Fundamental Science: Science and tourism side by side in Chapada Diamantina

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Whoever goes to Chapada Diamantina, in Bahia, and asks which of its countless waterfalls is the most beautiful, will often hear the same answer: Buracão. Part of the wonder is the experience of getting there. There are 3 km of trail, and the final 100 meters are covered by swimming, between sumptuous canyons. When making the curve of the river, the visitor is faced with the 85 meters of waterfall. Few had this privilege until the late 1990s, when the local community fought to open the waterfall to visitors. Now, the engagement of society in the tourist activity promises to intensify, thanks to new proposals for geoparks in the region.

Of the seven UNESCO projects to create world geoparks in Bahia (the state with the most proposals in the country) suggested by the Geological Survey of Brazil (CPRM), four are located in Chapada Diamantina. It is no coincidence: with rocks that tell a story of billions of years, 30,000 times older than that of the human species, and bring evidence that deserts, glaciers, volcanoes and seas already existed there, Chapada is a geology paradise. in Brazil. The oldest rocks in South America were found there, 3.65 billion years old, according to the May 2022 issue of Pesquisa Fapesp magazine.

Geoparks are not only scientific or tourist projects, but also social ones. are described as button-up, that is, created by the base – the community –, with the support of the public power. UNESCO defines them as “unified geographic areas, where sites and landscapes of international geological relevance are managed based on a holistic concept of protection, education and sustainable development”. The idea is to promote conservation by empowering the local population and reducing inequalities.

Today there are 177 UNESCO world geoparks in 46 countries. Three are in Brazil: Araripe, in Ceará; Seridó, in Rio Grande do Norte; and the Caminhos dos Cânions do Sul, between Rio Grande do Sul and Santa Catarina. The latter two won the title in April 2022.

Of the four proposals for geoparks in Chapada Diamantina (detailed in an article published in April in the magazine “Geoheritage”), the most advanced is that of Serra do Sincorá, which already has a non-profit entity focused on its implementation, Associação Geoparque Serra do Sincorá – AGS. The project foresees an area of ​​6,313 km² that includes the municipalities of Andaraí, Lençóis, Mucugê and Palmeiras, and a population of 44 thousand inhabitants. Renato Azevedo, general coordinator of the AGS project, says that the expectation is to submit the candidacy to Unesco in 2024 and obtain approval in 2025. “We have 48% of the work implemented”, he says.

If in geoparks science goes hand in hand with tourism, in Chapada Diamantina this happens naturally. It is common to hear from guides that “the Chapada was the bottom of the sea” when explaining local curiosities, such as the typical pink sandstones. And it’s true. The region of the Serra do Sincorá Geopark Project, for example, was a great sea in at least two different moments. The last marine episode, 600 million years ago, was recycled by mountain-forming processes arising from the collision of tectonic plates.

“In Chapada there are canyons of waterfalls where it is possible to observe complete sections of the seabed, with fine sediments at the top and sand with shells at the bottom”, explains geologist and professor at USP Adriana Alves. The sedimentary rocks of the region suffered low metamorphism, that is, they were little altered and conserve structures from the time of their deposition and burial. Added to this preserved geology is a rich history, marked above all by the diamond mining that developed in the 19th century and which, as can be assumed, inspired the name of the place (mechanized exploration, however, has been prohibited since 1996) .

“In a geopark, signs explain the origin of things, contextualizing the evolution of Earth and life”, completes Alves. The experience, therefore, is more than merely touristic. Even so, the expectation is that the Serra do Sincorá Geopark will double tourism in the region. Therefore, the concern with the environmental impact must be one of the priorities in projects like this.

“The visitor attracted by the geoparks is interested not only in waterfall baths, but in the evolutionary history of that part of the planet and in having different community experiences. It is someone who recognizes the need to preserve the environment and mitigate its impacts”, highlights Renato Azevedo. “But geoparks are accompanied by the socioeconomic development of communities, which consequently causes some impact on the environment.”

It is worth mentioning that Chapada is not only made of rocks – its biodiversity is also vast. So much so that, in 1985, the Chapada da Diamantina National Park was created, a conservation unit managed by the Chico Mendes Institute – ICMBio to protect 152 thousand hectares of springs, waterfalls, caves, mountains, valleys and threatened species such as the jaguar. , puma and giant armadillo.

But what does it really mean to empower the local population through tourism? Although the tendency in Chapada Diamantina is to engage society in tourism in an institutionalized way, this is an inherent characteristic of its inhabitants. The popular conquest that “liberated” the Buracão waterfall, for example, took place organically.

The “most beautiful waterfall in Chapada” is located in the municipality of Ibicoara – outside the territory of the Serra do Sincorá Geopark Project –, with around 20,000 inhabitants. Until around 1996, its visitors were limited to hunters who roamed the area looking for armadillos and deer. At that time, the trail was different, much more complicated – it took about a day to get there. Everything changed when the mayor of that time, Arnaldo Silva Pires, saw a photo of the place.

“There were three people who walked around a lot: Janu [Janildes Silva Xavier, hoje diretor de Meio Ambiente de Ibicoara]Laelson [Alves da Silva, já falecido] and Cassio [Antonio Batista, hoje subsecretário de Meio Ambiente e Turismo]who was a photographer”, recalls Pires. When they showed me the photo they took of Buracão, I said: ‘This can’t stay like this. Let’s develop tourism at the waterfall’.”

From there, a task force headed by Janu began to open an 8 km road to the beginning of the trail. The work, done by manual mowing, lasted about a year. “The servants opened the bush with machetes and axes. Years later, the machines came,” says Janu, now 65, who is also a tourist guide.

At the same time, Janu had the support of the community in the mission to find an easier path than the hunters’ trail to reach the waterfall. There were a few attempts to conquer the current 3 km route, which borders the Espalhado River, passes through three other waterfalls found along the way and a lookout on a cliff from where it is possible to be impressed with the view of Buracão from above. “After we discovered the place, everyone ended up helping”, says the former mayor.

But there was a problem. The waterfall was inside a private property that belonged to a car dealership. The solution to prevent the owner from exploring tourism on his own, says Pires, was to go to court with an expropriation action to create a municipal park. Residents of the region made a petition. The owner did not respond, and the process went by default. In 2005, the Espalhado Municipal Natural Park was finally created by decree, with an area of ​​611 hectares of expropriated land.

One of the residents who helped to open the trail was Sebastião Reis, 52 years old, who has been working as a guide in Buracão for 26 years. He was one of the first to know the waterfall – he was there in 1989 with hunters, on a three-day expedition. He calculates that he has already made the famous bend in the river to face the waterfall more than 6,000 times. “I never get tired of seeing her. I always get emotional, it’s like I’m there for the first time.”

It is only possible to go to Buracão with a local guide from Ibicoara. It is also mandatory to wear a life jacket to dive into its dark waters that are a hallmark of Chapada Diamantina. Fruit of the decomposition of leaves, branches and roots, they give the visitor the sensation of bathing in a giant herbal infusion. A privilege lived today by about 30 thousand tourists a year, thanks to the people of Ibicoar.

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Clarice Cudischevitch is coordinator of the Ciência Fundamental blog and communication manager at Instituto Serrapilheira.

This article was written for the #scienceinelections campaign, which celebrates Science Month. In July, the texts of the Ciência Fundamental blog will reflect on the role of science in the reconstruction of Brazil and its relationship with other topics of public interest. Today’s is about science and tourism.

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