The Ribeira de Iguape River, one of the most important rivers in the
Brazilian southeastern state of São Paulo, has sources in the Paraná state,
drains from Northwest to Southeast between São Paulo and Paraná states through
the Ribeira Valley (Vale do Ribeira) and reaches the Atlantic Ocean at Iguape,
in the Southern coast of the first state.
Both sides of the Ribeira Valley are sectors of two developed and rich states in Brazil but they are still characterized by poverty and underdevelopment. On the other side, the valley is known for its complex geology and natural riches represented by a large remnant of the exuberant Atlantic Rain Forest, preserved mangrove areas, a huge number of limestone caves, important mineral resources, abundant water resources and agriculture and cattle breeding lands.
Gold and lead-silver mining were important in the past and limestone, sand and phosphate mining are presently expressive, but mining and agriculture are facing strong limitations due to the creation of state parks and other environmental protection areas and other problems.
Even outside the protected areas, agriculture is also limited by the mostly rough land, except in the lower valley where the land allows mechanization. Despite past and present efforts in mining and agriculture and in the more recent waves of ecotourism and adventure tourism, the region still did not find its way to development and is even losing population in many of the its 32 towns. The challenge is now the choice of ways to develop the Ribeira Valley in a sustainable form.
The Ribeira de Iguape River has an extension of 470 km (292 miles) and is the last important river in the Southeastern Brazil without hydroelectric power plants. The river basin has a total area of 28,306 km² (10,929 sq miles), with 11,191 km² (4,321 sq miles) in the Paraná state and 17,115 km² (6,608 sq miles) in the São Paulo state.
The river basin composed by the Ribeira de Iguape and its tributaries represents an important water resource to both states. It comprehends 32 towns – 9 in Paraná and 23 in São Paulo – and the last official census, made by Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), in 2000, shows a total of 481,224 inhabitants, distributed in 37.58% rural and 62.42% urban populations.
There are among the population 9 communities formed in the past by evaded slaves, which are known as Quilombos or Quilombola Communities: Bombas, Cangume, Galvão, Ivaporunduva, Mandira, Morro Seco, Pedro Cubas, Porto Velho, São Pedro. Their status was recognized by the government and they are now receiving land ownership and economic and technical support for a sustainable development.
Middle and upper Ribeira valleys are narrow, deep and characterized by rough land, with altitudes varying from 100 (328 feet) to more than 1,300 m (4265 feet) above sea level. Lower valley is wide and has a mostly flat land with some small hills and sided by sharp mountains.
The climate is hot and humid in the lower and middle valley with annual precipitation reaching more than 2,000 mm (79 inches) and higher temperatures above 30° Celsius (86 Fahrenheit).
In the upper valley the climate is also hot and humid, but precipitation drops to about 1,500 mm and in the higher lands temperatures drop to below 7° Celsius (45 Fahrenheit) in the winter as is the case of Apiaí, with an altitude of 1,040 m (3,412 feet).
It is remarkable the fact that more than 74% of the total area of the valley (21,000 km² – 8,108 sq miles) is covered by forests, representing 21% of the Brazilian remnants of the Atlantic Rain Forest. Much of the preserved forest is in the São Paulo State.
Other than the forest, there are in the coastal sector 150 km² (58 sq miles) of salt marsh and 170 km² (66 sq miles) of well preserved mangroves. All these environments are associated to specific and varied fauna. These are the reasons for creation of several environmental protection areas in the last 50 years.
A remarkable aspect in the Ribeira Valley is its complex geology. In the upper and middle valley, there are mostly Precambrian metamorphic rocks such as meta-limestones, phyllites, schists, meta-sandstones, meta-siltites and quartzites. These rocks are mainly oriented to Northeast and intensely folded with axis in the same direction.
Precambrian meta-igneous rocks contemporaries to the metamorphic ones, granite bodies of varied dimensions intruding them are also present. The ensemble is cut by Mesozoic diabase dikes oriented to Northwest. Remarkable are the Mesozoic intruding alkaline complexes associated to the phosphate deposits.
