Iracema is the beautiful gatekeeper at the Sugar Loaf Natural Monument in Rio de Janeiro, greeting visitors on-foot. She’s a striking 73-year-old woman with long white hair. She volunteers three days a week at the foot of the Claudio Coutinho Trail that wraps around the base of the mountain over Praia Vermelha. She is also an active participant on the Board of Advisors for the Natural Monument, and although she is a retired psychologist and teacher, she is getting her degree in biology at UniRio.

We spoke with Iracema on December 9, 2017, Volunteers’ Day, at an event where we participated and she was honored for her environmental dedication.

Hear her eureka!


Urca Institute speaks to Iracema Brandão Dec/2017

Alexandra: Good morning, Iracema, may we record you while you stand here?

Iracema: Something short, quick since I am shy.

Alexandra: No need to be.

Iracema: My name is Iracema. I’m 73 years old. I’ve worked a lot all my life, mornings I’d work for the City Office of Health and Education, and then at the public hospital Miguel Couto, in the afternoons I taught at a private school and had a private practice, I was a psychologist, and I taught at a public state school, a night school. Then I retired, I thought it was really great being retired for about six months. After six months I missed working, doing something, I could contribute in some way with people and the environment. I took the Enem (preparation exams for university), and I passed because I now study at UniRio, in Natural Sciences, and then I began to look for work in this area, but since I didn’t have my degree, a challenge. Even after graduating, it’s still a challenge to find work. Then I learned about this volunteer position at the Secretariat of the Environment, I signed up and I’ve been working here ever since February. It’s a luxury, a privilege, to work in a place like this where when you arrive the sabiás (rufous-bellied thrush) receive you in song, the maritacas (parakeet, Aratinga), you see birds, skunk, micos (capuchin monkeys, marmoset) pass by on the wall, many teiús (Tupinambis, tegus)  live here, we see them in the morning, gosh, it’s a gift to be able . . . and at the same time contributing doing my work of clicking counting, accountability of the people who enter by hour so that we have an idea on the environmental impact when there are lots of people, and I do environmental teaching with the groups who arrive. There are school groups, boy scouts, there are many church groups, evangelicals and Catholics, at first the evangelicals came, now the Catholics are coming too. So we explain the rules of a conservation unit. The rules are up there on the poster, but we go the extra mile to explain why you can’t, why you can’t feed the monkeys, why you can’t pull up seedlings, why you can’t eat the pitangas (Surinam cherry) and the mulberries, why you can’t enter on bicycle, bring your dog, so it’s work that . . . We can tell that some groups are not very interested, they arrive eager and cheerful, you need to be quick to communicate. Other groups are super-interested and the conversation can go on for 10 or 12 minutes. And we began to teach environmental studies at this school. We’ve already taken four, five classes but we haven’t taken all of them, we need to continue; it’s a public city school, a model school, the work the team develops with the children and parents is spectacular, the parents collaborate. When we take a class, sometimes the parents come with, wanting to help, they take off from work because it’s during the week, they accompany their kids on these fieldtrips. In through it’s not a fieldtrip, we call it that for the little ones, and they are well-informed, I’m impressed with the quality of work that the school does, we add details, because in truth they already know everything about this conservation area. We are at the gateway to the so-called Claudio Coutinho trail, which until recently was called Bem-te-vi (great kiskadee) path, when I was young we’d come here, there was no path. There was a sewage pipe that came out over there near the big pergola, and the children . . . there were no Havaiana flip flops, we used wooden clogs, and we’d take off those wooden clogs and go barefoot along the sewage pipe because there was no path. There was a hole carved into the boulder for the sewage, for the pipe, a pipe that was about 60 cm in diameter, and we’d walk along the top of it until the end where the sewage came out. The sewage was thrown directly onto the beach. They made this trail only in the 80s. In the beginning it was closed, it was only for the Army, and then they opened it, I don’t remember what year, but my daughter was small, I think it was inaugurated in 82 and around 85,86 they opened it to visitation. And 11 years ago, it was turned into a Conservation Area. Now the Army was important because if they hadn’t been here, there would already be a favela here, shanty houses, there have been attempts, but not the Conservation Area has the upper hand, but the infrastructure needs to improve, there’s a reason we work with volunteers.  There is a manager, Marcelo, and Ricardo, and no one else. There are the guards who are from the city too, and I’m impressed with the information that they have. They are well schooled, they do many courses to become environmental defense guards, and they have much specific information about this Conservation Area. So they are important people. I remember, once there was a snake on a tree, just like this, people running and the snake raising its head. And they wanted to throw stones, and then someone said, let’s call the guard, who saved the day. He was completely calm, he grabbed the snake by the tail, by the head, and put it around his neck, like it were a shawl. It was fat like this. I said, big isn’t it? He said, no, it’s a young jiboia (boa constrictor). I thought that was great. Off he went all powerful with that jiboia around his neck like a scarf, to take it back to the caves where they live.

