By Manuel Ansede
The Dutch Ben Valks says that 15 years ago he lived in Dubai and there he ran a water treatment company, in the middle of the Arabian desert. He made money and sold it as soon as he could "to pursue other dreams." He went to live in Alaska to compete in "the last great race on Earth," the Iditarod: a two-week competition on sleds pulled by 16 huskies. It traded the 40+ degree temperature in Dubai for winds of up to 70 degrees below zero from Alaska. But that's history.
In 2009, Valks founded the Black Jaguar Foundation, with the sole objective of filming a documentary about the black jaguar in its natural habitat. But instead of finding the strange animal - a dark variant of the American tiger of which only 600 specimens exist - he ran into deforestation in the Amazon basin. Now, the objective of the foundation is another: to create "the largest biodiversity corridor on the planet", to save the home of the jaguar and the thousands of species that share its ecosystem, such as the Amazon dolphin and the black caiman.
“We intend to plant more than 2 billion trees,” Valks proclaimed at the last World Congress of the International Union for Conservation of Nature, held in September in Honolulu (USA). The Dutchman explained his idea with enthusiasm, but with a caution in light of the difficulty of the project. The green corridor would occupy 2,600 kilometers long and 40 kilometers wide, along the Araguaia river, one of the largest in Brazil. A jaguar could walk quietly from the Cerrado savanna to the Amazon rainforest.
“A few decades ago, that territory could be in the hands of some 200,000 owners. But many have sold their land to large landowners and they rent it out to multinationals, like Coca-Cola, to grow sugar cane, ”Valks said in Honolulu. Large ranchers and agricultural landowners are responsible for 80% of deforestation in the Amazon.
The project has a girder. Brazilian law requires landowners to preserve the natural state of part of their lands. In the Amazon region, the percentage to be safeguarded is 80%. In the north of the Cerrado, it reaches 35%. And in the south, 20%. The goal of the Black Jaguar Foundation is for landowners to organize their mandatory private nature reserves like pieces of a puzzle, until they complete 2,600 kilometers: the future Araguaia Corridor.
15% of the corridor surface is already protected, within indigenous reserves or in national parks. But almost all of the remaining 85% has been deforested. "The Black Jaguar Foundation will help landowners restore degraded parts to meet the requirements of Brazilian environmental laws," explains Ivan Nisida, coordinator of the organization.
The green corridor was envisioned in 2008 by Brazilian biologist Leandro Silveira, president of the Jaguar Conservation Fund. Almost a decade later, the idea is absolutely in its infancy. This year has just started. A pilot project to map 6,000 hectares and restore their degraded parts, in which the University of São Paulo participates, is the spearhead. But the total area of the Araguaia Corridor would occupy more than 10 million hectares. "Completing this project will surely require millions, or even billions, of dollars," admits Nisida.
The foundation has started a fundraising campaign to finance the first phase of the project. Among the first collaborators there are familiar faces, such as those of the French photographer and environmentalist Yann Arthus-Bertrand, famous for his spectacular aerial images of the planet; and the veterinarian Astrid Vargas, former director of the Iberian lynx breeding program in Spain. So far they have raised 1.8 million euros in non-financial donations, according to Nisida. And seven owners are already participating in the pilot project, from the municipalities of Santana do Araguaia, Limoeiro do Ajuru and Caseara. One of them is a soybean landowner.
"Our Government is very receptive to private initiatives such as the Black Jaguar Foundation," says Warwick Manfrinato, director of the Department of Protected Areas of the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment. His cabinet has recently started an Ecological Corridors Program, to respond to the demands of civil society. The Manfrinato team also met at the Honolulu summit with members of the foundation to explore possible avenues for collaboration. "We are very happy with your initiative and we will support it as much as possible," says Manfrinato. The megaproject to save the black jaguar ecosystem is a utopia, but it could stop being so.