Most of the mineral deposits in the valley are related to Precambrian rocks. In the flat areas of the lower valley, the ancient rocks are covered by Tertiary and Quaternary unconsolidated clayey and sandy sediments. In the river flats downstream from Sete Barras there are several peat deposits studied by Shimada et al. (1981) and Motta et al. (1982) for energetic purposes.
The large areas of meta-limestones and abundant water allowed the formation of hundreds of caves in the middle and upper Ribeira Valley. It is one of the most important speleological provinces of Brazil and its very complex karst systems were only partially studied.
The caves were firstly studied by Krone (1898), but more intensively surveyed and studied from the 1960’s (Le Bret 1975; Guimarães 1966). To protect a part of the caves it was created in 1958 the PETAR – Parque Estadual Turístico do Alto Ribeira. It comprehends parts of Apiaí and Iporanga municipalities with a total area of 357.72 km² (138.12 sq miles).
Despite the abundance of natural resources, Ribeira Valley is in a difficult economic situation and many of its small towns had population declines in the last years.
The known history of the Ribeira Valley remounts to the 16th Century and is closely related to mining, though it is told the Spanish arrived to its coastal area in 1498, two years before the Portuguese first step in Brazil.
In 1531, a Portuguese expedition of 80 men led by Pero Lobo ascended the Ribeira Valley from Cananéia, then a village in the coast, searching for gold deposits. They never returned and it is believed they were massacred by native índios (Indians) in the upper valley.
Alluvial gold deposits were found in the late 16th Century in the region and there was established a village where is presently the town of Iporanga, in the upper Ribeira Valley.
Gold bearing gravel deposits along the Pilões, Bethary, Iporanga, Palmital and other local rivers were intensively mined during the 17th Century and a gold smelting house, Casa da Oficina Real de Fundição de Ouro, was established at Iguape (Barbosa & Guimarães 1946).
The way to reach the mines was the Ribeira de Iguape River and villages as Xiririca, Sete Barras and Registro were founded along the river. In the 18th Century, the local gold deposits were almost exhausted and richer and bigger deposits had already been found in Minas Gerais state, causing the decline of local mining, which stopped by the end of the same century.
It was the end of the gold mining cycle in the upper Ribeira Valley, which was partially reactivated in the late 19th Century when was put in operation the Morro do Ouro (Gold Hill) mine at Apiaí, an underground mine, which was closed by the government in 1942 because it was then operated by a Japanese company and never reopened (CPRM 1980).
Despite exploration efforts made by several mining companies in the past four decades, the search for a new economic gold deposit was unsuccessful (Morgental et al. 1981; Nogueira 1990). The organized gold mining ended, but there are still few and seasonal gold prospectors working with primitive rockers and pans.
The region then remained almost forgotten up to the initial decades of the 19th Century, when lead-silver ore bearing veins were found. Then, many interested men studied those ore bodies along the 19th Century. Among them was Richard Francis Burton, the famous English explorer and diplomat, who was the British Consul in Santos between September 1865 and October 1869.
He traveled to Iporanga at the end of 1866, staying there between December 29 1865, and January 1st, 1866, visiting the Morro do Chumbo (Lead Hill), a limestone hill with several lead-silver ore veins (Burton 1866, in Krug 1938).
After this trip, Burton decided to become a successful miner, made a request and obtained the mining permission by means of imperial decree nr. 3706 of September 26 1866, but he never started to mine in the region.
In the 1870’s, it was made an attempt to mine the main ore veins of the Morro do Chumbo by means of some 200 m (656 feet) of underground works, but it was stopped before cutting the veins due to the lack of financial resources (Bauer 1890).
A successful lead-silver mine would be opened only in 1920, when the Furnas mine, located in the municipality of Iporanga started to operate and it operated discontinuously up to 1992. After Furnas, some 60 other mines were opened in the Paraná and São Paulo sides of the valley (Beljavskis et al. 1981).
The mines were mostly small with limited ore reserves and had ephemeral duration. The most important and larger ones were located in Paraná such as Panelas (Zaccarelli 1988), operated by Plumbum Mineração e Metalurgia S.A., controlled by Peñarroya Group, Perau, Rocha and Canoas (Daitx 1996).
