The often dry and wind-swept landscapes of the Channel Islands seem an unlikely training ground for a woman charged with protecting the lush rain forests of eastern Brazil.
But through an exchange program hosted by wildlife biologists in Ventura, Maria Elisa Castellanos Sola will take home valuable tips to help her manage the endangered and disappearing jungles in the state of Minas Gerais.
Sola, who is nicknamed Sandy, is at once excited and intensely serious as she talks about her plans to set up volunteer and public education programs like the ones she saw here.
On Santa Cruz Island, she saw high school students working as volunteers in a summer program with the Nature Conservancy to repair fences, rid the island of non-native plants and do general maintenance.
Each evening, the groups of students prepared a short presentation on the work they did that day, and the issues it involved.
"While these children are doing this hard work, they are also learning about the environment," Sola said. "When you have kids working with preservation, you teach them something they could not learn in a classroom. It was really beautiful to see this."
That combination of teaching and tapping the potentially vast network of free energy through volunteers will turn into a similar program in Brazil, she said.
"This is my plan to have a program like this, this year," she said.
Sola is one of two scientists from Latin America chosen to come to Ventura County this year as part of a program aimed at exchanging information and experiences, learning from North American mistakes and profiting from successes.
The eight-week course was conceived by Marc Weitzel, a Ventura-based U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who counts leading the California condor recovery team among his duties. The program is funded by Fish and Wildlife's Office of International Affairs.
Eventually, the 2-year-old program will send U.S. scientists to Latin America to learn from that region's experience as well.
"We have to think of protecting natural resources in a global context," Weitzel said. The air and water that are cleansed and purified by the rain forests of Brazil are important to the entire region, he said. "One could look at the entire Western Hemisphere as a single ecosystem."
Migratory birds, which spend many months of the year in Ventura County, spend their winters in Central and South America.
"Natural resources do not respect political boundaries," he said. To protect endangered species in California, their habitats in Latin America must also be preserved, he said.
In Ventura County, Sola visited the Hopper Mountain Wildlife Refuge, where biologists lived during the first months that the endangered California condors were reintroduced to the wild in the nearby Sespe Condor Sanctuary.
She also spent a few days with the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary staff, visiting Santa Cruz Island.
She said she found some similarities in the problems involving ranching on the Channel Islands and in Brazil. In both places, introducing animals that are domestically bred for human consumption damages the environment.
On the islands, the animals destroy native grasses and shrubs with grazing and in Brazil the ranchers cut down the forest to make way for pastures for grazing or, in some areas, coal mining.
The farmers there are on contract with large companies that own the land, she said.
"They are very poor people who go inside the forest to cut for the industry," she said. "They do not know what they are allowed to do and the industry does not tell them."
It is her task to educate them, helping them understand the law and why it is important to protect the waterways and hillsides.
"On the island, the problems are not what the farmer does not know," she said. "It is more of a management problem."
Ranching is still allowed on Santa Cruz and Santa Rosa islands until the property can be acquired by the National Park Service or until leases run out.
In Minas Gerais, which is considered more advanced than the rest of Brazil in its environmental laws, landowners must set aside 20% of their property to remain wild. That segment is chosen by the government so the state will always have contiguous wild areas.
In addition, all of the watershed is protected.
"The rivers and lakes are owned by the federation," Sola said. She gave slide presentations on the programs that her institute operates.
Sola said she takes home a wealth of ideas that she is eager to put into place. She looks to the strong models she saw here as a means to marry the people with the conservation goals of her agency.
"The real origin of our problems is that we did not consider ourselves and our culture as part of the environment," she said. "We have tended to separate the two."
Her intention is to use what she learned to help people "better understand where we are in the planet."
And by so doing, Sola said, she intends to help preserve it.