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In defense of the forest

Nogueira Neto, at the age of 82, is studying environmental handling and management

eduardo cesarNogueira Neto, on his farm in the neighborhood of Morumbi, plays with his dogeduardo cesar

The flavor of such environmental discoveries as the unexplored and possibly unique “mauritia palm forest” in the world, located in a flight over the western Amazon, stills touches. The commitment to drawing up, by the end of this year, a “dictionary of indigenous bees”, a topic that has been a passion since the age of 18, when he made his first contact with this insect, merits revisions and improvement at each fresh reading.

Accompanying the formulation of public policies related to the conservation of the natural heritage – which is the case of the project presented to FAPESP, in partnership with the Forestry Foundation for the Forest Conservation and Production of the State of São Paulo, called Specially protected areas in the State of São Paulo: survey and definition of parameters for managing and handling as input for public policies for environmental management – continues to dominate his biography. Restless, active, and participative. These are facets of the rich personality of Paulo Nogueira Neto, who, at the age of 82, takes pride in having his own life mixed up with the history of environmentalism in Brazil.

A retired full professor of the University of São Paulo (USP), from the Ecology Department of the Biosciences Institute, Nogueira Neto dedicated himself with such doggedness to the stingless, honey producing bee and, in parallel, has always cultivated the environmental issues, then still without a defined focus in Brazil’s scientific and social production. The two themes were to occupy a prominent place in his career and personal and family life. Professor Nogueira Neto became responsible for the demarcation of the environmental areas in the country. He organized and ran for 12 years running, until 1986, the Special Secretariat for the Environment (Sema), set up in the Ministry of the Interior.

At the head of Sema, he created and established 3.2 million hectares in 26 ecological stations and reserves. He took up positions and maintains links as a member of important entities and associations related to the environment, amongst which the National Council of the Environment (Conama); the State Council of the Environment (Consema); and the Board of Directors of Cetesb. He continues in the vice-presidency of S.O.S – Atlantic Forest, of the WWF-Brazil, and of the International Bee Research Association. He presides the Environmental Defense Association (Adema-SP) and the State of São Paulo Forestry Foundation.

When he took on the coordination of the Public Policies project forwarded to Fapesp, Nogueira Neto betted that research could offer sound elements, not only for making decisions in the institutions responsible for the protection of natural areas, but also to steer the actions of representatives of the Executive and Legislative. “It is not just a question of how to manage conservation areas better, but also of how to save the last relevant fragments of forest in the state of São Paulo, still without environmental protection”, he explains. “From Jundiaí to the Japi mountain range, up to the Paraná river, we have about 800 kilometers of an almost empty space, an immense devastated area”” he stresses. The state of São Paulo has only some 7% of its plant cover preserved.

The pioneer work of the team coordinated by the professor has now mapped and proposed the creation of new protected areas, following the indication of 109 priority fragments, remnants of ecosystems. “The first of them is on the way to becoming a reality, in the area at the confluence of the Tietê and Piracicaba rivers, at Barreiro Rico”, he rejoices. The preservation of these areas, decreed Areas of Relevant Ecological Interest (Arie), determines what can be done and what can not be done in these spaces. The biggest problem lies in establishing cooperation for these areas to be enriched, offering information to their owners about the potential for environmental compensation.

The fragments chosen as a priority, as clarified by biologist Lélia Marino, from the Forestry Foundation, who is involved in the project, take into consideration the conditions of connectivity of the fragments, that is, how they communicate with each other, and also with their neighborhood. It is a question of putting into a hierarchy what the importance of one fragment is in relation to another selected one, on such issues as the preservation of the fauna and flora. An urban area is less permeable to fauna than a pasture, because of the passage of mammals. The same happens in sugarcane plantation, in Lélia’s example. Connectivity makes it possible to increase the preserved environmental area with better and greater quality. “An isolated forest restricts the species genetically, which does not mean to say that small populations cannot resist, just that it is far more difficult”, the professor adds.

Bees, on the terrace of the big house
Born almost accidentally – since the Nogueira Neto’s original option was the course in Law concluded in 1945 at USP – his vocation for the environmental issues had its origin during the visits he made to the farm of his wife’s family. “My father-in-law had a box of indigenous bees on the terrace of the big farmhouse. I went to read about them and saw that it was an insect that had been little studied”, he recalls. “In the last few years of Law School, I was already publishing articles about bees in scientific magazines”, he adds. This was the period in which his great friend Paulo Vanzolini (a doctor in Zoology and professor at USP) advised him to turn his passion into a regular object of study. Eight years after graduation, he took a new entrance exam, this time for Natural History at USP’s School of Philosophy, a course that he concluded in 1959. In this period, Nogueira Neto had already founded perhaps the first conservationist entity in the country, the Defense of Flora and Fauna, today the Association of Defense of the Environment.