In 1934, it was made a first attempt to install a lead smelter plant close to the Espírito Santo mine, also in Iporanga, but it was stopped after producing only 5 tons of metal. In 1940, the government of São Paulo established a 10 t/day smelter at Apiaí to process the ore from several small mines, but it stopped operation in 1942, just after passed to private control (Barbosa & Guimarães 1946; Felicíssimo Jr. & Guimarães 1950).
In 1945, Plumbum started to operate a smelter at close to the Panelas mine, at Adrianópolis, which operated during 50 years and an important amount of silver and some gold were produced as byproducts of lead refining. Some zinc ore was also produced, but its concentrate was sold to companies outside the Ribeira Valley.
Plumbum was sold to a Brazilian Group in 1987 and the lead-silver mining cycle ended in 1995 with the closing of Canoas mine and the smelter at Panelas. Some of the closed mines such as Furnas and Panelas left environmental problems represented by soil and water contamination by lead and other heavy metals bearing tailings (Moraes et al. 2002; Lopes Jr. 2005).
The rice cycle – Prosperity and Disaster
In the early 19th Century, the lower Ribeira Valley, downstream from Sete Barras, was an important and rich rice crop area. The rice was transported by boat in the Ribeira de Iguape River to the port of Iguape and then shipped to the markets.
But there was an obstacle: the river was very sinuous and even after reaching the sea at Barra do Ribeira (Mouth of Ribeira) it was necessary to sail close to the coast for 35 km (22 miles) to the South. It was costly and took too long to reach the port.
Then it was decided to dig the Valo Grande, a narrow shortcut channel to spare 53 km (33 miles) of navigation. Digging was started in 1827, 18 km (11 miles) upstream from Barra do Ribeira, in a straight line to Iguape, and it was concluded in 1852.
The original width of Valo Grande was about 4 m (13 feet), just enough to allow the navigation of small boats. But the shortcut radically altered the river flow and accelerated erosion soon took place and the channel width jumped to 200 m (656 feet) only 50 years after its opening.
The huge amount of transported sediments quickly sanded the Mar Pequeno, the sea in front of Iguape, a zone between the town and the Comprida Island. The port has become useless, rice crops dwindled and aggravated by the end of slave trade, the local economy went bankrupt.
This was the first major environmental disaster caused by men in Brazil, and Richard Francis Burton wisely predicted it in the report of his trip to Iporanga, published in the Revista Commercial de Santos (Burton 1866, in Krug 1938).
The Valo Grande had a width of 300 m (984 feet) by 1970 and was closed by a dam in 1978, but the barrier caused intense floods upstream in 1981 and 1983, with serious damages to banana crops and also to the population along the river. Then it was decided to partially reopen the Valo Grande for flood control.
In March 1912, the government of São Paulo made a deal with a Japanese colonization company and donated lands in the Iguape region to place immigrants (Handa 1987). At the same epoch, scientists of the Commissão Geographica e Geologica do Estado de São Paulo ascended the valley making land survey and also geological, botanical and soil studies (CGG 1914).
The Japanese immigration was the origin of banana plantations now spread mainly to Iguape, Registro, Pariquera-Açu, Sete Barras, Eldorado, Juquiá and Miracatu, with tens of millions of trees. But banana crops are experiencing a very serious problem: a plague known as Black Sigatoka, a leaf spot disease. It causes significant reductions in leaf area, yield losses of 50% or more and premature ripening, a serious defect in exported fruit. It is more damaging and difficult to control than the related Yellow Sigatoka disease, and has a wider host range.
In 1919, Torazo Okamoto, a Japanese immigrant of Registro, decided to cultivate tea because it was all imported at that time, but there were no available good quality seedlings. He solved the problem by means of a trip to former Ceylon where he got, with difficulty, some seeds from local English tea crops.
In the ship travel back to Brazil, the seeds were put into bottles filled with local soil and he arrived with a collection of seedlings ready to plant (Handa 1987). The enterprise was so successful that the company founded by Okamoto still exists and the original tea shrubs are now preserved as historical relics in a yard in the company’s tea crop.
