University of São Paulo: State prepares concession for Petar, iconic park of the caves of SP

OThe São Paulo government plans to transfer responsibility for public visitation to the Alto Ribeira State Park (Petar) to the private sector in the coming months, one of the oldest and best preserved conservation units in the State of São Paulo. The draft of the concession notice was released on October 20 on the website of the Infrastructure and Environment Secretariat (Sima), and a virtual public hearing was called for this Thursday (November 25), coordinated by the State Council for the Environment (Consume). The proposal faces resistance from local communities, which have strong cultural, social and economic ties with the park, and see the concession as a threat to community-based tourism that has been built for decades in the region.

Camped on top of the Serra de Paranapiacaba, overlooking the Ribeira Valley, Petar is world renowned for its biological and speleological riches, permeated by hundreds of beautiful caves and covered by a green mantle of almost 36,000 hectares of preserved Atlantic forest, in the southeast of the state. Created in 1958, the park receives around 40,000 visitors a year, and practically all of this tourism is organized by agencies and local environmental monitors, who guide visitors inside the unit with authorization from the Forest Foundation (FF) — an entity linked to Sima and responsible for conservation units in the State of São Paulo. The tours on trails and caves are mandatorily conducted by these accredited autonomous monitors, all of them native to the region, knowledgeable about the local culture and technically qualified for the job.

“Pitar is a success thanks to the work of these local monitors”, highlights geologist Paulo Boggiani, a professor at USP’s Geosciences Institute (IGc) and representative of the Brazilian Society of Speleology (SBE) on the Park’s Advisory Board. “It’s an outsourced activity that works very well and benefits the entire community,” adds Boggiani, who has been attending Petar as a researcher and educator for over 40 years.

In the concession model proposed by the government, Fundação Florestal will continue to be responsible for protecting and conserving the park, but public visitation services (including ticket office, food, restrooms, security, maintenance of support roads and buildings, parking, etc.) will pass. to be managed by a private company, under a 30-year contract, similar to what has already been done in three other state parks (Alberto Löfgren, Cantareira and Campos do Jordão) and in the Caminhos do Mar trail circuit in Serra Estadual da Serra do Mar. This process started in June 2016, based on Law 16,260 , which authorized the State to open concessions for 25 protected areas, including state parks and forests.

From a territorial point of view, the total concession area (159 hectares) corresponds to only 0.44% of the total area of ​​Petar (35,772 hectares), covering the public use areas of three of the park’s five visitation centers: Caboclos, Santana and Ouro Grosso. The caves, as they belong to the Union, are not included in the concession (only the visitation service to them, where this is allowed), nor the forest areas, which remain under the responsibility of the FF.

The concession will not prevent autonomous monitors from continuing to operate within the park — there are even safeguards in the project to ensure that this remains as it is ( more information below). Many fear, however, that the process will generate unfair competition on the part of the concessionaire, with the potential to demolish the entire chain of local entrepreneurship that has been built in recent decades. “There is already a well-established and established economic structure for tourism in Petar, which works very well, generating income and opportunities for local communities”, says businessman Julio Franco, native of the region, owner of a guesthouse and former chairman of the Council Municipality of Tourism (Comtur) of Iporanga, one of the two municipalities that house the park. “But the impression is that they want to make the concession as if none of this existed.”

“We are the ones who make this park work. What the government should do, instead of passing this care on to the private sector, is to pay attention to those who are already doing this work”, says Jurandir Aguiar dos Santos, 58, longest-serving Petar guide and coordinator of one of the main ecotourism agencies in the region. They are the self-employed monitors who have been maintaining the unit’s roads, trails and bridges for years, on a 100% voluntary basis, as the park does not have enough budget or staff for this. “In a team that is winning, we don’t change, we improve, we pay more attention, more structure, but we don’t ignore it”, adds Santos — or Jura, as he is known by everyone in the region. He says he is even in favor of the idea of ​​a concession, but not the way it is being done, “from the top down”,

“We know the importance of providing quality services in the park; it is fundamental”, says another important local leader: Vandir de Andrade Júnior, 40 years old, a native of Iporanga and tourism coordinator of the Intermunicipal Development Consortium of Vale do Ribeira and Litoral Sul (Codivar). Better and fairer than handing this task over to a single outside company, according to him, however, would be to outsource these services to small local entrepreneurs, committed to socioeconomic development and the preservation of regional culture. Associated with this, he fears that an exaggerated increase in the flow of tourists will lead to a degeneration of the historical and cultural authenticity of the surrounding communities, which is, precisely, one of the main attractions of Petar.

“I’m totally in favor of improving the offer of services, but I don’t see the concession as the best model for Petar. We need to modernize the park with quality, not quantity”, assesses Andrade Júnior — or “Junior Petar”, as he is better known. “We want tourism quality, not mass tourism”, reinforces the environment director for the Municipality of Iporanga, Nelson Calil.

The concession project foresees a significant increase in visitation to the park: from the current 40,000 to 114,000 visitors/year at the end of the first 30 years of operation. The company that wins the competition will have to make a series of mandatory minimum investments to improve the park’s infrastructure and visitation services — for example, in ticket sales, cafeterias, restrooms, telecommunications, security, campgrounds and trails. Planned investments reach R$5.9 million in the first four years and R$10.6 million in 30 years. The total operating cost of the park for this entire period is estimated at R$81 million, and the estimated income for the concessionaire is R$139 million.

