Yara Schaeffer Novelli

Yara Schaeffer Novelli: Knee-deep in the mangroves

Having moved from ecology to public policy to education, she says retirement is no reason to kick back

Entrevista_243_02_YaraLÉO RAMOSYara Schaeffer Novelli’s passion for mangroves is far from mere romanticism for a bucolic landscape or peculiar animals. Her vision encompasses the landscape, the flora, the fauna, the sea, the land, the people, the economy, the law. She believes that the ecosystem at the boundary between continent and ocean, a nursery of countless marine organisms, can only be seen and manipulated using a multifaceted approach.

She taught this to students at the Oceanographic Institute of the University of São Paulo (IO-USP), where she set up the Mangrove Bioecology laboratory (Bioma) that she managed until her retirement in 1998.

Since then, she has kept on teaching and advising students at both IO-USP and USP’s Graduate Program in Environmental Sciences, not to mention the non-governmental organization she has established to carry on her battles. At times like these, when haphazard use of the land and climate change pose major threats to mangroves, kicking back is not an option.

Why did you choose mangroves, which many would describe as “fetid bogs”?
It started as something oriented towards fishery resources. The mangrove is a nursery, a sheltered, rather protected area full of larvae and young animals. Among those strange tangles of roots, there are young fishes of commercial value and the initial life stages of certain shrimp. These shrimp reproduce in the open sea and then come into the estuary to feed and grow. And you have those bizarre, viviparous trees that drop their offspring onto the ground, already sprouting and ready to bury themselves in the mud. As an adult, I became captivated by them. These things were not noticed by oceanographers, so I turned to botany: how do those trees work? How do they settle into this place? Then the horizon expands and complexity increases. I took the backwards route: from the product of the mangrove to the bigger picture.

Mangrove ecology
Undergraduate degree from the university of brazil (now the UFRJ), master’s and doctorate degrees from the university of são paulo (USP)
USP oceanographic institute and biomabrasil institute
Scientific production
Authored or coauthored 36 scientific papers, three books and 23 book chapters; 25 technical reports as a court-appointed expert; advised 31 master’s and 20 phd students

At first, you studied coastal fauna, not necessarily those found in mangroves. How did you end up inside there?
In 1976, I attended a symposium on biological oceanography in El Salvador. At the time, the scientific community was alarmed at the destruction of mangroves by the shrimp farming industry. My universe was “ocean, ocean, ocean” and I thought: “We have a lot of mangroves in Brazil, I wonder how they are doing?”. When I returned, I decided to check the extent of the damage they had sustained due to these practices. Oceanography doesn’t deal with mangroves, and neither does terrestrial botany, because you get stuck in the mud trying to collect samples. I thought: “We have mangroves from the extreme north of Brazil down to the state of Santa Catarina. How many years of life do I have left? I won’t be able to study the whole thing by myself.”

How old were you?
I was 33. I had studied marine worms from the Echiuridae family, in the region of Ilha Grande, in the state of Rio de Janeiro. Later, I had monitored the population of Anomalocardia clams on a beach in Ubatuba, on the coast of São Paulo State. I was dealing with coastal dynamics, and then suddenly an even faster dynamic appeared. In the two years that I spent measuring the dimensions of clam shells, mangroves were disappearing and nobody was studying them as an ecosystem.

Did you stay in touch with the researchers you met in Central America?
Gilberto Cintrón, Samuel Snedaker, Ariel Lugo, among others were already involved with mangrove studies, using a very well-established methodology. I would have to learn a lot by myself and saw that it was better to rely on strong supporters. They came in to teach us courses and help establish work spaces. We started seeing what needed to be adapted specifically to Brazil, since the mangroves here were not the same as those in the Caribbean. The difference between high and low tides here is much greater, for instance.

Was there anything new in it for them as well?
Yes, there was a genuine symbiosis. When I started, there was a beautiful study by the State Foundation for Environmental Engineering (FEEMA), in Rio de Janeiro. Norma Crud Maciel had studied the mangroves along Guanabara Bay, a magnificent project conducted in 1979. She soon joined us, since there was not much opportunity for academic research in a governmental office. It was a very productive start, for reasons including our laboratory in Cananeia, on the southern coast of São Paulo State, which had a standard meteorological station and an unusually good data series. The mangrove is this mixture of compartments: you can approach it as an architect, a doctor, an engineer, a botanist, a geologist, or an oceanographer.