Banana and tea are still the main agricultural products, but there are now a variety of other plantations such as tomato, passion fruit, pupunha palm and chayote. The rural properties are mainly of small sizes with areas of less than 0.5 km² (0.19 sq mile).
In the state of Paraná, where the forest was much more devastated, the soil is jeopardized in the rough land areas due to mechanical and chemical losses by erosion, but the same type of agriculture is observed and there are also reforestation areas for economic purposes.
Mining is still an important economic activity in the Ribeira Valley, but the sector has experienced decline if compared to the 1970’s when lead-silver mines were active and there were also some illegal mines of other substances. The authors carried out an assessment between 2002 and 2004 in all 23 municipalities of the São Paulo side of the valley (Nogueira et al. 2004).
There were identified 54 active mining enterprises. They are composed by sand (33), clay (10), limestone (4), mineral water (3), phosphate rock (2), kaolin (1) and ornamental quartzite (1).
Sand for construction, with increasing importance, is dredged from the river bed in the lower valley comprehending Eldorado, Sete Barras, Jacupiranga, Registro, Pariquera-Açu, Iguape, Juquiá, Miracatu and Pedro de Toledo.
The sand sector is well organized and is operating in environmentally compatible form. Sand is mainly sold to the coastal market. There are two type of clay being mined: clay from river flats for ceramic industry and clay form weathered fine grained metamorphic rocks for blending with limestone in the cement industry at Apiaí and Cajati.
The local ceramic industry, mostly in the lower valley (Registro, Iguape and Jacupiranga) and operated as small familiar businesses making bricks, is facing a serious crisis due to the competition with products from other states.
Limestone mining started in 1958 in the region and is now represented by one large open pit quarry at Itaóca for a cement industry at Apiaí with an installed capacity of about 1,5 million tons/year, and three small quarries for lime, soil corrective and animal ration, located at Ribeira and Apiaí, except for one in the lower valley at Pariquera-Açu.
It is remarked that also dolomitic limestone and dolomites are mined in some of these quarries. Mineral water extraction is ruled by mining law in Brazil and the two wells are located in Registro and one in São Lourenço da Serra.
Phosphate rocks are related to alkaline complexes and mining started in 1939 at Cajati and there is presently in operation another smaller mine at Registro. The Cajati phosphate mine, with about 5,4 million tons of Run Of Mine/year, is the most important mine in the Ribeira Valley and its main product is destined to animal nutrition and the calcium carbonate, a byproduct from ore dressing, is sold to a cement factory close to the mine with an installed capacity of 1,4 million tons/year.
Kaolin for fine ceramic industry is produced in a small but well organized mine at Tapiraí, in the upper basin of a tributary of Ribeira de Iguape River. Ornamental quartzite plates are mined by hand in small scale at Braço locality in the Eldorado municipality.
There are also dozens of abandoned mines without land reclaiming in the valley, but the ancient Morro do Ouro gold mine at Apiaí was successfully transformed thanks to a Shimada suggestion (2002) in a tourism mine by the local administration, which is also intent on protecting water resources in the area.
In the Paraná side of the valley, mining was also more important in the past when expressive lead-silver and fluorite mines existed. Presently there are mostly limestone quarries to supply raw materials to lime and cement industry. Brazil’s biggest cement industry is located at Rio Branco do Sul in the Paraná sector of the valley.
Cattle and buffalo breeding are growing activities in the lower Ribeira Valley, but are still not that representative in the regional economy. In 2002, the cattle population was about 78,000 for 1,800 breeders and the main destination is meat.
Buffalos are well adapted to the local conditions, totalizing about 65,000 animals and their milk is being processed in 16 cheese factories. There are also other animals such as frogs, ostrich, fish and bees attracting attention of small breeders.
Ecotourism and adventure tourism are growing activities in the last 20 years motivated by the exuberant forest and the hundreds of caves in the middle and upper Ribeira Valley, but they are still disorganized and are economic options for a minority of the local people.
