Brazilian Pantanal Fundação Ecotrópica

As Climate Change Worsens, NGOs Step up to the Plate: An Interview with Fundação Ecotrópica’s Luiz Solino

In a time where environmental conservation is one of the most disputed and urgent topics in political discourse, NGOs are stepping up to lend support in areas that aren’t as prioritized in the government sector. Fundação Ecotróprica, located in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso, has been dedicated to preserving the Brazilian Pantanal for over the past thirty years.

In response to the devastating wildfires in the Pantanal this past fire season, the NGO expanded its services beyond raising public awareness and supporting education about environmental conservation to include treating injured wildlife. 

Latina Republic sat down with Luiz Solino, a biological adviser on Ecotrópica’s core team, to learn more about the heroic work the organization is doing. Born in Brazil’s capital, Brasilia, Luiz moved to Mato Grosso almost twenty years ago to pursue his passion for furthering preservation efforts in the Pantanal.

 

Luiz Solino, biology adviser at Fundação Ecotrópica.

 

LR: What inspired the foundation of Ecotrópica?

The organization was founded in 1988 by a German descendant. He now lives in Rio Grande do Sul. When he visited, he realized that the Pantanal needed to be an area of preservation. In Brazil, we have a law called the System of Conservation Units. By law, one can create a unit of conservation.

You can have a private plot of land and dedicate it to an area of conservation without having issues related to land productivity. The founder thought about creating a legal area of conservation, with only a typewriter and an idea at the time.

He registered the organization, got a CNPJ (a legal identification number for Brazilian companies and organizations), and started to collect donations to buy a plot of land to create a Private Reserve of National Heritage (RPPN). That’s what gave the region its name. The founder then bought what are the five regions of the Pantanal today. Those regions, the majority in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, bring in revenue along with the Pantanal National Park.

The national park joined these regions about a month ago, and he named them the International Heritage of the Biosphere. It isn’t an official name, but UNESCO gave it that name. The idea of Ecotrópica is to create these areas of conservation. It then started to develop other goals—the conservation and preservation of the tropical region—but always focusing on the Pantanal.

From 1988 to now, the organization has experienced ups and downs. Like Eike Batista, a businessman in the petroleum sector, prominent business figures funded it at first, but then Batista became involved in a corruption scandal. Nothing was proved, but he stopped donating to the organization financially.

So we were without an investor for a while. We weren’t receiving money from the government, and we were only receiving donations from businesses and individuals, people that believed in the organization’s work.

But in Brazil, there is a stigma attached to non-profit organizations. The current government talks about NGOs poorly, saying that they don’t do anything, so their image suffers. We had very few volunteers for a while. Around 2008, we had almost no volunteers. When Ecotrópica was better and had more money, it had many volunteers. When there’s no money, the number of volunteers typically decreases. 

 

Wildfires in the Pantanal from July to November exacerbated the environmental impact on animals. Image courtesy, Fundação Ecotrópica.

 

LR: What does the team look like, and what kind of expertise or backgrounds do members have? What inspired you to join? 

I’ve been here since 2015. In reality, they recruited me to be an adviser. I have a degree in Biology and a master’s degree in Ecology of Biodiversity Conservation. I teach a class at a private university in Mato Grosso in a city called Várzea Grande.

I’ve always acted as an adviser for climate change. I consider myself a bit of an environmentalist. I was asked to join Ecotropica to exchange my ideas. My students then started to do internships there.

The lands are located a bit far from the base in Cuiabá, Mato Grosso. The majority of the land is near the Amolar mountains, which are in Mato Grosso do Sul.

It takes almost one day to travel there by boat, and each trip requires a lot of money to get there. We thought about expanding our reach to Mato Grosso and the northern part of the region because those are easier to access. 

Currently, our team has advisers and some volunteers. I’m an adviser and act as a volunteer in the field because I have experience as a biologist. There was a period in which many of the volunteers left.

One died of Covid-19, and currently, we only have me, a chemist who has a degree in Water Resources, a lawyer, an accountant, and another biologist. The president of Ecotrópica has a degree in Law with a specialization in Environmental Management and Philosophy. That’s our team.

Usually, I always like to participate in things related to the environment and education. Those are two things I’m passionate about. Staying still always gives me the frustrated feeling of doing nothing for the environment, for the world, for Brazil. The organization was waiting for me. I joined the organization when it had little public visibility.

