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Niède Guidon: “I’m going to open the Museum of Nature and then I will rest”

After four decades in the Serra da Capivara, the archaeologist confirms that she will leave Piauí after the opening of the new exhibition space

The archaeologist at the Museum of the American Man, in São Raimundo Nonato, 30 kilometers from the future Museum of Nature

Léo Ramos Chaves

The Museum of Nature will likely be the last great contribution of Niède Guidon to Serra da Capivara National Park, a conservation site created in the southern region of Piauí in 1979. It covers approximately 130,000 hectares and is administered by the Museum of the American Man Foundation (FUMDHAM), in partnership with the Chico Mendes Institute (ICMBio) and the Institute for Historical Heritage and National Art (IPHAN). For 40 years, the work of the archaeologist, who lives in São Raimundo Nonato (PI) and heads up the foundation, has played a key role in the consolidation of the park and the preservation and study of its 1,200 sites with rock paintings and archaeological and paleontological material. At 85 years of age, and with limited mobility due to the side effects of the chikungunya fever, which she contracted in 2016, Niède is no longer able to explore the prehistoric sites that she so loves. She says that, after December 18th, when the new museum is inaugurated (the second one to open in the region), she will leave her leadership position with the foundation. She will likely return to France where she worked for two decades and where she holds citizenship. Her friends, however, doubt that she will carry out this promise to leave Piauí, which she has claimed to do on other occasions.

Why build another museum?
When we built the Museum of the American Man, there was also an area dedicated to fossils, geological studies, and the nature of the region. But the human collection grew so much that we had to remove the nature component. As we did not have anywhere to display the fossils, including those of marine life from when this area was covered by ocean, we created the Museum of Nature. This was more or less between 2002 and 2003. With the change in government, the president of the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), who had supported the project, changed and there was no further development. In 2009, the project resumed and, in 2013, received bank approval, but the funds were only released in 2017 without any financial correction. Therefore, we had to make some adjustments to the project in order to remain within budget. In the new museum, we are going to show the entire region and highlight climatic changes and geological events that have taken place here. Prior to 9,000 years ago, the Amazon forest was part of the Serra da Capivara and, here in the plains, it was the Atlantic Rainforest. It was the meeting point of the two biomes. With climatic changes, the forest disappeared and the Caatinga (semiarid scrublands) took root. To this day, there are animal and vegetable species of these two biomes that have survived here.

How will the new museum be sustained?
We will inaugurate the museum and then we will see how it will be maintained. The museum has been designed to be self-sustaining. The governments should stimulate tourism in the region, thus fostering construction of 4- and 5-star hotels. It is both expensive and difficult to get here. It is not easy to go to Petrolina to catch a plane. We were able to arrange for the opening of the airport in Serra da Capivara, but there are no commercial flights that operate there.

Will you leave your leadership post at FUMDHAM?
After the museum inauguration, I will leave. I will return to France, but I don’t yet know to where. I like smaller, charming cities. I deserve some time to rest. I am going to reclaim my right to do nothing. I began working when I was only 18 years old.

What is the current situation of the foundation and the park?
When I came to São Raimundo Nonato, we began to prepare the park to receive tourists. We did not know how to do this. So, I visited various heritage preservation projects around the world. Today, the park has more than 450 km of roads. Every 10 km of the park we built security lookouts with employees communicating via two-way radio. Back then, IBAMA [currently replaced by ICMBio] did not maintain anyone here. They simply named the park ranger and left.

But where did the money come from to build the park?
The first construction projects were funded by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB), which, in 1995, released more than US$1.5 million. Later, the environmental compensation mechanism and sponsorships through the Rouanet Act allowed us to expand the infrastructure and begin park operations. Through environmental compensation, companies that directly impacted nature were required to give a percentage of profits as a means of compensating the institutions that care for the environment. Many companies, including Vale and CHESF, paid us environmental compensation every year. Petrobras also made annual donations. But later, in 2008 if I’m correct, an environmental compensation fund was established, and the money began to go to Brasília, rather than directly to the institutions, and was administered by the bank Caixa Econômica Federal. Recently, the mechanism changed again and now the fund is managed directly by ICMBio. We never again received the environmental compensation monies. Later, Petrobras entered into crisis management and also stopped supporting us. So, things became difficult. We do not have a recurring grant. To this day, and on an irregular basis, we receive funds from IPHAN, ICMBio, parliamentary amendments, and individual donations. In recent years, the government of Piauí has supported us to the extent possible. And this is how the park has been maintained. But we are always asking ICMBio for financial support. We have had as many as 270 people working for FUMDHAM. But, in recent years, we have only been letting people go. Today, we have close to 70 employees, but 50 are about to be let go. If the grant does not arrive, I do not know where the money will come from to cover employee payouts. The money would have come from a claim by the Order of Brazilian Lawyers (OAB) of Piauí against the Union, arguing that it is obliged to maintain heritage sites.

How much money does FUMDHAM need to maintain its activities?
The grant for the Museum of the American Man comes from IPHAN and, for the park, from ICMBio. Today, we have 15 staff in the park and an additional 15 in our research laboratories. The researchers are normally paid through their connection with scientific projects, or they are employees of universities or institutions in Brazil or abroad. In order to maintain a solid team of employees and manage the park roads, we need about R$500,000 per month. At one time, we had as many as 12 on our team for the conservation of rock paintings. Every day they would go into the park and visit the sites to undertake maintenance projects, such as removing termites or a bee hive, or handling repairs. Now, this team is down to three.

If you leave, who will replace you at FUMDHAM?
Presumably, it will be [biologist] Marcia Chame of FIOCRUZ in Rio de Janeiro. She was recommended by FUMDHAM to replace me. At the opening of the Museum of Nature, she will become the CEO. She is an excellent researcher and has worked with us since the 1980s. After she takes office, an election will be held to choose the new board of directors.