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  HOME | Brazil (Click here for more)

Drought Threatens Natural Paradise in Brazil

By Stefania Pelusi

BRASILIA – A park 200 kilometers (124 miles) from Brasilia that was declared a World Heritage Site for its ecological richness and which is said to have plants capable of “restoring a woman’s virginity” is being threatened by a drought and fires.

Fire is currently the greater of the two dangers for the ecosystem at the Chapada dos Veadeiros Park, which encompasses 655 sq. kilometers (252 sq. miles), has numerous rock formations and hundreds of waterfalls and in 2001 was included on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites.

One of the motives for the U.N. agency’s selection of the park for the list was that the preserve, which was established in 1961, contains 60 percent of the plant species and 80 percent of the wildlife species in west-central Brazil.

In a recent visit, experts from the International Union for Conservation of Nature, or UICN, verified that the bad drought that is besetting the region – although droughts are normal there between the months of April and October – has begun to cause new devastation.

During times of drought, the humidity in the region can get as low at 8 percent, a circumstance that often results in the fires set by local peasants clear land for planting, lit by incautious hunters or tourists to cook their meals, or started by pyromaniacs getting out of control.

One of the park guides, Adelidio Ferreira, told Efe that the vegetation being threatened includes a plant known as Candonba, which produces a highly flammable oil that can spontaneously combust from the heat of the sun alone.

The flora of the zone also includes certain curiosities, such as a leguminous plant known as “Barbatimao” or “virgin again,” which popular culture says helps scar tissue form in humans to such a degree that it can even “restore a woman’s virginity,” presumably by recreating hymen-like tissue, Ferreira said.

But the “miracle” plant is also under threat from recent fires.

Accordig to Sergio Collaco, the coordinator of the Chico Mendes Environmental Institute, which is in charge of conservation in the park, fires that get started in the region are very difficult to put out because the preserve is so large and access to it is difficult, and also because the proper firefighting resources are not available.

During the first half of this year, about 10 percent of the park burned (around 60 hectares, or 150 acres), although Chapada deputy director Jose Fernando Rebello told Efe that far worse fires occurred in 2003 and 2007, when 90 percent and 62 percent, respectively, of the park burned.

Since the last big fire, a monitoring team has been keeping watch over the park on a 24-hour basis during the months of greatest fire risk with an eye toward minimizing potential destruction as a result of the drought.

The national park is a green oasis amid the red earth characteristic of the semiarid west-central region of Brazil.

The main entrance to the park is in the village of Sao Jorge, from where visitors can travel along unpaved park roads full of holes and littered with rocks that force drivers to swerve back and forth like Indiana Jones or some sort of race car driver.

São Jorge is one of the most active ecotourism sites in the country with its hostels, campgrounds, restaurants and “ecologically correct” houses with solar water heaters on their roofs.

From there, one can go to Chapada, a gateway for the migration of species from the semiarid zone seeking safer areas during the drought, and which also provides a refuge for different animal species in danger of extinction, including deer, wolves, jaguars and toucans.

The park’s greatest attractions are the crystalline and cold waterfalls surrounded by intensely green vegetation, where visitors are observed by firefighters who, stationed under sunshades and outfitted with binoculars, are tasked with trying to prevent any damage to the local ecosystem. EFE

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