I managed to fundraise and do a good job. But I would say that the organization also needs us. I saw that the organization needed me. That’s what inspired me. I wanted to contribute to the environment because that’s what I worry about, the social part of helping others, offering support, doing whatever I can.

In Brazil, at least, I see that people aren’t worried about what’s happening, especially right now. I think about what people can do for environmental education and to make people more aware. It is challenging to make people understand that things are occurring. People are accustomed. The fires in the Pantanal are very relativized. “Fires in the Pantanal are normal, natural. They’ll die out.” That’s not what happened.

 

 

 

The remains of a snake, likely killed by the wildfires. Image courtesy, Fundação Ecotrópica.

 

We started to partner with veterinarians. Many animals were dying due to burns, so we began to expand to include volunteers with experience with wild animals. Volunteers came prepared to treat the first wounds that I, as a biologist, didn’t have the expertise to manage. And that’s how our team grew.

We also started to partner with other NGOs, like AMPARA Silvestre and Panthera. When we began to assess the situation, we saw that the fires were out of control. From my point of view, although I have no data for this, the public sector wasn’t offering support. The firefighters fought, but most are trained to deal with urban areas [and not the Pantanal].

A lot of them came from an NGO called ICMBio. So we saw that the situation was bad and we kept seeing animals burning. We started to think about what we could do.

LR: How do you know how to treat the various fauna and what meds to use?

In general, we walk along some of the trails, and we also look along the Transpantanal highway. The highway extends north, through the Pantanal, up to the Cuiabá River, and extends south to Mato Grosso do Sul. We also trek along the river by boat. 

When we see an animal, we try to see if it’s injured. If it isn’t, we let it continue as it would normally. If it’s hurt and malnourished, the veterinarian checks it out. The vet anesthetizes the animal to avoid stressing the animal out. Sometimes, if you mess with an animal, it could die during its treatment, and you cause more harm than good.

We go to see if the animal is okay, and there we give preliminary aid. If the animal is very sick, it’s brought to Cuiabá to receive treatment in an animal hospital. The animals then spend time there. We have to have government support to transport the animals via helicopter, and to transport the firefighters.

Environmental NGOs are at low risk compared to those working hands-on with the animals. They’re afraid of getting government support and having the blame placed on them. They would rather hire a team to deal with it all. From the moment that we find an injured animal, the team goes [with the animal].

The vets accompany the animals to the helicopter or the car to be taken to the hospital and later return to help reintroduce the animal back into the environment.

 

The team documents the animals they come across, including this dead caiman. Image courtesy, Fundação Ecotrópica.

 

For example, I found an anaconda in the area and took a look because it looked sick. I realized it was fine, and it even tried lunging at me. I saw that it was a little nervous, so I let it continue along its path. Ideally, we interfere the least amount possible if the animal is very hurt and needs immediate attention.

Sometimes, the animal is just hungry because since a lot burned, various food resources disappeared. Take the capuchin monkey. It’s omnivorous, so it eats various types of foods. They’ve been left without food. We brought fruits for them so that they could feed themselves.

 

Luiz Solino helps capture an injured snake discovered by the team. Image courtesy, Fundação Ecotrópica.

 

LR: Can you elaborate on this process more?

We’ve been concerned about that from the beginning. Feeding a wild animal is very complicated. Truthfully, we don’t recommend anyone to do it. We were figuring out what to do because the animals were dying of hunger.

We found some without any burn marks, but dead. They could’ve died from asphyxiation or lack of food. We kept seeing that many of them were invading farms and houses to feed themselves, so we had that concern. 

I asked a friend of mine who has worked with mammals for a long time. She—as well as many specialists—told me that when their fruits start to appear, animals won’t go after other fruits. Some of them are protective of their own territories because it’s all they have. They’re only leaving their territory to look for food.

They go elsewhere, and sometimes they invade other animals’ habitats and have to fight them over whatever resource. During their journey, they may find the food we left out for them so that they can eat it and continue on. We can’t condition them to look for food in the same places because they won’t continue searching for food.

When it begins to rain, the areas where we left food will be flooded in the Pantanal. If the animals go there to look for food, they will be able to find it. So our worry is that they won’t continue to search for food [in those original locations]. 

