26 January 2009

In Country: Superagui

Superagui is a remote island on the outer edge of the Paranagua litoral. Its western shores face inland and are comprised of rugged mountainous jungle rising out of salt marsh seas. This section of southern Brasil consists of the largest stretch of intact Atlantic rain forest in the world, and is known in these parts as Mata Atlantica. Its eastern shores face out on open ocean; the next stop across the Atlantic is the west coast of Africa. With 20,000 species on record, it is second only to the Amazon in diversity and richness of plant and animal species. This portion of the Mata Atlantica is now preserved as Parque Nacional de Superagui and achieved UNESCO World Heritage listing in 1999.

On Friday David, Fernando, Hope and I chartered a private boat to pick us up from Ilha do Mel and transport us to Superagui. This is the only way to reach Superagui as there are no regular boat routes between the two islands. The only other way to get to Superagui is to hail a passing fishing boat and hope the skipper stops.

Needless to say, life on the island is slow and unpretentious. The main economy for the residents is fishing, although with the degradation of Paranagua (the city) garbage increasingly washes up on the shores of Superagui. According to Fabio, a worker at the pousada where we stayed, 60% of the garbage that the residents of Superagui pick up from the beaches comes in on the tides. This is a huge problem for the people of the barro (village) and seems to be a big source of conflict within the community. Apparently there are two sentiments among the locals. On the one hand, the residents want to develop tourism because of the income the tourist industry represents. On the other hand, many old-time locals want to keep the culture of the island insulated from outside influences. Fabio reports that the old-timers resist advice and assistance from anyone who is not a local. Probably as a result of this tension there are some interesting statistics among the population. Importantly, out of a population of 1200 people nearly 700 of them are children. Indeed we saw evidence of this everywhere. Children lounging on the beach, jumping from the public pier, riding bikes on the beach, and chasing the dogs that seem to be everywhere. My first impression was that this is a youthful community. Fabio, however, disabused me of this idea when he claimed that island life -- fishing in particular -- is very hard on the body. Consequently men die very young. This, he suggests, is the reason for the imbalance in population numbers.

Main Street, Barro do Superagui. (I am not kidding.)

What further exacerbates the problems on Superagui is another obvious contradiction. On the one hand, tourists represent the second most important industry to the island's residents. On the other hand, the locals apparently do very little to make tourists comfortable or happy when they arrive. For example, we were encouraged to take a hike through the rain forest in an effort to see a rare and endangered monkey that only lives in this region. However once we set out on the trail we encountered no less than five river crossings with bridges in various states of decay. In three instances, all that was left of a bridge was the pilings. A long bamboo stick lay against the bank. The visual suggestion: use the stick for balance so we could delicately wobble across the pilings. David and I joked about American lawyers who would love to sue the government for infrastructure we experienced. The trail, after all, is part of Brasil's national park system. Luckily for us, none of the river crossings were very deep or wide.
Alas we never did sight any of the monkeys, which are actually known as Black-faced Lion Tamarin (Leontopithecus caissara). This was a moderate disappointment but not totally unexpected since this species is, according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN), on the red list as being threatened with extinction. Fabio, my pousada resource, claimed that 20 years ago tourists who came to the island would cart the animal home, apparently to make into house pets. According the IUCN, there are only about 400 left in the world. A Google image search will show you that they are cute but I just can't see making them into pets.
Superagui is also well known for its plant species, including the bromeliad. I did get a couple pictures of those as we traipsed through the jungle.

Another creature for which the area is well-known is the tucuxi dolphin. We encountered several pods of these on our boat ride to Superagui and again when we left the island. They are small and quick, therefore I was not able to get any good photos of them. Apparently these dolphins are one of the least studied in the world. Here is a good start to the basics about the tucuxi dolphin: http://dolphins.jump-gate.com/differnt_dolphins/%20tucuxi.shtml

An interesting article that explores the tensions between tourism and fishing, development and environmental protection can be found at this link: http://www.geographical.co.uk/Features/Brazil_Nov07.html .

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