At age 3...

Personal archive At age 3…Personal archive

You have an undergraduate degree in natural history. Did that education help integrate those compartments?
Very much so. My undergraduate degree in Natural History and my graduate degree in Oceanography, which was not limited to biological oceanography, both of them helped. To read a mangrove, you need to have an open mind. It’s not just botany, or sediment dynamics, or zoology. It’s a bit more.

You also conducted environmental impact analyses. Were people talking about that at the time?
No. Something was obviously interfering in the system, like when I finished my doctorate at Saco da Ribeira, on the northern coast of São Paulo. The Rio-Santos Highway was under construction and, at the same time, they were beginning to build the first pier at Saco da Ribeira. Back then, I had my first master’s degree student, Sônia Lopes, now a professor at the Biosciences Institute. She started studying alterations to the bivalve fauna on that beach. The area was already being altered by moorage stakes that were coated with chemicals to protect the wood from rotting, and by changes in the grain size of sand at the beach. Opportunistic species had begun to appear. We saw the dynamics of the environment as it responded to these changes. When I started working in mangroves, Brazilian legislators had adopted a comprehensive national policy for the environment: Law No. 6,938/81. It was all happening almost simultaneously.

In addition to all these aspects that you see in the mangrove, there is one more: you have to know the law.
Exactly. It’s a race against time. Hurrying and relying on researchers and graduate students from the Oceanographic Institute. I put the recently published papers on a desk in the laboratory. Each person would pick up a book or paper to read and present to the others; we had to redouble our efforts to try and keep up. It was all happening very fast in this new field of coastal zone land use dynamics. In just five years, a road gets built, a pier goes up, a dredging project is completed, oil spills happen.

When did you become an expert in environmental impact analyses?
I was the environmental damage expert for the first class action filed in Brazil. It was triggered by the rupture of a Petrobras oil pipeline near the Iriri River, in the Bertioga Channel on the São Paulo coast. The law was passed in 1981 and regulated in 1983. On October 14, 1983, there was this rupture, and a judge from the Santos jurisdiction named me court-appointed expert.

What was the work like?
First of all, I had to figure out what to measure when monitoring an impact by oil, without having any experience. My experience was in the beautiful, clean mangroves of Cananeia and other areas of Brazil. Suddenly, I was in a mangrove full of oil. This oil-soaked sediment rose to a height of one meter on the tree trunks. We are still monitoring the most heavily impacted area, which is a completely dead grove of trees. Thirty years later, there is still oil under the ground. When we collect sediment samples from about 80 centimeters deep, when we remove a core sample, we still see a few bubbles of oil. The mangrove in that spot never returned to normal; the new trees were from different species, did not grow much and are now dying.

Was it your background as an environmental impact expert that won you a job at the office of the São Paulo State Secretary of the Environment in the 1990s?
I had stayed in touch with the São Paulo State Office of the Prosecutor for the Public Interest since 1983. Then Édis Milaré, one of the prosecutors who had participated in the petition for the class action about the ruptured oil pipeline, became state secretary for the Environment. He chose his coordinators based on gender representativeness, bringing in two women and two men. I was responsible for three research institutes (Botanical, Forest and Geological), as well as the computer department and the library. It was a challenge. You can’t coordinate a group of century-old institutions any which way. You have to understand the pace of the research and researchers, and make improvements if you can. The office library was on the 11th floor. I brought it down to the ground floor and the number of visitors quickly increased. Libraries need to attract attention, and the ground floor had a room with large windows and a beautiful garden on the outside. During my stint at the secretary’s office, my academic résumé did not get any longer, even though I was leaving home at 6:30 in the morning and not getting back until 10 or 11 at night.

Were the problems very different from what you knew?
Yes. I had extensive knowledge of the coast. I had no expertise in Production Units and Conservation Units in the interior of the state. The boundaries between farmers, the croplands, forests and pastures are very complicated. Someone will put up a fence and say that an area is protected, but it actually is not, because the neighbor did not receive any compensation. A mountain lion eats somebody’s chicken, and then the owner kills the mountain lion. I started traveling and was warned that I was on the road too much, so I had to explain that our problems were outside the state capital. After the first year, things started repeating themselves, they were no longer new. Then it became a matter of persistence, how long I could carry on. I made it to the end of my term.