I don’t think that the animals will continue looking [where we’ve put food]. We put fruits there a few times, and many birds go there because they often migrate. Small and medium-sized mammals go feed, too. But there is an effect. Those foods could contain some sort of agrotoxic because we get inorganic food, but the negative effect is much less severe than leaving the animals without food.

They’ll die of hunger and impact the food chain, so we are only placing food until December. Everything will flood and the fruits will start to disappear, especially now that it’s rained a few days, and the animals will continue with their normal cycles. But it’s something that isn’t natural, it isn’t normal, and it’s something to minimize the animal’s suffering.

 

A bowl of fruit before the team distributes it to the wildlife. Image courtesy, Fundação Ecotrópica.

 

We place photographic cameras very close to the foods to see which of the animals are showing up. There are a few unsuccessful places and no animals appear. The food rots and we don’t see animals eat it. That’s why we don’t repeat feedings in these places.

There are other places where the majority of the animals are generalists: the mico, the coati. These are animals that already have plenty. And other animals that are carnivores don’t even come close. The caiman, the spotted jaguar—those feed on other animals.

LR: How often do you do these feedings?

I work, so I manage to go on weekends. But there is always somebody there. We’ve had people stay for fifteen days straight. In the beginning, I was going less often, but we needed more time so we stayed there. An inn lent us a place to sleep because we needed somewhere to stay.

Before, we would ask to camp on nearby farms to sleep, but now that we have a place to go, it’s been a lot easier. We can now bring food directly from there. It’s inconvenient that we need to distribute the food immediately. The animals swallow it very quickly. We brought in a lot of donations but it all needs to be distributed quickly or else it goes to waste and nobody can eat it.

LR: How much terrain do you cover to provide these services?

We cover about 120 kilometers, more or less, along the highway. And other teams are also working and they cover adjacent areas. There are some farmers along the region who receive donations, and generally, we also give to them and they distribute. But our team covers about 120 kilometers.

We have to travel by car or truck. And we cover areas along the river. We have to travel by boat and place [food] along the margins of the river, too.

 

A typical day on the job may include stunning sights like these, a group of caimans resting on a river bed. Image courtesy, Fundação Ecotrópica.

 

Or sights like these, thousands of square kilometers scorched by the wildfires. Image courtesy, Fundação Ecotrópica.

 

 

A monkey is spotted enjoying the fruits left out by the team. Image courtesy, Fundação Ecotrópica.

 

LR: How has COVID recently impacted or complicated conservation efforts?

At the beginning of the pandemic—in May, when the pandemic peaked in Brazil—we were worried about leaving. But we started to get over that concern because we, nor the volunteers, see anybody. Covid didn’t really affect our work. We’ve pretty much continued the same way.

In the Pantanal, the reality is that very few people are concerned about Covid because there are very few cases. People barely wear masks. Masks for Covid weren’t the same as masks for the smoke. If people had to wear masks due to Covid, they were the same ones they used for the smoke. I don’t think it really changed anything.

LR: But is the pandemic affecting the flow of donations?

Covid did impact donations. Some companies could’ve had lower influxes of income. But I think that during the fire season, people came together in solidarity. We had plenty of donations. We had never had as many donations as we received at the beginning of the pandemic.

We had donations from all over the country and world. It’s true that it ended up being worth little because the costs are so expensive, but we had never received as many monetary donations or equipment donated to the organization. We received masks, field equipment, boots, hats, food, medicine for humans and for animals, and drinking water.

We also received lots of food and gas to travel to the site. I believe that people came together and I don’t think Covid was an obstacle. Nobody ever told me, “Sir, I can’t do this because of the pandemic right now.” I never heard that.

As a professor, many of my students told me, “Look, I can’t donate money but I have these skills. I’ll give you a discount and donate the rest to the organization.” We received plenty and I witnessed people fully embrace the cause. There was a lot of solidarity.

 

A bird is captured picking at the fruit that Ecotrópica distributed for feeding. Image courtesy, Fundação Ecotrópica.

 

Even the smallest critters, such as bees, feast on the foods placed by the NGO. Image courtesy, Fundação Ecotrópica.

 

LR: Do you receive donations from outside of Brazil?

We don’t receive as many international donations. Most come from within Brazil. I think that the organization SOS Mata Atlantica receives lots of international aid. Other NGOs, like A Mico-Leao-Dourado, also receives plenty. Panthera gets international donations. Us, not so much. We mainly get aid from people here.

