Ferreira was my guide there. He is a strong, middle-aged country guy with thick hands marked by heavy labor, a man of powerful facial expressions and few words. Ferreira was born and raised in the Peixe Bravo region, descended, like many Brazilians, from the intermarriage of early European settlers, indigenous people, and former slaves. His father worked in the mines for Vale, the company responsible for the recent tailing dam collapses. During his childhood, Ferreira spent his time between the mining camps and the wilderness. “I grew up in the backwoods,” he says.
Ferreira never received a proper education, but he reads the Peixe Bravo like a book—he knows each plant, animal, hidden cave, and waterfall, pulling medicinal arnica and delicate, sweet-tasting cacti from the iron-laden soil, finding drinking water in rocky crevices that appear, to unschooled observers, barren and inhospitable. In 2010, an NGO called Instituto Prístino—which also sponsored my master’s research—initiated a program to scan the region for endemic and threatened species and hired Ferreira as a guide. He is now an important part of Prístino’s team, collecting data in the field, setting camera traps, cataloguing endemic plants and archaeology, and helping to educate local schoolchildren about the area’s important biodiversity.
Other NGOs are also laboring to identify, preserve, and manage conservation areas, sponsor scientific research, and promote sustainable wildlife and adventure tourism like the Transespinhaço Trail, which aims to connect more than 700 square kilometers (270 square miles) of parks and conservation areas along the Espinhaço. State agencies also help support local conservation units, police illegal activities such as poaching and illegal burning, and maintain endangered species protection programs, even as the far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro has sought to dismantle environmental protections across Brazil.
Fernando Silveira, for his part, has been working to restore degraded ecosystems in the Campo Rupestre. Unlike forest and lowland ecosystems, which may bounce back from ecological damage within decades, the Campo Rupestre can’t recover on its own. Life on the harsh rocks took several million years to reach maturity, and it will need similar timelines to adapt to modern human threats. But Silveira believes that seeds—the very origins of life—can speed this process. He has begun to create a seed bank to preserve the biome’s genetic heritage—“We’re building the Noah’s Ark of Campo Rupestre plants,” he says—and is working to identify the plant lineages best suited to restoring ecosystems damaged by years of mining. “The probabilities are not in our favor,” he says. But after decades of efforts, he and his colleagues are beginning to see the first signs of recovery.