Today was another day that you can only dream about.
In May 1999, Marlon, Brian Bates and the late Keith Grantham toured here. Marlon told us how he had friends here who were involved in a cactus conservation project concerning Melocactus conoideus that only occurs in a range near the town of Vitória da Conquista. In their original description in 1973, Buining and Brederoo mention that the type locality where the plant was found was at the cross overlooking the city. I’m not sure of the population of the town at that time, but today ….. over 300,000!
At that time, the area had been used by local people to quarry in small quantities for building materials. They would destroy the vegetation to get to their materials and that vegetation included the Melocacti. The local action group drew the town council’s attention to the problem and they agreed to fence off part of the area so that the Melocacti had a chance to recover. Unfortunately, the area is regularly affected by fires and these would burn down the fence poles so that once again the plants were exposed to builders’ digging.
They were considering this dilemma at the time of our visit. The logical answer was to use concrete posts that would withstand the fire. The materials for building the posts was the natural material of the hillside, but it would require a team of people to do the work and this cost needed to be met. Keith suggested the BCSS conservation fund might help and the Vitória da Conquista team plus Marlon submitted an application that I passed on to Keith to present to the Conservation Committee. The request was granted just as Portsmouth Branch’s President, Ken Etheridge, a lover of Melocacti, had died. The auction of his plants and books raised considerable amount of money and the request was made that if this was passed as a donation to the Conservation Fund, could this be used towards this Melocactus related project. I understand that such requests are not normally granted but in this case the application for funds and the bequest came so perfectly tied that this is what we understand to have happened. Marlon wrote a report for the BCS Journal reporting that the work had been done and now, some 9 years later, Cliff and I had an opportunity to see its affect.
In 1999 I believe we only spotted six plants and recorded plenty of evidence of damage inflicted by the digging activities. This time, a guide appointed by the Mayor’s office showed us around (S1592) and we could not believe our eyes, seeing how nature had recovered from the threatened disaster. There were now thousands of plants in the smaller part of the project that we had a chance to view. This was the part that had the worst damage inflicted in 1999.
The authorities had left the terrain more or less they way we had found it in ’99, with plenty of evidence of the digging ten years ago. But now there were thousands of Melocacti growing in the rubble. Some magnificent adult specimens with well developed cephalia, but more important, a greater number of seedlings of all sizes. We also noticed that there seemed to have been far fewer, if any, fires, suggesting that these were man made to facilitate getting to the gravel.
This project deserves recognition as one of the most successful cactus conservation projects that I am aware of. Local people had identified the risk, as had Nigel Taylor’s work in preparation of the Red List of endangered species. They had found a solution that would suit the inhabitants of the town, by only fencing part of the area that was used for quarrying, respecting the age old tradition of this activity. They had some set backs but persisted over a number of years. The BCSS contribution made a significant difference to just one of the challenges that they faced and showed that there was wider support for the issue without imposing unnecessary rules.
Ten years later, the evidence is that the population is safe, although, due to its small restricted distribution area, it will always remain vulnerable, should a major disaster affect this area.
The area was being used for educational studies and visits. By leaving the area effectively unchanged, it clearly shows what went on and demonstrates nature’s ability to recover from near disaster. A certain amount of maintenance of the area was evident, with dead wood removed and being recycled and ornaments being produced from the recycled materials. I hope to obtain more information about this aspect.
It is interesting to note that near by (some 100 km away) Arrojadoa marylanae also occupies a small, isolated, unique habitat and so must also be considered vulnerable to a disaster striking that area. It is not currently under threat by a fast growing population centre, but recently a mining company was granted government permission to carry out exploratory mining test. The local action group registered their protest and concerns and for now, these tests appear to have stopped. We have made some great friends among the people involved and promise to keep you involved on any developments.
What a morning!
The day was capped by another member of the action group, Avaldo de Oliveira Soares Filho. Avaldo is the botanist at the Herbarium at the State University of Southwest of Bahia (UESB) and co-author of the description of Arrojadoa marylanae among others. He showed us around the University and the Herbarium and then took us to an area of forest that had been left untouched by human development and that served as study material for the students to gain an understanding of the local plants and the way that they grow and interact (S1593).
As we struggled through the dense vegetation (again!) we recorded seeing Pereskia bahiensis, Pilosocereus pentaedrophorus, Cereus sp. (similar to C. jamacaru but reported to have yellow fruits rather than red ones as well as some other differences that I’ll need to read up later (Nigel Taylor’s Cacti of Eastern Brazil) and Brasiliopuntia brasiliensis, all towering way over our heads above the canopy of the forest.
This was so unlike the usual cactus habitat environment that Cliff and I would never have thought to look here for cacti, but we were very glad that we did.