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All That Glitters is Grass

conservation economics CSF strategy fund

Capim dourado means “golden grass” in Portuguese. Whether rooted in soil or pulled from the ground, capim dourado’s thin stems glow with a golden iridescence, and can be woven into bags, hats, baskets and even jewelry. Hundreds of Brazilian artisans in the northern state of Tocantins depend on it for their livelihood.

That nearly changed. The year was 2000, and three Brazilians—Wilson Cabral, Paulo Garcia, and Fani Mamede started talking at our first-ever Brazilian course. Garcia, who was a conservationist living in the Jalapão region, told the other two that something big was afoot in his neck of the woods: the idea of constructing a major diversion of the Tocantins River. The goal would be to send more water into northeast Brazil’s São Francisco watershed. The São Francisco watershed is a huge breadbasket, and the additional water was being eyed for crops and parched towns in the country’s Northeast.

Garcia cautioned that the diversion could threaten the area’s notable ecosystem known as the Jalapão—a zone where two Brazilian biomes intersect, an outdoor lover’s paradise where 100-foot sand dunes meet rivers, waterfalls, and exotic plant life. This landscape is home to rare and threatened fauna and includes flora such as the capim dourado.

Which brought the CSF grads to another potential problem with the project. Paulo and Wilson knew that the people of potentially affected towns like Mateiros, where capim dourado crafts help sustain the local economies, weren’t even aware that the diversion had been proposed.

Over a course of some six months, the three CSF graduates completed a study of the project. Their cost-benefit analysis showed that the Brazilian government would lose hundreds of millions on the diversion, largely because 70 percent of the water diverted might be lost to evaporation. In fact, the study authors warned, in times of drought the diversion might steal virtually every drop of available surface water.

The outcome? Beginning in 2002, the government backed away from, and ultimately decided against the diversion near Jalapão. Emboldened park officials then created both a state and federal protected areas in the heart of the region, covering more then 1.7 million acres.

“The Jalapão study put a thematic mark on my career,” says Cabral, who essentially convinced government authorities that, when it came to Tocantins, the color of money was gold as much as it was green. “Ever since then, I’ve been able to focus on the environment and ecological economics as my main theme of research.” 

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Since 1998, Conservation Strategy Fund has been committed to making conservation efforts smarter through the use of economics. To celebrate, we're going to be sharing 15 stories of success throughout our history. The above story is #3 on our timeline. To start from the beginning, click here.  Continue the series with Safari Economics: Making More of Tanzania's Megafauna