São Luis do Paraitinga and Catuçaba, Brazil

From land degradation and disaster to community conservation and development

São Luis do Paraitinga and Catuçaba, Brazil

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São Luis do Paraitinga is a municipality with about 10,000 inhabitants, located in Eastern São Paulo State of Brazil, near the Atlantic coast. Out of the ~730 km2 of the municipality’s area, 10% are encompassed by a protected area (Serra do Mar State Park) and 13% are in its buffer zone. The main land uses/cover are pasture (53%) and fragmented forests (37%), while cattle breeding for dairy, forestry and agriculture are the main economic activities. The municipality is also embedded in the Atlantic Forest biome – a hotspot for biodiversity conservation, i.e. one of the highly threatened biomes in the world. The landscape of São Luis has been influenced by coffee plantations from the early 20th century and by the Caipira way of life (a local designation to a rural livelihood which involves typical food, music, tales, dances and festivities). Rural communities in Brazil are important social-ecological systems, providing shelter to wild animals, generating various ecosystem services, and are also home to human communities and their livelihoods. In this context lies Catuçaba, a rural district in São Luis do Paraitinga municipality. The district comprises a small village with around 1,000 inhabitants. Most inhabitants make their living from small-scale animal husbandry and other smallholding activities.

On January 1st, 2010, São Luis suffered from a flood of great magnitude, when the river crossing the downtown area raised over 11 meters above its regular level in a matter of hours, largely damaging the historical buildings and affecting the whole population – both urban and rural. Fortunately, there were no fatalities. Besides the high precipitation registered in the end of 2009, this flood was caused by factors linked to land degradation in rural areas, such as soil compaction in degraded and poorly managed pastures, fires commonly used to clear land, scarcity of forests near watercourses, and human occupation of floodplains. In the face of the disaster’s intensity and tremendous material losses, the population showed a remarkable capacity to self-organize in order to cope with the emergency situation and, later, to rebuild and restore the functioning of the city. Since the flood in São Luis, the territory as a whole has been targeted by diverse projects focusing on forest restoration, agroecological production and capacity building.