NPO Spotlight: How Iracambi Is Saving Brazilian Rainforests

It´s hard to think of a more striking symbol of our environmental struggles than the rainforests of Brazil. These are the most precious gifts mother nature has given us, once the most pristine, biodiverse, and uncharted places on the planet, yet centuries of human “progress” and civilisation have caused unimaginable destruction to the land and its inhabitants.

Why exactly can’t we protect one of the most important natural wonders of this planet? Why do we continue to ravage the very thing that can save us from climate catastrophe?

We may never know the answers to these questions, but at least it`s heartening to see that many organisations continue to fight on the right side in this ongoing war we humans are waging against nature.

Copalana would like to highlight one such non-profit, Iracambi, who for decades have strived to protect the Atlantic rainforests of Brazil. Although lesser known and publicised than their bigger Amazonian counterpart, they are by no means less important and equally at risk. In fact, without Iracambi’s tireless efforts, these ecological jewels may well have already disappeared by now.

What’s the problem?

The statistics are frightening: humans destroy a patch of forest the size of a football field every 1.2 seconds – or a space about the size of New York City every two days.

The South American rainforests are known as the “lungs of the planet.” This is not an exaggeration: through the process of sequestration, the trees trap an estimated 120 billion tonnes of carbon, while also providing some 20% of the Earth’s oxygen through photosynthesis. In a world already struggling against the effects of climate change, the removal of this vital process will only accelerate our downfall further.

Even if we were to leave aside this existential crisis, the destruction of these rainforests also wipes out the natural habitats of countless animals, birds, and insects – not to mention plant life – not found anywhere else on the planet. Degradation of the soil and ecosystem also contributes to widespread contamination of the water catchment and eliminates the earth’s in-built defences against natural disasters, leaving the entire continent at risk during severe weather events.

Many indigenous people, notably the Tupi and Guarani, also call the Atlantic rainforest their home, too, and have lived in harmony there for countless generations. Wiping out the rainforest also means wiping out their land, traditions, and way of life, and displaces entire communities which are simply not adapted to life in Western civilisation.

There are a number of culprits in this race to the bottom. The majority of land cleared in the Atlantic rainforests is used for cattle ranching, a practice driven by increasing global demands for beef and leather. Other uses for the deforested land include soy, cocoa, and palm plantations, and sometimes for subsistence farming.

In all cases, however, farm owners are encouraged – and emboldened by – the government policy of the day. With lax enforcement of existing conservation laws, deliberate shrinking of protected zones, and tax incentives for farmers, the government effectively gives those who want a slice of the rainforest carte blanche to do whatever they like with it. This, of course, means total annihilation of the land, and of anyone who dares stand in their way.

What Is Iracambi Doing to Help?

Like so many environmental problems, there is no clear-cut solution that will address every issue at once.

Thankfully, Iracambi understands that, and takes a multi-pronged approach to such a complex problem. Individually, their initiatives might not seem effective enough. But meshed together into a cohesive, holistic plan, their impact becomes far greater than the sum of their parts.

Some of their initiatives include:

  • Tree planting – Although it might seem old-fashioned, the replanting of endemic tree species forms the backbone of virtually every forest conservation effort. After all, the aim isn’t just to maintain rainforests at their current coverage level: it’s to grow them back even bigger and stronger than before.
  • Agroecology – As we’ve already discussed, farming is the key contributor to land clearing in forested areas. Coupled with a reliance on toxic pesticides and cheap slash-and-burn techniques, rainforests simply don’t stand a chance. Iracambi attempts to educate landowners on more ecologically harmonious ways to farm, that can still provide them with a profit, but doesn’t irreversibly damage the land.
  • Environmental leadership and education – Iracambi understands that wholesale policy change starts at ground level. This involves teaching the local population and wider community the value of the forests that they have, and the long-term consequences of destroying them. Education is also about activating a new generation of leaders, armed with deep understanding of their land, that can continue the fight to protect it.
  • Living Pharmacy – The medicinal value of native plants has been long known by the indigenous people of Brazil, but is only recently starting to gain traction in industrialised nations. By funding and promoting further research into the usage of these plants, Iracambi is giving them more value, which in turn makes it in the interests of governments and corporations to protect them.

What Makes Iracambi So Exciting?

In some ways, Iracambi can be seen as a traditional NPO, in that it receives funding from donors and grants and directs it towards grassroots projects. However, given their longevity and success, this is clearly a model that’s working.

There are also a number of key, exciting differences that make Iracambi not only stand out, but thrive, in comparison to larger non-profits working in similar fields. One difference is the holistic approach and range of complementary projects that we described above. Other differences include:

  • Adaptability – After 21 years of operations, you would expect an NPO to become more set in its ways. Not Iracambi, which has shown incredible agility to learn from setbacks, modify operations, and launch new initiatives so that they are always at their most effective, even when events and conditions change in the real world.
  • Technology – Iracambi also aren’t afraid to lean into the future. They’re already leveraging new technology to create programs such as Smart Forests, which uses satellite and ground-level monitoring to create a far more complete environmental picture of what’s happening to the rainforest, why it’s happening, and how they can best respond.
  • Forward Thinking – Thinking about the future isn’t just about technology, either. Conservation of rainforests is long-term work, and it involves always keeping in mind who will be next to take up the sword and shield. Putting faith and trust into younger leaders is key to an organisation’s longevity, and Iracambi does this brilliantly.
  • Community – Volunteering isn’t a new idea, but Iracambi put a lot of effort into turning what could be one-time volunteers into a dedicated community. Having a strong global team of 2000 volunteers acts together as group, shares passions and successes, provides organic publicity, and allows Iracambi to get more work done with fewer resources.
  • Highlighting Global Impact – Both in Brazil and in the world, the Atlantic rainforest is often overlooked in favour of the Amazon. So how do you make sure it’s in the public’s mind? One way is to stress the dramatic global impact of local actions, which Iracambi does well through its Forests 4 Water program. By highlighting the fact that rainforest conservation isn’t just a tree coverage problem, but in fact ties into vital water supplies and climate change, Iracambi taps successfully into broader issues and promotes its work globally, showing the world the entire intricate network of positive effects each rainforest has on our planet.

Ready to do your part in protecting the environment? Help non-profits like Iracambi continue their vital work by crowdfunding a project, or join a growing community of passionate volunteers today!

Raphael Shinners
About the author
Raphael Shinners
A multi-layered approach to conservation is paying off dividends for the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest.

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