Do you think that Ecotrópica needs more international support? What can foreigners do for the organization?

If we could have more equipment, that would be great. For example, our tripod camera. It isn’t very effective, and in many cases, equipment costs one USD. A dollar for us here is five times more expensive than our own currency. So I believe that if we had the logistical or financial support to conduct research, we wouldn’t be lacking a researcher like we are now.

For instance, we support research on the spotted jaguar, amphibians, or even fish in the Pantanal. If we had [better equipment], I think it would be incredibly interesting. Or, if someone were to do an exchange, maybe an American, they could help.

Truthfully, the United States has plenty of excellent people in the ecology field, and I am confident that they would love to conduct research in the Pantanal. It would be interesting to make a research plan for people to be able to complete their PhDs here, so better equipment would be extremely cool.

 

A small mammal enjoys a nighttime meal. Image courtesy, Fundação Ecotrópica.

 

We need financial support and equipment donations. Sometimes, people are hesitant to donate money because they’re afraid it won’t be distributed properly. But to have more equipment, that would be great because oftentimes people go out to the field without much.

And, the majority of the things we have are our own. For example, the camera is mine—I bought it with my own money. That’s why we’d have to have more support to help us conserve the Pantanal. 

If we had more help with research and translation and had partners to publish our work with, we wouldn’t have to do all the work ourselves. We have to write it all. We have to meet with the Secretary of the Environment, which is part of the government, so I have to go to plenty of meetings to represent the organization as a biology adviser.

We end up overwhelmed with work. And, to bring a volunteer to the field, we need a car. We can’t just send a volunteer on their own, we have to bring each of them. It’s very expensive. We need more materials, didactic support, support for books, support from the public, and help to achieve our plans for the environment because conserving the Pantanal is complicated.

I think that beyond volunteers, we need people with a passion to work for NGOs. For example, we need to hire a veterinarian that only works for us. Volunteers need to earn money for themselves, too. They can’t stay forever as a volunteer. They can stay a week, a month, then they have to work and maybe return on weekends.

If we had permanent positions, I think things would change greatly because we’d be able to establish a permanent base in the Pantanal that we don’t currently have.

 

Evidence of an animal caught in the wildfires. Image courtesy, Fundação Ecotrópica.

 

We have the space, but it’s not fully developed. We have the space, but we don’t have a house for researchers. If we had an established base, it would facilitate our work. Someone would stay there and monitor the fires. I think the fires will continue annually; we’ve never had fires this expansive. I believe it’s an effect of climate change, so this will continue. 

Many things that people see in the media, in newspapers, don’t accurately represent what’s happening here. I say that because we watched the Pantanal catch fire and the media never reported who was guilty of starting the fires. They weren’t natural and weren’t caused by many people.

There are, of course, natural wildfires. In the Cerrado, it is much more common, but it’s extremely remote. It’s easier for someone to start a fire than to have it spread for any other reason. Deforestation in the Amazon influences the Pantanal’s water flow because part of the rainwater, which provides water for the Pantanal, comes from the Amazon.

Some of the water that floods the Pantanal also comes from the Cerrado. So those two biomes, should they be deforested, will further worsen the Pantanal’s current situation. When you see the Pantanal up close, you will see that while it is beautiful, it also has many problems. Just like the Amazon. But the Pantanal and the Cerrado are less visible to the outside world. The world pays more attention to the Amazon.

 


Noelani Bernal | University of Chicago

Noelani is a rising senior at UChicago, pursuing majors in Global Studies and Romance Languages with a particular focus on Latin America, Spanish, and Portuguese. Originally from Southern California, her interest in studying Latin American culture cultivated while she was enrolled in a K-12 Spanish immersion program. Since then, Noelani has worked to expand access to higher education in Mexico and Brazil through EducationUSA, taught English to Spanish and Portuguese-speaking communities, studied Portuguese and Brazilian culture intensively in Rio de Janeiro, and conducted research on the cultural impacts of rapid environmental change on vulnerable communities primarily in the Brazilian Amazon. As a Latin American Correspondent, Noelani hopes to shed light on grassroots movements that give a platform to communities who face the brunt of environmental change, all while making their stories more accessible and relevant to U.S. readers.