...and in 2013, in the mangrove along the Iriri River, three decades after the oil spill

Personal archive …and in 2013, in the mangrove along the Iriri River, three decades after the oil spillPersonal archive

Your laboratory worked on setting an economic value for the mangrove. Was it a new approach?
That was a requirement that grew out of the class actions. One of the issues had to do with the financial value of the environmental damage. I was advised to say that the damage was inestimable and would be addressed in a future arbitration. After writing that several times, I started thinking that I needed to prepare for that future. Back then, there were two Monicas at the Bioma lab – Monica Tognella and Monica Grasso – whose instincts were more economics-oriented. For starters, they had personnel improvement scholarships and they had enrolled at the USP School of Economics and Business Administration (FEA-USP) for a basic, undergraduate-level course in microeconomics. At the time, every researcher who did economic evaluations used a different method. During their master’s studies, each of the Monicas adopted a different set of methods. One went to work in Cananeia and the other in Bertioga: one site an untouched mangrove and the other heavily compromised. Their initial results indicated that the severely affected mangrove in Bertioga was worth a lot more than the one in Cananeia. We discovered that this was happening because, in such a situation, there is a proxy for calculating a monetary value. When a mangrove is affected, people start paying for the ecosystem services that used to be free of charge. I found that this was the solution to the puzzle: the numbers only become apparent when the services cease to exist.

And how do you put a price tag on a mangrove?
I’m against pricing. Pricing is one thing, evaluation is another. Price is a very small part of value. A much better approach is to convert the legal judgment into actions that the polluter or degrader must undertake. The faster the process of sentencing them to perform these actions, the less they will pay. It’s an educational process; polluters will learn that if they drag their feet going about the restoration effort, it will only cost them more. In 2011, the São Paulo State Office of the Prosecutor for the Public Interest formed a work group to evaluate environmental damage. I was the academic coordinator of this mixed team of prosecutors and academic personnel that, for over two years, studied a wide range of environmental impacts and wrote guides on how to respond to them. Then, we sought to find equations to represent them. A mangrove, for instance, takes a number of years to start operating as an ecosystem. Planting trees is not enough. Those trees will take 20 to 30 years to form an ecosystem. The same applies to the Atlantic Forest or the Cerrado.

In the case of the mangrove, one can easily imagine that fishery resources have a price.
More than that, they have a value. Among tropical forests, mangroves are the most efficient at fixing carbon. This is enormously important. Add to that their role as stopover sites for migratory birds and nurseries for commercial species of fish, crustaceans and mollusks, as well as their cultural role within the religious syncretism and handicraft activities of the caiçara people. To them, that rather strange green scenario is a guarantee of life. I can’t put a price on these services. I faced a lot of adversity on that issue within the Office of the Prosecutor, until one day I worked up the courage to approach one of the prosecutors and ask him to humor me for a quick exercise. I said: “We are talking about price and value. Look at yourself as an example, a São Paulo state attorney. As a human being, your body is 70% water. How much does water cost? You have calcium carbonate, you have proteins (we can check the price of an egg), you have some nutrients. All of that has a market price. I can go to court and deposit this amount that we just calculated, and then I can kill you. Now, what about value? How many schools did you attend? You’ve received medical care since you were a child. You went to law school, climbed your career ladder – lawyer, prosecutor, state attorney… This is your value, which is not reflected in your price.” I think I successfully showed that price represents nothing.

