Carnival Parade Celebrates Brazil’s Natural Treasures

Carnival is Brazil’s most famous celebration, known across the globe for its colorful costumes, lively dances and parties that continue virtually nonstop for several days and nights. But this year’s festival in Rio de Janeiro, held earlier this month, was about more than feathers and beads.

ocean-themed flat at samba school Carnival parade, Rio

The ocean-themed float of the Unidos de Vila Isabel samba school’s parade during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. The theme for the school’s parade, “Portraits of a plural Brazil,” was based on a book published by CI-Brazil. (© Conservation International/photo by Beto Mesquita)

During the parade of Rio’s samba schools — one of Carnival’s most highly anticipated events — one of the schools used their parade theme to raise awareness about the value of Brazil’s natural and cultural treasures. I’m proud to say this group was inspired by one of CI-Brazil’s own publications.

Although Carnival’s festivities overrun the streets and clubs of most Brazilian cities, the parade of Rio’s samba schools is undoubtedly the ultimate expression of this country-wide party. Attended by over 200,000 people and broadcast to nearly 1 billion more around the world, this event is called “the greatest show on Earth.”

Over two days, the city’s 12 most prestigious samba schools proceed down the Sambodromo Runway, a stadium-type venue where the parades are held. Each samba school is represented by about 4,000 people who perform samba music and dance accompanied by elaborately decorated floats. Each school’s spectacle lasts 80 minutes. It’s like a gigantic opera in motion.

Every year, each samba school picks a different story to tell. This year, the Unidos de Vila Isabel samba school — last year’s champion — chose the theme “Portraits of a plural Brazil” to show how the cultural traditions and ways of life in different regions of Brazil have evolved from and depend on the country’s natural landscapes.

performers in Carnival samba school parade, Rio

Two performers in the Unidos de Vila Isabel parade during Carnival in Rio de Janeiro. (© Conservation International/photo by Beto Mesquita)

In late 2012, the CI-Brazil team met with Wilson Alves, president of Unidos de Vila Isabel, to discuss the possibility of using Carnival as a means to spread CI’s mission of protecting nature for the benefit of people. We presented Wilsinho (as he is known) with our book “Brazilian Biomes: Portraits of a plural country,” which highlights the country’s seven unique biomes, or ecosystems. Wilsinho immediately said, “No need to think of a title for our parade script — it is already in the title of your book!”

Last year, Unidos de Vila Isabel won the competition with their display honoring agriculture. It seems only fitting that they would follow up that performance with a tribute to the natural environment that makes our food security — and indeed, all life — possible.

The creative team of the Unidos de Vila Isabel worked hard to make sure this year’s display would reflect the natural and cultural heritage of the seven Brazilian biomes: the Amazon, Atlantic Forest, Pantanal, Cerrado, Caatinga, Pampa and marine ecosystems.

Cerrado-themed float at samba school Carnival parade

The float honoring the Cerrado, or Brazilian grasslands. (© Conservation International/photo by Beto Mesquita)

Usually my favorite Rio samba school is a group called Portela. However, I was willing to switch my loyalty to Unidos de Vila Isabel for the sake of this worthwhile endeavor.

The staff of CI-Brazil closely followed the parade preparations, answering questions about the occurrence of plant and animal species and ensuring that each of the seven floats and more than 40 different costumes faithfully represented the main features of each biome.

For the first time in the history of the samba schools parade, the greatest show on Earth honored some of the greatest biodiversity on the planet. The first float, depicting the marine biome, was based on a huge wave made of resin that morphed into a sculpture of Yemanja, the goddess of the sea according to Afro-Brazilian religions.

The Pantanal float included sculptures of jaguars, caimans and jabirus typical of that biome. The Atlantic Forest float had lush manmade trees representing the huge jequitibas that are one of the symbols of this biome.

Pantanal-themed float in samba school parade, Rio

The Pantanal float in the samba school Carnival parade. (© Conservation International/photo by Beto Mesquita)

The Amazon float showed immense water lilies, native plants about which there are many legends and folk stories. (If you speak Portuguese, you can learn more by listening to the samba written for the parade.)

Amazon-themed float in samba school Carnival parade, Rio

The Amazon float. (© Conservation International/photo by Beto Mesquita)

As for the Caatinga — a semi-arid region found only in northeastern Brazil — the float and the costumes celebrated the unique richness of life that can flourish even in such restricted conditions. It included sculptures of the Spix’s macaw, a parrot species thought to be extinct in the wild which inspired Blu, the main character of the animated film “Rio.”

On the last float, a replica of the house of Chico Mendes recalled the struggle of the Brazilian rubber tapper and environmentalist in his fight for human rights and sustainable use of natural resources before his tragic murder in 1988. On this float, the musician João Donato played a piano made ​​with certified wood harvested from an extractive reserve in the Amazon.

This first foray into using Carnival to teach about sustainability is inspiring CI-Brazil, along with local partners, to design a strategy for greener future Carnival celebrations. Upcoming parades should include the use of recycled materials and biofuels, waste recycling and the adoption of more sustainable and environmentally friendly kinds of wood, paint and other materials.

We hope to use Carnival and other popular festivals as a means for reaching a hitherto unimaginable number of people with our message that people need nature to thrive … and also to have fun!

Beto Mesquita is the director of CI-Brazil´s Atlantic Forest program. 

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