Ornithologist Anita Studer began visiting Brazil in 1976 to study its rich birdlife. Five years later, in the Pedra Talhada forest near Quebrangulo in the north-eastern state of Alagoas, she came across a rare blackbird, Curaeus forbesi, known to the local people as "anumará". When she told her academic supervisor in Sao Paulo about her discovery, he agreed the anumará would make a good subject for Studer’s research. "But you had better hurry," he said. "The forest will disappear in nine or 10 years," he predicted, referring to the rapid deforestation of the area.
Studer, who was in awe of her supervisor, thought overnight about his warning and went to see him the next day. "I’m going to do the opposite of what you advised me," she bravely told him. "First I’m going to save the forest, and then I’ll have all the time in the world to study the anumará."
Her supervisor was sceptical, but time and a lot of commitment and hard work have proved Studer right. In the early 1980s she began her efforts to save Pedra Talhada, and, like the forest, her plans grew bigger. In 1989 she launched the Arco Iris (Rainbow) project to plant more trees beyond Pedra Talhada and to raise awareness of the value of forests.
For Studer, planting hundreds of hectares of forest — 800 hectares to date — is a major achievement, but it is just one step on the way to a greater goal. Mass planting of saplings around Quebrangulo will continue, with about 10,000 schoolchildren now involved in the wider region. And on 1 June, as Quebrangulo was planting its millionth tree, thanks to Studer’s efforts, children in 18 other villages in 16 of Brazil’s 26 states planted their first saplings in other reforestation programmes. Similar projects were also launched on the same day across the Atlantic, in the Portuguese-speaking island republic of Cape Verde, 500 kilometres from West Africa, and in the French-speaking West African republic of Guinea.
"Everyone involved in these 20 villages was celebrating the same thing on 1 June, with the same commitment," says Studer, stressing the importance of what she calls the "multiplier" effect. "And all these people are lobbying for Agenda 21 to be adopted by their local authorities." Agenda 21 is the comprehensive environmental and sustainable development plan adopted at the Earth Summit at Rio de Janeiro in 1992.
Planting a tree is, for Studer, an act essential to life at all levels, individual and global. Before she began her work in Quebrangulo, to the local people trees were something to be removed in order to make more land available for grazing, and the forest was a thing of no value, a haven for snakes and bandits. As she began to teach the villagers and farmers and their children about the importance of the forest, she realised she had to change their attitudes in order to change the landscape. "Someone who plants a tree with his or her own hands will think twice before burning trees down to clear the land," she says.
Replanting a forest, however, is a complicated task, especially in Alagoas where raising cattle and growing sugar cane have drastically reduced the forest. Pedra Talhada is just a part of the Atlantic forest that is home to hundreds of species in an area much smaller than the Amazon rainforest. The Atlantic forest is now only five per cent of its original size.
A Planned Approach
At Quebrangulo, Studer insisted, for a start, on planting indigenous rather than imported species like the fast-growing eucalyptus. "The problem is that if you introduce species from outside, you don’t import the natural predators such as fungus or other parasites that would keep them from dominating." And you must, she adds, be careful not to plant just one indigenous species, as that too will cause an imbalance. At the very least, six different species of trees need to be planted, explains Studer, pointing out that after all a forest "is a community of trees ... we have planted 46 native species around Quebrangulo.
"Forests are essential for the equilibrium of our planet, especially for the rainfall cycle. A forest is also the repository of many riches, of biodiversity itself. Plants hold many medical solutions of the future."
To ensure the future of the original Pedra Talhada forest, Studer had to lobby at all levels, from the local mayor to the state governor and Brazil’s president and federal government. Thanks largely to her efforts, 4,500 hectares of the Pedra Talhada forest have been declared a federal reserve.
But she took the work much further, planting new forests in suitable locations around Quebrangulo. In the past 10 years, about a hundred species of animals and birds — plus many more species of insects — have taken up residence in these new forests where in 1989 there was only, in Studer’s words, "burnt earth". "It’s quite an achievement," she points out, even though she admits that for the new forest to become like the original Atlantic forest, patience is required — about one thousand years of patience. "That would be perfect," she says. "But what we’ve done is show that in a modest way it’s possible to create small forests. We have to encourage people!"
More than Trees
In fact, along with trees, people have been a major focus of Studer’s work, especially as their needs are great in Alagoas. With one per cent of the population owning 99 per cent of the land, it is one of the poorest states in Brazil.
"People need a certain standard of living to be able to understand the problem of deforestation. Naturally someone who is gravely ill or dying doesn’t want to learn about the importance of trees to the environment," she explains. Much of her time has been spent finding ways to improve life in Quebrangulo, helping set up businesses such as a dressmaker’s shop and smithy. "When you work in a poor country, it’s not humanly possible to try to save a forest without taking into account the people who depend on it."
The young in particular have been the focus of her work. With money raised from the Nordesta Association, which she established in Switzerland, she has not only set up nurseries to raise saplings, but has also built two schools, provided scholarships and given apprenticeship training to dozens of young people who had no way to earn a living.
"I began to realise that the destitution of street children in Brazil is an almost direct consequence of deforestation," says Studer. "It is the loss of land that brings about the migration of families to major urban centres. That is how I came to develop a teaching project involving the creation of an educational and vocational training centre for abandoned children."
Over the past decade, she has seen her various efforts bring results in many different ways. Many of the homeless children she has helped are now young adults with jobs. Two Brazilian teenage boys she adopted in 1984 are now working as chefs and following their education in Geneva. And in the forests near Quebrangulo, many species of birds and animals are increasing in number, including the anumará, which numbered about 150 in 1989 and now numbers approximately 300.
There has also been a reversal of attitudes towards her in the years Studer has been visiting Quebrangulo. "When I first began the project, the people didn’t trust me," says Studer. "They couldn’t believe I was doing it for nothing." Now, she adds, "they see me as a friend, and not as someone important. And that’s how I want it." She had also been appointed an "honorary member" of the municipality of Quebrangulo. Studer says that the gap between rich and poor in the region is immense, and often she and her Swiss-born son, Adrien, who visits Brazil with her, can act as bridge-builders.
Balancing Two Worlds
Despite all that has been achieved, replanting the forest and improving life in all its forms in Quebrangulo is only one of Studer’s interests. She spends most of the year making her living in Geneva where she works as an accountant and runs the association that funds the work in Brazil.
She travels to Brazil four or five times a year, spending a total of four months in 12 there. When in Brazil, she devotes her afternoons to her ecological and humanitarian work. The mornings are reserved for her study of the nation’s birds. The results will be published this year in a major book, "Birds of Eastern Brazil: Their Biology and Nesting Behaviour". After three decades of studying and writing about them, Studer is still passionate about birds. "I still can’t explain why the beating of wings or a bird’s call fascinates me."
Asked if she had had doubts along the way, especially given the size of the project, Studer replies, "I have of course had doubts, but I always brush them aside. Doubt doesn’t help me get my work done!"
But she is also eager that the work continues when she is no longer there to help. At one point the local people began calling the forest "Anita’s forest", but she discouraged that. The forest is something that must far outlive a single human life.
Published in 2003