The company may create new tourist attractions within the park, such as abseiling or climbing, but always observing the rules and limitations imposed by the management plan – a technical document that describes everything that can or cannot be done within a conservation unit, where and how . (Petar’s management plan was approved in May 2018 , on the eve of the park’s 60th anniversary, after a long process of elaboration and discussion.) Petar has more than 300 caves officially registered in the National Register of Speleological Information ( canie), maintained by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), but only 19 of them are authorized to receive public visitation, and only 12 have regular visitation, for reasons of security, access and delays in the implementation of speleological management plans (which are specific for each cave). Visits are made by appointment and the number of people who can enter each cave is limited — in Santana cave, for example, only 152 people can enter per day.

The entrance fee for the park, which currently stands at R$16, should increase to R$45 in the Santana nucleus, R$37.50 in the Ouro Grosso nucleus and R$50 in the Caboclos nucleus, from the fourth year of the concession .

The concessions for parks and other conservation units are part of a large state government privatization program. According to Roberta Buendia Sabbagh, Sima’s technical advisor, promoting regional development is a priority in the process, and the concessionaire company will have the role of organizing and supporting the provision of ecotourism services in the park, not competing with local entrepreneurs. The concessionaire will not have its own monitors and will act as an interlocutor for the park with the local autonomous monitors, who will continue to be accredited and trained by Fundação Florestal to guide visitors within the unit. “The monitoring system remains the same,” said Sabbagh. “It is a partnership for the provision of tourism services.”

The objective is to improve the management of the park as a whole, including in the areas of research and conservation, which go beyond public visitation, says Gerd Sparovek, professor at USP’s Luiz de Queiroz School of Agriculture (Esalq), in Piracicaba, and president of FF. “Activities that involve public use and tourism within the units, or the exploitation of some of their resources, always take place in a very small area, but they consume a lot of time and resources for their management, competing with what needs to be done in the rest of the unit, including its protection, support for research and projects aimed at its conservation”, he assesses. “Public use demands a lot of attention, personnel and an agility that the public administration does not have to solve problems and serve visitors.

There is no established deadline for launching the concession notice. This Thursday’s hearing, according to Sabbagh, will start the public consultation phase, in which subsidies will be collected for the preparation of the advanced concession proposal, which will only then be forwarded to the council of the State’s privatization program for final approval. The expectation is to conclude these consultations by the end of the year. “It is important that all actors are able to manifest themselves in this process”, says Sabbagh. Interested parties can register to participate in the hearing or send contributions in writing to the secretariat until 6 pm this Friday, the 26th. We’ll evaluate all the suggestions that come in,” adds Sabbagh. Even before the documents were published on the secretariat’s website, according to her,

Community leaders heard by the report, however, denied having been contacted or even transparently informed about the process. “The community was not consulted; or, if they made consultations, they were with just a few people”, says Jura. “Can’t half a dozen people define the fate of thousands.” Simply making the documents available for consultation on the internet is not enough, according to him, as it is a complex process from a technical, legal and procedural point of view. The draft of the notice has 18 documents in all.

The environmental director of Iporanga, Nelson Calil, said that the municipality twice officially asked Sima for a copy of the economic feasibility study that supports the concession proposal, prepared by a company, but that it never received the document. According to him, FF held only generic presentations of the concession, not a public consultation itself, which would allow local communities to participate in the construction of the proposal. The Iporanga City Council presented a “repudiation motion” to Sima and FF on November 11, criticizing the “unilateral” way in which the process has been conducted so far. Park council members also said they were not informed of the concession process until the draft was published.

A hearing on the subject was held this Monday, November 22, at the Legislative Assembly of the State of São Paulo, convened by deputy Carlos Giannazi.

The board of the Brazilian Society of Speleology asked Sima to suspend the process, on November 16, considering that the time granted is “insufficient for understanding the process, reading the available texts and reflecting on future consequences for a concession for such a long period of time”.

This concession model, in which public visitation services in protected areas are transferred to the private sector, is common in other countries, such as the United States, and has been gaining strength in Brazil in recent years. At the federal level , nine national parks already operate in this format (including Foz do Iguaçu, Chapada dos Veadeiros and Fernando de Noronha) and another 16 are in the process of being granted.

“Conservation units and their benefits are a right of society and an obligation of the State”, says geologist Cláudio Maretti, former president of ICMBio, specialist in protected areas and post-doctoral fellow at the Department of Geography at the Faculty of Philosophy, Letters and Human Sciences (FFLCH) from USP. For the population to be able to freely enjoy this right, the State must offer minimally adequate conditions for visitation – which does not correspond to the reality of many units.

“Concessions can help in this regard, but they bring interests that need to be controlled”, observes Maretti. The experience in national parks so far has been positive, he said. It is necessary to be realistic: “It is not possible to wait forever for the ideal State, with the necessary financial conditions and human resources”. But it is essential, he adds, that the concession is built in partnership with society, respecting the cultural characteristics of each location, and that it serves to promote sustainable regional development, and not just to increase the number of visitors. “The concession is not to generate revenue, it is to guarantee that the conservation units fulfill their social and environmental role”, concludes Maretti.

The law that regulates concessions in the State of São Paulo ( Law 16,260 , of June 29, 2016) had one of its provisions revoked in October of last year: item IV of Article 2, which ensured that the resources obtained with the concessions they would be “fully applied in the management and conservation of the units that make up Sieflor”, which is the State Forest System. A change that also worries critics of the project. Sought out by the report, Sima informed that the Forest Foundation “has been appointed as beneficiary of the variable granting of concessions promoted by the secretariat”, and that, “despite the aforementioned revocation, Law 16,260 no longer provided for the specific return of resources to the object unit of the concession”.

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