By Alexandria Corneiro
Not far from the bustling colonial-era port of Paraty, Brazil, a long narrow bay cuts deep into the rugged, forested coast. The fjord-like body of water is surrounded by steep hills that are inhabited but just over 100 families of Caiçaras – a distinctive coastal culture mixing Indian, Portuguese and African lineages and relying for centuries on fishing and small-scale agriculture – and now ecotourism.
Last Wednesday, after a 40-minute bus ride, we traveled in several small chugging boats down the bay, called Saco do Mamangua. We were met by Paulo Nogara, an energetic biologist with an entrepreneurial streak. Nogara’s company, Interação, runs a variety of tours to familiarize outsiders with the culture and botanical bounty, wildlife and marine resources of the region, but also to provide a sustainable livelihood for the residents.
The Caiçaras are known for placing importance on the wellbeing of the whole community, not just individuals. This trait was clearly visible in our interactions with the people of Mamangua during our visit. We were welcomed into a family home and treated as old friends despite this being our first meeting.
The people of Mamangua have survived for centuries using only local resources without exhausting them. Nogara said their attachment to the region was the best protection for its ecosystems. He designed his tourism project with strict limits for the number of visitors, rejecting the dominant business model in the industry, which seeks relentless growth.
In a world where we look constantly to the latest and greatest invention to sustain our needs, the Mamangua family who hosted us seemed happy and at peace with just a few nods to modernity – including a satellite dish and television. I couldn’t help noticing how two middle-school-aged boys played contentedly in a stream without a care in the world and no Internet or video games in sight.
Our day with the people of Mamangua was illuminating and at times exciting. We walked along trails and traveled in canoes through the mangroves. We learned how their traditional dugout canoes were made using the trunk of only one tree. We were shown how members of the family now also craft model fishing boats out of leftover wood to sell in town. We even had the pleasure of painting our own tiny fleet, which was packed in a box for us to take home. But the real takeaway from our day in Mamangua was an environmental lesson. Here is a culture that has survived on natural resources for centuries and acts as guardian for nature. Did we get it wrong? Are our luxuries destroying our ability to survive? Is simplicity the key to sustainability?
If you can’t visit the region, you can certainly learn more at Nogara’s website or in a 2006 paper on the ethnoecology of the Caiçara culture.