The conception of environmentalism, realized with the relevance that it has today for the quality of life in general, used to be nonexistent in Brazil. There was a comprehension of the importance of the preservation of the national parks, since the creation of the forestry code, in 1934. The broader conception was to come with the publicity for the major international events, like the meeting on the environment in Stockholm, in 1972, in which Nogueira Neto took part.

Still at the end of the military government, he was invited to command a federal body would take care of the theme, which was to be Sema. “They gave me three rooms and five members of staff, despite the country’s continental dimensions”, he says. “I got engaged because I saw a great future to be built in such a needy area. I remained in the job over four governments. They were over 12 years as federal secretary”, he adds. Far from the partisan political dispute, Nogueira Neto managed to make public the importance of environmentalism in Brazil.

Over several years, Nogueira Neto gave courses on the behavior of social animals and about climatic changes and terrestrial ecosystems. He was one of the founders of the General Ecology Department of USP’s Biosciences Institute. He built a career that was recognized both at home and abroad. Between 1983 and 1986, he belonged to the United Nations – Brundtland Commission on the Environment and Development.

He was one of the only two representatives of Latin America. He headed up and participated in several official delegations abroad, and was awarded the Order of the Rio Branco, first as an officer, and then as a commander. He was twice elected vice-president of the program Man and the biosphere, of Unesco, the body of the United Nations responsible for education and culture, headquartered in Paris. In 1981, along with Maria Thereza Jorge Pádua, he was given the Paul Getty award, the main world recognition in the field of the conservation of nature, and also the Duke of Edinburgh award, in 1997, from WWF International.

He was distinguished with the honor of the Golden Ark (1983), from the Netherlands, also for his conservationist work. Nogueira Neto tells with relish the discoveries like the one of the maurity palm forest, made in the 1980’s, and impenetrable up to the present date. “Nobody has ever set foot there. We sent an expedition, but it was impossible to get near. In low-level flights, we calculated that the area, at the most 40 kilometers from the River Amazon, has some 30 hectares of maurity palms, which would add up to some 10 million palms. There is nothing like it in the world”, he says excitedly. Knowledge about the national biodiversity is quite reasonable in the southern and southeastern regions of the country.

He drew up projects to make the development and maintenance of the Amazon forests compatible with the farming of cupuassu, and to make the work of rubber tappers compatible with other techniques. He ended up sponsoring the creation of the Nova Esperança [New Hope] extracting reserve, in the region of Xapuri, in Acre. He created personal links with inhabitants of the region, becoming what he himself defines as a “sort of advisor” to a group of 50 families that are outside the Xico Mendes reserve. He acquired a small property where he also keeps an experimental apiary.

Other similar ones that he visits regularly with enormous satisfaction are installed in the interior of São Paulo, in Campinas and in Ribeirão Preto, as well as in Luziânia, in Goiás. They are different bees. Those in Acre are typical of the region and different from the other ones that Nogueira Neto breeds. Observing these colonies is bringing fresh information to the professor’s already vast knowledge about the theme, on which he has, after all, three books published and, by the end of the year, a dictionary.

Portinari and the woodsmen
In the days he was a resident of the Jardins district of São Paulo, almost 50 years ago, he acquired an area of some 2,000 square meters on the other side of the Pinheiros river, nowadays the Morumbi district, where he would cultivate his pleasure of observing nature. “Here used to be regarded as – out of town – so much so that I made a little farm, fertilized the cuttings, and improved the quality of the soil. There were animals, like cows, walking freely along the streets”, he says, with a laugh, recalling the city that disappeared in a few decades. Nowadays, he lives there, in a large house that he built and where he likes receiving six grandchildren and, so far, a single great-grandson.

“I think that when you do what you like to do, the work bears fruit and is multiplied in good recollections”, he ponders. The comfortable and ample house reflects the primordial passion of its owner. Straight away in the entrance hall, a bee stylized by plastic Aldemir Martins of some 5 meters in length dominates the floor, made up of ceramic pastilles. On one of the main walls in the corridor to the rooms, a picture by Portinari, made to order, portrays woodsmen taking honey from indigenous bees. “On an impulse of boldness, I gave him some photos, because he did not know about the theme, for him to paint the picture”, he recalls with enjoyment. “Just as well that Portinari was accessible. Today, it is a rare specimen, because it is the only picture by him on the subject”, Portinari’s oil painting dates from 1958.

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