In 1966, with biologist Junia Quitete, during a course on board the Brazilian Navy's Oceanographic Ship Admiral Saldanha

Personal archive In 1966, with biologist Junia Quitete, during a course on board the Brazilian Navy’s Oceanographic Ship Admiral SaldanhaPersonal archive

And along that path, you got into some serious fights, such as the one against shrimp farming in mangrove areas. What took you in that direction? What are the biggest threats to mangroves?
Today, I think the deepest damage is social. We’ve already lost mangroves and in recent years we’ve been losing people, and this is what worries me. Fishermen can no longer fish in the estuary because it’s enclosed with an electric fence and they can get killed by hired gunmen. It is a social problem and a public health one. Fishermen who get hired to harvest adult shrimp from the tanks are paid like independent sugarcane field workers, with no labor rights at all. They have to deal with metabisulfite, a chemical that keeps shrimp from turning black, and they work without any masks or gloves. If it gets in your lungs, that substance will kill you. A biologist can serve many different farms, and so can a veterinarian, so the industry creates few jobs and even less income. Renato de Almeida, who was a graduate student at Bioma at the time, did some work on the Human Development Indexes of cities that had many shrimp farms, especially in the state of Ceará, from 1990 to 2000. Their HDIs did not improve at all during that period. The money earned from shrimp farming in those cities is not used there; it is invested in other markets.

And I imagine the damage to mangroves is twofold: trees are removed so that shrimp tanks can be put in, and then there are the chemical contaminants.
Exactly. And in five years, seven at most, those areas will no longer be suitable and they will move on to another mangrove. In abandoned farms, when the fences are torn down, the mangrove grows back.

And can anyone fight this?
The presence of certain diseases, like virus diseases that afflict farmed shrimp, make it difficult to sell to foreign markets. From the beginning, the industry has been raising Litopenaus vannamei, a shrimp that is native to Ecuador. This is an exotic species, which is banned, but they are brought in on special planes loaded with larvae or are bred in laboratories here in Brazil. Fungi and viruses make the system less complex and more vulnerable, and biodiversity is gradually lost.

And the market starts rejecting the product?
Because of white spot disease, which is caused by a fungus, the density of shrimp larvae in each tank has to be reduced. They also have to be harvested sooner, because at one point the shrimp start eating a lot without experiencing a proportionate increase in weight, as a result of the disease. So farmers are forced to sell these smaller shrimp, which the international market will not accept, so this lower-scale production remains on the domestic market. I visited a shrimp farm in the state of Piauí and saw that the water inlet contains an extremely rich diversity of estuarine lifeforms. Macroalgae, ophiuroids, even sea horses, a beautiful thing. The outlet into the estuary has nothing.

How does the new Forestry Act affect mangroves?
I registered to speak at a public hearing held on April 18, 2016 before the Federal Supreme Court, but was not admitted. There were 22 speakers, with a heavy emphasis on advocates of the new law. Out of the total mangrove areas in the Legal Amazon and in the states of Amapá and Pará, 10% are available for shrimp farming. In Maranhão and states to the south, that figure rises to 35%. The new Forestry Act grants shrimp farmers a portion of the mangrove, the salt marshes, which were previously a permanent preservation area. During the Direct Actions of Unconstitutionality, I would have contested their claim that urban mangroves can be colonized when they no longer have an ecological function. But what is an ecological function? If the mangrove is there, it has an ecological function. That’s what I wanted to explain.

Taking a diving course during her undergraduate studies in Natural History at the University of Brazil, in Rio de Janeiro

Personal archive Taking a diving course during her undergraduate studies in Natural History at the University of Brazil, in Rio de JaneiroPersonal archive

In the rest of the world, is the scenario for mangroves any different?
This ecosystem is typical of tropical and subtropical regions. Around the world, that means coastal areas with high population density. These areas are also highly prized as sites for ports and resorts. In Southeast Asia, many shrimp farms were installed in these areas. In China, Vietnam, Malaysia and Indonesia, the social damage is astounding. When virus diseases start spreading among these crustaceans, the damage is very extensive. But income is very low in these countries, so the losses are not enough to make a difference in the global economy. The Central American coast has been devastated by shrimp farming, but there is also drug trafficking and guerrilla warfare that harms society and the environment to a much greater extent than here in Brazil. Many fishermen I knew have lost their lives as a result of these conflicts.

What was your experience like as a student in the environmental sciences graduate course here at USP?
In 1990, the president of the university, Professor José Goldemberg, saw the need for this type of interdisciplinary graduate program. So he asked the dean of Graduate Studies at the time – Professor Ubríaco Lopes, from the School of Medicine – to assemble that group. He called in faculty from several areas, who then formulated a project and presented it to the University Board. The first class started in 1991. It’s a very interesting program, directly run by the Office of the Dean for Graduate Studies until a few years ago. But USP president Suely Vilela required that all graduate programs be allocated to a specific institute. Professor Goldemberg himself was from the Institute of Electrotechnology and Energy (IEE), where we were well-received. The IEE kept its acronym, but was renamed the Institute of Energy and Environment.

