“The waters of the springs of my farm run to the da Ponte stream, which flow into the Santa Maria River and then forms the Doce River”. This explanation about the watercourse by Antonio Scheneider, rural farmer of Colatina (ES), shows how important the springs are to the Doce River. These springs contribute to the quality and quantity of the water that reaches the main river.
There are two springs on the property of Antonio, but the estimate is that there are another 300 thousand within the entire Doce River basin. Of these, five thousand will be protected by the Spring Recovery Program of the Renova Foundation within 10 years. The program is part of the institution’s actions to recover the areas impacted by the collapse of the Fundão dam in November 2015. The first 511 were protected in partnership with Instituto Terra (the Earth Institute).
The protection of springs also received the support of other institutions, which were fundamental for the contact with the rural producers and feasibility of the works, such as the regional offices of the State Forestry Institute (IEF) – Rio Doce and Teofilo Otoni – , the Itambacuri, Jampruca and Frei Inocêncio Town Halls, the Technical Assistance and Rural Extension Company (Emater) of Itambacuri, and the River Basin Committees (CBH) of the Doce, Suaçui, Santa Maria do Doce and Pontoons Rivers and the Doce River Lagoon.
The environmental expert of Instituto Terra, Lucas Mattos Martins, says that the protection of the springs is one of the strategies for the recovery of the Doce River. “After the collapse, with the tailings, with the negative impact, it is now even more important to do this work to preserve the springs. We believe that these waters, which were not directly affected, can be of great importance for the recovery of the Doce River”, he says.
According to Sebastião Salgado, co-founder of Instituto Terra, more projects like this are needed. “We have to increase the scale of the recovery of the springs, because the water channel was covered by a residue of very strong mud which has made the life of the river disappear. So, the only way to recover this channel on the long-term is to increase the flow of water to remove the sludge and to allow, with increasing water flow in the channel, the environmental recovery of the river and a better diffusion of the waste”, he argues.
So far, 511 springs have been protected – 251 in Minas Gerais and 260 in Espirito Santo. On the farm of Hamilton Duarte, rural producer of Frei Inocêncio (MG), three springs were fenced. He says that they are very close to the main source and that he has always used them to withdraw water. So, I had the concern of preserving them. “I already had fencing, but not the way it was done now. Now it’s better, with a greater distance between the fence and the spring”, he says. All the material needed to build the fence, such as wire, posts and staples were provided by Instituto Terra.
One of the main objectives of the fencing is to protect the springs from large animals. “The first step is to enclose them to test the ability of the environment to regenerate itself. We protect the site against one of the biggest enemies of environmental recovery, which is cattle”, says José Almir Jacomelli, leader of Agroforestry Operations of the Renova Foundation.
For example, Cleidson Pacheco, a rural producer from Itambacuri (MG), has already seen from up close the damage that the animals can cause. “When cattle come to drink the water that flows directly from the spring, it treads on the mud. The soil starts compacting and it seems that it pushes over some hard soil inside the spring, that ends up preventing the exit of the water “, explains the producer. He also says that the barbed wire works better with the cattle than the smooth wire and that is why this type of material was used for the construction of the fence.
The fencing and the lower impact of cattle on the springs helps to improve the water flow. “During periods of rain the spring used to release water for a good while, but then in a few days the water would stop. It’s been a while since we had rain now, and the last time I looked there was still a little water coming to the surface, he says.
The idea of the Renova Foundation project is to protect 500 springs per year. The choice of which ones to surround is made by the Doce River Basin Committee (CBH-Doce), organ responsible for the management of the basin. According to the president of the Technical Board of Critical Events Management of CBH-Doce, Lucinha Teixeira, the choice is made based on the Vulnerability Map of the Doce River, prepared by the Bio-Atlantic Institute and approved by the Committee in 2015. The map takes the following into account: water availability, land use and occupation, positive biodiversity, soil degradability and adaptability, calculated based on the Municipal Human Development Index and water use data.
The region where the first 511 springs have been protected usually passes through difficult periods of drought. In Frei Inocêncio, for example, rural water supply is already compromised. “In our region, rainfall has been below average for the last three to four years. The producers suffered the drought from up close. They had to seek water in another region and sell the skinny cattle”, says Maria José Gomes, mayor of Frei Inocêncio and mobilizer of the Frei Inocêncio Environment Association (Ambfi).
One of the springs of Antonio Scheneider’s farm in Colatina (ES) has already gone dry in a period of little rain. “The spring that I fenced is used for our household, we depend on it. In periods of drought we have to ration, but the tendency is that it will improves now”, he says.
This dependence on the waters that emerge from the springs is common among producers and the risk of an unprotected spring running dry due to the lack of rainfall is huge. Although the outcome of the protection will be more noticeable in the long term, some small changes are beginning to appear. “It has had very weak flow periods that did not meet the demand, so much that I had to create an artesian well. But I did not need to use it last year. Even with a lack of rain, the spring had a greater flow”, says Hamilton Duarte of Frei Inocêncio, who had the springs surrounded last year.
For the protection of the springs to work, it is necessary to involve rural producers, environmentalists, representatives of environmental agencies and other institutions. Lucas Mattos, from Instituto Terra, says that without the involvement of rural producers the project would not be possible. This is not only because the springs are on private properties, but especially because of the knowledge that the producers have of the region. “We come with a theoretical input, but the producer comes with knowledge obtained by working the land. It’s an exchange. They are who know most about the locality, the reality and the dynamics of the micro basin. If they do not participate, the project is not sustainable”, he says.
Many of them already have this awareness and recognize the importance of collaboration. “I believe it’s part of our role to take care of nature. If we do not take care of it, we ourselves will be harmed by the lack of water. A property without water loses its purpose. Whatever I can do from my side I want to do”, says Cleidson.
During the work that has been done so far, the producers also helped to overcome one of the main challenges of the project. At first glance, it seems simple to carry all the material and build the fences. The problem is that often the properties are in places of difficult access, especially when it is necessary to carry a large amount of wire and wood, for example. “Sometimes the truck cannot get to the area. And in this, the producer contributes a lot, because he knows the shortcuts, the best routes”, says Mattos.
On the other hand, farmers also learned the best way to protect a spring, choose the fence, its distance from the spring and the most suitable vegetation. Hamilton, of Frei Innocent, tells us that he always knew the importance of protecting the spring, but besides the financial aspect of buying the materials he also was not sure about the best way to fence it. He says he will also create some “retention basins” to increase the water flow – containment structures in the soil, above the springs, so that the rainwater concentrates in the place, infiltrates the zone of saturation and comes to the surface through the springs, increasing the flow.
Now the task of producers is to maintain the protection until the next steps of the project begin. “We have to take care of the spring, maintenance of the fence, clean. It is a preservation area with a tendency to increase the number of trees around. The trees are fruiting, they are releasing seeds, from there on they will expand”, says Antônio from Colatina.
The fencing is the first step for protecting the springs. After that, a number of other actions are required. “Our intention was to enclose and plant immediately, but as this region has a very prolonged drought, it is recommended to plant seedlings at the beginning of the rainy season so that the plants receive water at the same time that they adapt to the terrain”, explains Almir Jacomelli of the Renova Foundation.
Jacomelli explains that while the rainy season, from October to March, is not here yet, the Renova Foundation and Instituto Terra will begin installing Mini Effluent Treatment Plants and signs that identify the project and the springs. It is also necessary to prepare the ground for planting seedlings.