When Portuguese explorers first visited Brazil
's northeast coast, the difficulty of navigating the sharp, shallow reefs caused them to name the place "Abrolhos," or "open your eyes." Five hundred years later, technology may make it easier to navigate the region's waters, but the name still has meaning.
"Today, we need to open our eyes to the uniqueness of this amazing place," says Rodrigo Moura, a biologist and marine protected areas specialist with Conservation International (CI) in Brazil.
Rich Reefs and Endemic Species
Containing the biologically richest coral reefs in the South Atlantic, Abrolhos is home to many species found nowhere else. One of these, called brain coral (Mussimilia braziliensis), grows into giant mushroom-shaped pinnacles called chapeiroes. The region is also the largest breeding area for humpback whales (Megaptera novaengliae) in the Atlantic, and a vast treasure trove of unexplored biodiversity.
A recent report by CI's Rapid Assessment Program indicates that its scientific expedition to Abrolhos uncovered many species new to science, including at least 17 mollusks and one fish.
"Unfortunately, Abrolhos is under threat," says Moura, "and we need to recognize this with clear vision, too."
A Buffer Around Abrolhos
Fortunately, the Brazilian government has done just that. Brazil's Institute of Environment and Natural Resources (IBAMA) recently created a 36,700 square mile buffer zone an area larger than Portugal around Abrolhos National Marine Park. Under IBAMA's declaration, the oil and gas activities that had been proposed in the region are now prohibited in 75 percent of the area, and approval for such development in the other 25 percent would require detailed studies showing no adverse impact.
CI-Brazil's assessments of the effects of oil and gas exploration and possible oil spills, conducted over nearly a decade, helped motivate IBAMA's creation of the buffer zone. The influence of the SOS Abrolhos Coalition was also instrumental. This group of diverse stakeholders, including nongovernmental organizations, scientists, artisans, and fishermen, engaged in three years of discussion with the government leading up to the declaration. Their common cause: a shared determination to ensure that any development projects in the region benefit, rather than harm, local people.
Benefits Beyond Biodiversity Conservation
The villages around Abrolhos are home to thousands of families who rely on the coast's bounty by fishing, crabbing, and oyster catching at a subsistence level. Abrolhos' new management status allows them to continue to use its resources, and the limitations on development are a positive step for their continued survival.
"It's not hard to see that, if the mangroves where reef fish reproduce are destroyed by an oil spill, the entire coastal zone is affected," says Moura. "If the sea is contaminated by heavy metals through oil and gas operations, fisheries will have to be shut down."
The sustainable tourism industry, too, will directly benefit because large-scale, potentially harmful projects will be prevented. Without the region's wildlife and beauty, it loses its tourist appeal.
Conservation Is Catching
"Anyone who cares about life should care about Abrolhos," adds Moura. That's why the CI-Brazil team and its partners are conducting educational programs at Abrolhos National Park, bringing school teachers to the reefs and providing educational materials. It's also why CI-Brazil is helping to foster a community-based tourism initiative in northern Abrolhos. "Once people are aware of the wonders of this place," he says, "they are compelled to help save it."
The CI marine biologist considers Abrolhos, his home, the best place in the world to live and work. And no wonder: "When you go for a short 10-minute walk from our office in Caravelas, you can still spot dolphins playing in the river. In a single day, you can see rain forests, mangroves, whales, and unique coral reefs. These are the everyday sights Abrolhos offers today the sights we want future generations to enjoy."