Outside the university, you have always been involved with extension programs and environmental education. What were your best experiences?
Participating in the National Meeting for Environmental Education in Mangrove Areas (ENEAAM) since it was created in 1993. The meetings are always held in mangrove areas. We’ve had them in several states of Brazil, always in cities with people whose lives are associated with the mangrove. You can do very interesting work with the fishermen, the mussel hunters, the chapbook writers, the indigenous people… The first step is to bring out everyone’s experiences. I have been offering mini-courses that require no previous academic training. Depending on where we do it, the audience is completely different. In Bragança, in the state of Pará, the audience is different from when we are in Espírito Santo. In southeast Brazil, mangroves are seen as fetid and rotten, but in the extreme north, they are a source of wealth. There is this whole religious syncretism among mangrove dwellers, the “workers of the tide”. It’s beautiful.

In recent years, you founded an NGO, the BiomaBrasil Institute (IBB). What does it do?
Establishment of the IBB was suggested by my former students. As I had retired and the Oceanography Institute had decided to discontinue research on mangroves, we needed a way to maintain that identity. So we agreed that I would pitch in with my name, my reputation. But they do all the work: Clemente Coelho Junior, professor at the Federal University of Pernambuco; Renato de Almeida, from the Federal University of Recôncavo da Bahia; Ricardo Menghini, currently at the São Paulo State Office of the Prosecutor for the Public Interest; Marília Lignon, from the São Paulo State University, Registro campus; and my daughter Claudia, who handles multimedia and marketing. We have no employees – running a properly managed NGO is expensive. The IBB is absolutely legal and has been managing projects developed by the Boticário Group Foundation and from the SOS Atlantic Forest Foundation. All the funds are allocated to field activities, including education and research. We receive no compensation. Our field of activity is the management and conservation of tropical coastal zones, with emphasis on mangroves, using the same name as that of the old laboratory. We work with people and projects in coastal areas, including collecting trash and making improvements to quality of life. Our flagship product has been the guide Marvelous Mangroves of Brazil. It was produced by the Mangrove Action Project (MAP), an international project that was translated and applied to other countries. We decided to adapt that philosophy to Brazilian reality, since our situation is different from that of the Caribbean or Central American countries. So we re-wrote the guide – it now lists 40 hands-on activities, always with an introductory text and the relevant concepts. We give training courses using this material, involving teachers from the state and municipal school systems in two and a half days of theoretical and practical activities in mangrove areas. We also set up a network so that participants can keep on exchanging experiences later. It has been working very well.

At the same time, you participate in a large project, the one in Araçá Bay, funded by FAPESP. How is that coming along?
It will end next year, after a one-year extension. We are writing the papers and I am planting mangrove trees among the rocks of the sea wall of the port. We are fighting a battle, because the port wanted to fill in the Araçá Bay area. After vehement protests, the port proposed to build a platform one meter above the surface. But the court sentence confirming the two injunctions has just been announced. That is, the injunctions that revoked the permit granted by IBAMA were upheld. The environmental agency granted a permit for the platform because Araçá Bay was allegedly dead, but the environment’s vitality was later proven. Our project is for science, not consultancy for the port, but as individual researchers, we joined forces at USP’s Center for Marine Biology (Cebimar) to prepare the supporting documents for the defense presented by federal and state prosecutors. A few months ago, Federal Supreme Court president Ricardo Lewandowski decided that the platform could not be built.

In the meantime, you are planting mangroves.
Yes. We measure every tree. There are more than 400 living trees. One of the ones I planted is doing well. The idea is for this to be symbolic; I do not intend to install a mangrove. It’s just landscaping. But it helps restore the self-esteem of the fishermen. A friend asked me why I want to plant a mangrove there, with the port right behind it. I said: “Remember that young Chinese man at Tiananmen Square, standing in front of the column of tanks? I’m that person.”