Brazil: Making Conservation More Attractive Than Destruction

The view from the Mineralogy Museum of Ouro Preto, overlooking the Tiradentes Plaza. Maria Myers photos.
The view from the Mineralogy Museum of Ouro Preto, overlooking the Tiradentes Plaza. Maria Myers photos.

Iracambi: The Land of Coffee and Honey in Fluctuation

By Maria Myers

 A variation of the ever-present flamboyant critters you will encounter in Brazil's jungles.
A variation of the ever-present flamboyant critters you will encounter in Brazil's jungles.

Riding down the winding dirt roads of Brazils back country with its many potholes and jarring mini hills for upwards of six hours can be nauseating-- but worth it.

This is what I found as I made my trek to the research center/farm/getaway known as Iracambi. Located in the state of Minas Gerais, directly translating to general mines, this area contains the Atlantic Rainforest and hosts a myriad of off the map adventures.

Iracambi's mission is to make conservation of the rainforest more profitable than its destruction, by empowering locals and teaching about conserving the resources.

Activities

Iracambi’s many acres provide for a variety of steep or level trails leading to hidden waterfalls and swimming holes. If you so choose, samples and data can be taken from these areas and recorded at the research center, where language classes are held for an hour every weekday.

The research center is equipped with GIS mapping devices and camera traps for your use. Putter around in the medicinal plant garden with experts on the uses of local flora or help plant young trees to combat erosion.

If you stay long enough there’s also the possibility of assisting in environmental classes within the community. With all these options your trip is what you make of it. Personal projects are encouraged and welcome.

Neighbors

Driving in the cambi around the property you can see the coffee plants of local farmers running up and down the surrounding hillside. I was fortunate enough to visit one of the homes of these farmers.

Upon entering the small, brightly colored clay house some of the aforementioned beans were pounded to powder in a mortar. The powder was then dumped into tin cups of hot water with copious amounts of sugar.

This is the only way to drink coffee in the area and it is still the strongest coffee I’ve ever encountered. Friendly introductions were given by each family member, even grandmother in the back bedroom who’s’ mobility had been hindered by her amputated leg from the upper knee down.

Accommodations

Simple white cabins built by previous volunteer’s function as your home away from home. Each of the four structures includes an open front area, two rooms each and a shower off the main room. Though far removed, a high powered router has been installed in case you choose not to unhook completely from the outside world. I highly recommend making use of the ample mosquito netting.

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Wrapping that extra barrier around your bed in the evenings will keep any especially sneaky critters at bay. The lilting tunes of the early morning will remind you of the abounding variety of other fauna waiting to be discovered out your front door.

Food

Meals are prepared by a local woman and include a large variety of dishes such as farofa, a toasted flour mixture made from the cassava root. Chicken is common in varying sauces, with heavy sage aftertastes and rich coconut bases. I suggest bringing extra spending money for snacks and alcoholic drinks.

The dining area consists of an open-air structure attached to the closed-off kitchen. The sweet nectar of flowers surrounding the small pavilion attract the hummingbirds of the area which will flit around you during your dinner unless there is an evening shower passing through.

One of the many visitors on an open air trail collecting sound for an independent project.
One of the many visitors on an open-air trail collecting sound for an independent project.

“Surrounding” Towns

If you need a break from the outdoors not more than a two-hour bus ride away is the aptly named town of Ouro Preto; Black Gold. There are ready contacts for taxis that frequent the back roads of Iracambi, bringing you to bus stations that will take you through more breathtaking mountains to this sought out town.

Iracambi houses dozens of trails often leading to water sources which samples are taken from and analyzed at the research center.
Iracambi houses dozens of trails often leading to water sources which samples are taken from and analyzed at the research center.

Being of the colonial era, there are no shortages of steepled churches to marvel at among its whitewashed buildings and cobblestoned streets, including the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi. Its vaulted ceilings and intricate gold finish are well maintained. One of my favorite features of the town is its relatively inexpensive museum of mineralogy, around twenty real or seven dollars.

The current and past equipment for mining was interesting and the explanations on its historical and economic significance informative.

Its vast displays of minerals, gems, and elements ranging from aluminum to sapphires proved the most impressive. Small jewelry shops are strewn throughout the town and the main Plaza Tiradentes the museum faces echo this sentiment with their beautiful displays full of locally crafted (and mined) bracelets, rings and necklaces.

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Additionally being a college town, Ouro Preto can and does have affordable accommodations. I was lucky to pay no more than thirty US dollars a night at Calamidade Publica, a fraternity of sorts, minus the frat mentality.

My hosts were respectful and entertaining, with a surprising interest in classic rock. Aerosmith graced the hallways every evening as we chatted in broken English and Portuguese while sipping on Cachaça, a popular spirit of Brazil.

A Changing Landscape

While Iracambi and its surrounding lands are beautiful and far removed, it’s stable serenity is a tenuous one. The landscape is constantly fluctuating due to a large interest in what lies beneath the surface; bauxite, a deep red rock containing the ore of aluminum.

Companies have been and are currently searching the area for mining purposes, one being the Votorantim Group, a heavyweight industrial conglomerate in Latin America.

This would drastically alter the scenery of the area, removing large chunks of Atlantic rainforest as well as the homes of the endangered animals currently residing there, including the Woolly Spider Monkey.

Hope

None should despair at the interest of these major companies as several of the surrounding communities have banded together to create the “Commission of those affected by mining” or the Mining Commission for short. This group actively protects individuals and land that would be adversely affected by the activity of mining.

By making conservation of the land more attractive than destruction, a common theme throughout, the land continues to be safely maintained. Iracambi will continue to flourish and provide a space for learning, relaxation, and utterly outlandish experiences.