Conservation Crusader: Local Surfer and Hotel Owner Plots to Rescue Brazil’s Northeastern Coastline

By Edward Shore

Será que eu estou sonhando? Coconut groves stretched for miles across white sand beaches bathed in turquoise waters. The receding tide exposed a vast colony of coral reefs and sea craters that resembled the moon’s surface. The orange glow of brush fires in the sugarcane fields set the morning sky ablaze. Four centuries ago, Zumbi and his army of fugitive African slaves took up arms against their Portuguese masters and established the maroon kingdom of Palmares not far from here. Today, their descendants scrape together a living as fishermen, farmers, and laborers. A fisherman and his young daughter nodded and smiled as they dragged their nets along the sand. The catch of the day? Needle fish (agulinha), crab, and red snapper (cioba). “The eye ball is the best part,” the girl grinned. I was inclined to agree with her. Fried fish with white rice, pinto beans, farofa, lime, and hot peppers were staples of my sojourn in the Brazilian Northeast. My heart aches with saudade as I remember an afternoon swim with cold beers and dear friends. I am not alone.

Pousada Doze Cabanas, Japaratinga, Alagoas. Courtesy of the author.

Many thousands of tourists flock to the Litoral Norte of Alagoas, Brazil, each year. Rustic beaches, whale watching, and surfing have invigorated a regional economy flagged by falling commodity prices and political turmoil. The transformation of local landscapes is stunning. Take, for instance, the small town of Japaratinga, located 120 kilometers north of the capital city of Maceió. It was once a sleepy fishing hamlet in Brazil’s poorest state. Accessible only by ferry (balsa) and cut off from major highways until the 1960s, Japaratinga was home to afro-descendant fishermen and cane cutters and a smattering of surfers and hippies from Recife. Since 2005, the local population has swelled to more than 9,000 inhabitants. The number of hotels and hostels (pousadas) more than doubled since 2009. Tourism has generated much needed jobs in a burgeoning service sector. Yet the boom has also inflicted considerable strain on fragile ecosystems, including barrier reefs, rivers, and the endangered remnants of the Atlantic Rainforest. Beachfront hostels and luxury resorts have displaced Japaratinga’s traditional inhabitants. The local government has failed to advance infrastructural improvements like roads, sanitation, and trash collection to keep pace with unprecedented growth. Plastic bottles, cigarette butts, and beer cans pollute once pristine beaches. Tourism, like sugarcane centuries ago, appears like a bubble ready to burst.

Glass bottles routinely wash ashore in Japaratinga, Alagoas. Courtesy of the author.

A local pousada owner and conservation crusader has resolved to rescue Japaratinga’s coastline. Frederico “Freddy” (freh-jee) da Cunha Araújo is a surfer and entrepreneur from Recife. He arrived during the 1990s and opened the Pousada Doze Cabanas on October 12, 2001. Doze Cabanas remains a popular destination for Brazilians and international travelers alike who savor simplicity. For Freddy, less has always meant more. The hostel is comprised of twelve huts and a pavilion area overlooking the ocean. He refuses to install television sets in guests’ quarters and has restricted wifi to the lobby during business hours. He urges hóspedes to recycle and has greatly reduced the consumption of plastic materials on the property. Unfortunately, few of Freddy’s competitors share his passion for conservation. Hotel owners have erected buildings that obstruct waterways and endanger natural pools in flagrant violation of Brazilian environmental protection laws. Many others dump trash in the rainforest and empty lots. The contents have contaminated local rivers, streams, and the ocean’s shore. 

Frederico “Freddy” da Cunha Araújo (right) and his assistant, Breno (left), at the Triagem in Japaratinga, Alagoas. Courtesy of the author.

Freddy decided to take matters into his own hands. A decade ago, he began collecting glass, cans, and plastic bottles from local hotels and restaurants. He transports them to a recycling plant in Recife, about a three hour’s drive from Japaratinga. The commute has become routine. Japaratinga, like most tourist towns along the northeastern coast of Brazil, lacks even basic recycling services. “It’s outrageous that the city government refuses to protect our beach and local environment,” Freddy said. “So I decided to do something about it.” 

Triagem, Japaratinga, Alagoas. Courtesy of the author.

Freddy recently purchased an empty lot above a small canyon on the outskirts of Japaratinga. He transformed the property into a makeshift recycling center, or “Triagem,” the first of its kind in the region. These days, Freddy divides his time between Doze Cabanas and the Triagem. He and several of his employees rinse, separate, and process plastics, glass, and other recyclables on site. Inspiration for the project came after a visit to the Japaratinga dump, a place where few tourists dare to tread. Buzzards circle the skies above a massive pit containing hazardous waste near an abandoned sugar plantation with an oceanside view. The desperate poor, including young children, pick through the garbage to scavenge for food, clothes, shoes, and recyclable goods to sell. The scene paints a stunning contrast to the luxurious beachfront resorts located just miles away and offers another painful reminder of the stark inequalities that divide Brazilian society.

A scavenger (far right) picks through garbage at the Japaratinga dump. Courtesy of the author.

The Triagem offers a ray of hope. In the absence of state support, Freddy’s recycling center provides a model for ethical entrepreneurship and sustainable development. Freddy has educated local business leaders and hotel workers about the importance of recycling and coastal conservation. He has trained and employed young people from Japaratinga’s most vulnerable communities in a range of positions at Doze Cabanas and the Triagem. Most recently, Freddy has plotted an initiative to convert organic waste into methane gas to produce energy. The project, like the Triagem, is funded entirely by Doze Cabanas. As reports of polluted beaches in Rio de Janeiro grab headlines ahead of the 2016 Olympic Games, the imperative to preserve Brazil’s precious northeastern coastline becomes more pressing. Thankfully, Freddy and his staff at Doze Cabanas and the Triagem have answered the call. I am proud to call them friends.

To learn more about Freddy and Pousada Doze Cabanas, check them out on Facebook (Doze Cabanas) and visit their website. Better yet, travel to Japaratinga, Alagoas!

The author with Ligia Nunes and Freddy da Cunha Araújo at Pousada Doze Cabanas, September 2015.