When we use the park, we want to find everything in a perfect state of conservation, we have no idea of the work it takes, and the care needed to conserve it. For example, I never tired of pulling up saplings and taking them home to plant on the veranda of my house, I had no idea how this . . . also it wasn’t yet and Conservation Area, but even so, if I’d had any knowledge, I wouldn’t have done it. As long as bananas became ripe in my house, I’d bring them to give to the monkeys and it was an enormous pleasure, I had no idea how I was altering the ecosystem, I had no idea that I was exposed to illnesses, to receive and pass along illnesses, herpes, for example. There are famous cases, one here in the Botanical Gardens, of someone with herpes who bit off a piece of banana, gave it to a mico, this Callithrix marmoset, and several died. The person who did this didn’t do it on purpose, but by ignorance, so there’s this thing, when the visitor starts out as a very ignorant person wanting to consume the environment, to feel pleasure in this consumption, to be here, breath this fresh air, but as things move along, even this visitor begins to become more conscious. And I think that since Rio 92 there’s been a process of many people becoming more careful, having more information about the environment. That’s what happened with me too, begin by not bringing bananas, when you see someone, say: that won’t do, let the monkey hunt for bananas and fruit in the wild, there are no bananas here but there are fruits that need to be eaten, it’s part of the cycle that they need to eat them so that the seeds fall to the ground, some need to pass through the digestive tract of the animals for the seed to become ready to germinate, if they don’t pass through an animals digestive tract they won’t germinate. These things you learn here, there. After you come to work, you see that this work to conserve is fundamental to leave nature for the future, for our children, for our grandchildren, for next generations, that this is not of the here and now, this here is for always, for us to conserve for the big future, something enormous. It’s small, repetitive work, you need to say the same things, sometimes it’s even boring, the work is lonely, I stay here, but look here, it’s a luxury to arrive here in the morning, I’ve worked in a closed office up there, in a private practice up on the 10th floor, you don’t know if it’s raining outside, you don’t have sunlight, you don’t see anything, and here this great beautiness, it’s very nice. As for the role of humans, I’m no ingénue, I think man needs to use the environment to survive. Nature can not be something semi-religious, semi-purist of the untouchable quality of nature, it’s not that. But it is a concept of the conscious use of nature, a careful usage in the sense of preserving, altering the minimal possible. I think that this is the big question. And this balance is hard, I guess. I think that in a world where what matters is profit, profit becomes the crux of the question of development, and profit is tied to consumerism, it’s necessary to consume, consume, consume, and there’s no easy way out. We will consume nature. I think there needs to be a change that places at the center of the economic question, not profit, but the human figure and its necessities, profit needs to be in second place and diminish consumption, there’s no other way I can see. If we continue consuming the world as we consume it, we will no longer fit here, we will destroy everything that we . . . everything that has been done, everything that’s evolved until now. I think it’s a challenge.

I came to live in Urca in 1946. The Guanabara Bay was clean. I lived in Urca facing the sea, in a little building on the second floor, it was a luxury. I remember the varanda of my house was narrow, but my mother put a children’s table on it and some little chairs where my sister and I had breakfast, something like this. And we’d see, I saw baleotes, small whales, I saw boto, but like this, we tired of seeing boto, seeing shark, we learned to distinguish what it was, boto would do this movement curving in the ocean and the shark wouldn’t, zuuum, it cut that fin that it had, that dorsal swimmer, “it’s a shark, it’s a shark.” From the varanda we could see it. The water was clear. So small children asked for masks, which at the time were those masks like those of pearl divers, the Japonese, I remember mine. I don’t remember if it was because it was cheaper, I know that we had those masks, then we’d see a thousand fish, we’d see seahorses, there was a lot of algea; there still is, I’m impressed because people sometimes dive in Urca, the dark waters, sometimes somewhat brown waters, but the quality of this water is much better. We do a study at the university, at UniRio, in a lab called Lagua, we collect water from beaches in the region, 85 % of the time the water at Urca beach is clean. Praia Vermelha is always clean. We see solid waste floating, plastic floating, and that gives us the sensation that the water is dirty, but in reality, from the point of view of sewage, it’s not, it’s clean. We examine fecal coliforms that are the indicators of sewage, so 85% of the time the water from Urca beach is clean. The beaches Fortaleza de São João too, but now the ones in Botafogo . . .

I imagine that in the United States it must be something spectacular, without volunteers, everyone hired . . .

Alexandra: not at all . . .

Iracema: No, it’s similar. As I said, we’re not so badly off here. Good morning!

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