Iracambi: Saving Forests, Changing Lives in the Brazilian Rainforest

Hey there, fellow Conservation Optimists! We at the Iracambi Rainforest Research Center have much pleasure in introducing ourselves, and sharing a little bit about what is going on down here in one of the world’s top five biodiversity hotspots: Brazil’s Atlantic Forest.

We’d like to start by telling you a story: the story of the humming bird. It’s well known throughout the Americas and beyond, and here’s how it goes. Once upon a time there was a huge fire in the forest, and all the animals were fleeing as fast as they could. All except one small humming bird. She was flying towards the fire with a little drop of water in her beak. High overhead the eagle was soaring over the fire when he spotted the humming bird. “Silly little bird,” he shouted, “Do you really think you’ll be able to put out the fire all by yourself?” Far below, the little humming bird flew serenely on and let her drop of water fall into the roaring flames. She looked up at the eagle and replied, “By myself I won’t put out the fire. But I’m doing my part.”

Here at Iracambi we’ve been doing our part for over twenty years. We call it Saving Forests and Changing Lives. During that time, we’ve planted over 130, 000 native forest trees, founded the first program of environmental education in the region, set up the first web-based GIS, created thousands of acres of protected areas, hosted 2000 international students and volunteers from 65 countries, and impacted the lives of thousands of people in the Serra do Brigadeiro mountains in southeastern Brazil.

iracambi restored

The Iracambi Research Center is where the magic happens. Every year dozens of international students and volunteers join us to work on some of the toughest issues facing mankind: how to conserve the biodiversity of this beautiful planet while living sustainably? How to prepare ourselves and our communities to cope with the challenges of climate change? How to restore degraded lands, protect soil and water, grow healthy food and raise a new generation of environmental champions?

And just look what we’re doing! We’re working with local farmers on a mixed program of agroecology and agroforestry, whereby together we plant native and productive tree species in order to increase farm incomes, restore degraded soils, protect water sources and increase habitat for biodiversity. This involves a host of different practical tasks, starting with everyone’s favorite place on campus: the forest nursery. Creating and maintaining a healthy supply of young trees requires a lot of work – collecting seeds in the forest, preparing and caring for young seedlings, planting them out at the right time of year, and monitoring and recording our progress.

In addition to our forest nursery, we are constantly working to improve our model agroecology plots. In one of them we plant native species trees alongside a variety of different crops designed to improve the soil, provide green manure, and grow healthy food free of chemicals. A second plot is devoted to experimenting with shade coffee and using more sustainable techniques of coffee harvesting – which are already producing high quality coffee. A third area focuses on mixing non-traditional food crops with medicinal plants species. Iracambi also partners with Brazil’s premier research institute Fiocruz, as part of a network inventorying the hundreds of medicinal plant species in the Atlantic Forest, along with their traditional uses. And we’re experimenting with creating a line of natural products incorporating plant extracts.

That’s all about saving forests – so what about changing lives? Here’s where we work with local farmers, school kids, volunteers and visitors on education and outreach programs designed to raise awareness of the important issues of how to live sustainably, and how to encourage more and more people to join us in the exciting task of protecting one of the most important forests in the world. Our education coordinator, together with several of our international students, visits local schools to introduce the kids to field science, and get them passionate about the forest. By the time they come to hike the forest trails, plant trees, and study birds, bugs and butterflies in the forest, they’re on their way to becoming the next generation of environmental champions.

If you’re up for doing your part, we invite you to join us. Together we’ll wrestle with the challenges, seek solutions, and put them to work. Together we’re Conservation Optimists!

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