism melts when I meet owner Claudia Baumgratz, whose father’s farm is nearby. Over a dinner of exquisite local ingredients – ravioli swimming in butter fragrant with forest herbs, river fish gleaming with sugarcane jus – she fills in the histories of the 350 staff currently involved in the project, almost all of whom are local.

‘That lady stirring the pan is Tatiane Aparecida da Silva. She ran away when she was 16 as her parents were making her sleep in their room so she couldn’t meet her boyfriend at night. That young guy is Alyson da Silva. He moved back from the city when he got the job in our kitchen.’

A waiter whispers in Claudia’s ear. Her face lights up. ‘One of the guides, Junior, has just radioed to tell us that he saw a jaguar with two pups crossing the path on his way home from work. Before the project, this land was around 10% forest and 90% degraded pasture and we’re hoping to get it back to 98% forest. It takes 500 years for a forest to fully recover – but if the jaguars are back, we’re on the right track.’

After dinner, I stand on the terrace and stare into the darkness. The project may still be way off its target, but there’s no doubt this land is alive: leaves whisper, unfortunate prey gives its final squeak, the hotel workers return to their village and, somewhere out there, a jaguar believes in this ecosystem enough to choose it to raise her pups. What better proof of hope could we ask for?

Need to know

Getting there: The best way to reach all three communities is by flying to Rio de Janeiro and then hiring a car.

Best time to go: Southeastern Brazil can be visited all year round, though June to December is generally considered peak season. The rains pour from December to March making some rural roads connecting the Ibiti Project impassable. 

Currency: Brazilian real

Time zone: GMT -3

Food: Both the Ilha do Araújo and Vale Encantado provide home-cooked comfort food like rice, feijoada and white fish steamed in banana leaves. At Engenho Lodge, much of the food is grown on-site and the breakfast buffet is exceptional.

Where to stay: Homestays on Ilha do Araújo can be booked on airbnb. To stay in Otavio Barros’s house, message @vale_encantadorj on Instagram. Visit ibiti.com to book Engenho Lodge.

How to do it: Private tour specialist Jacada Travel (jacadatravel.com) offers an ethical Brazil itinerary that includes a day trip to the Ilha do Araújo with accommodation in Pousada Literaria and five nights at the Ibiti Project with bookending nights in Rio at Emiliano, a luxurious design hotel. Book tours and stays at Vale Encantado through Instagram (@vale_encantadorj).

Must-pack item: Deet-based mosquito repellent.

Why go: To have a positive impact on remote communities and an authentic cultural experience in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, which is far more accessible than the Amazon and equally biodiverse.