In some municipalities like Iporanga, where most of the surface was included in environmental protection areas, traditional residents were suddenly forbidden to continue their subsistence agriculture without getting any other option for survival.
Some of them are now tourist guides, but others are into illegal practices such as palm heart extraction. Tourism should be a good option, but in the last 4 years, the lack of safety standards and infrastructure and wrong guide procedures led to some serious accidents with tourists. As a consequence, many restrictions were established by the PETAR administration causing a substantial reduction in the tourist flow to the region.
The ways on the crossroads
Traditional agriculture must change its practices moving towards organic or less aggressive techniques, but productivity loss and cost increase are feared. More up to date knowledge on the subject should be added to the producer’s minds. Diversity of crops, which is still small, is also desirable.
Mining will remain but it demands clear rules concerning the environmental limitations. For example, presently it is almost impossible to obtain an environmental permit to mine in a radius of 10 km outside a protected area without considering whether mining affects it or not.
There is a serious lack of knowledge to establish technically based criteria. In the karst areas, mining has a serious obstacle in the caves which are all protected by law without considering the relevance of each one. The absence of adequate knowledge about the karst aquifers is also the origin of sometimes exaggerated protection measures and also of wrong decisions leading to damages.
It is evident the demand for more accurate studies of the karst environment to clearly set criteria for environmental analysis. Shimada et al. (1999) and Shimada et al. (2004) carried out studies of mining in the PETAR and Intervales parks region showing some aspects of the environmental impacts.
Cattle and buffalo breeding should be continued with more organization with constant technical updating aiming at cost reduction and increasing productivity with minimum environmental impact.
Ecotourism in the region has now a US$ 15 million financing – US$ 9 million from the IDB – Inter-American Development Bank and US$ 6 million from the government of São Paulo – for improvement in infra-structure, training and organization and there is hope for a strong impulse in the activity.
Shimada et al. (1998) and Shimada (2005) considered suitable for tourism the Braço da Pescaria and Espírito Santo abandoned lead mines and also suggested the establishment of the “Ancient mining route” in the region and the proposition is under consideration due to the success of the Morro do Ouro park. Adventure tourism should adopt adequate safety standards and better prepare the guides.
A very polemical subject is now the proposition for the construction of 4 hydroelectric power plants (HPPs) along the Ribeira de Iguape River. Most of the related town administrations wish the dams but there is strong opposition from several NGOs willing to preserve the last river in the region free of HPPs and local communities, which will be directly affected by flooding of a total of 110 km².
The future of the Ribeira Valley necessarily passes by sustainable procedures in the economic activities as the environmental preservation is definitive. This is the main way to take and its branches must be carefully considered.
Such procedures should be object of more intense government actions by providing knowledge, orientation and financing. These actions will help the mentality change of the economic agents now characterized by lack of knowledge, disorientation and some individualism.
It is also imperative a government effort to establish ecological and economical zoning of the whole valley to clearly set rules, to organize the economic activities and to make development and preservation compatible. The base of such a zoning is the information provided by studies and researches in all areas of the related knowledge.
This means investment in science without immediate profits which is not always understood as important by governments and politicians. And sometimes the new rules would antagonize local interests in the benefit of a whole. Naturally investments in the presently weak infra-structure are also desirable.
One realizes the attractions of Ribeira Valley are not well known outside the valley and after the necessary improvement in the reception facilities campaigns should be made in and outside of the country to publicize it.
The question of the HPPs along the Ribeira de Iguape River is a serious dilemma as the country desperately needs to improve energy production to follow the general economic growth. The society must exhaustively discuss it to choose the best way.
For more information:
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Bauer, H.E. 1890. As minas do Iporanga. Revista de Engenharia, 1890, Rio de Janeiro, p. 85-87, transcrito para O IGG, São Paulo, 1949, v. 7, no 4, p. 367-371.
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In the Web:
Helio Shimada and Sonia Aparecida Abissi Nogueira are Geologists, Doctors in Science and researchers in mining and environment at São Paulo’s Instituto Geológico – www.igeologico.sp.gov.br. Their e-mails: email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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