Brazil's Atlantic Forest: Protecting What's Left

"Brazil is seen as a huge Amazônia," environmentalist Mario Mantovani told Earthsight and Mongabay.

But along Brazil's south coast and inland areas, the Atlantic Forest, or Mata Atlântica, has become one of the country's most threatened forests. Over 85 per cent of its original area has been cleared since the colonial era several hundred years ago, predominantly during a historical agricultural boom32 although rapid depletion of these habitats continues. Fragmentation is the key threat to the survival of these forests today. Illegal logging for the extraction of valuable timber species has been identified as one of the main continuing threats to the remaining fragments of the Atlantic Forest, along with land conversion to pasture, tree plantations and urban expansion.33

The surviving patchwork of habitats that make up these forests form a biologically rich haven for nearly 20,000 plant and more than 2,000 animal species – lots of them endemic – including 900 species of bird.34 It is home to endangered golden lion tamarins, the thin-spined porcupine and maned sloth, both listed as vulnerable by IUCN. It is also the domain of the southernmost populations of the iconic big cat, the jaguar, which is critically endangered in these forests. Scientists continue to discover new species of flora and fauna.

In addition to centuries of sustained habitat loss due to other factors, urban expansion has threatened much of the Atlantic Forest's native flora and fauna with extinction.35 The region hosts 145 million people and some of Brazil's largest cities, São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.36

It is also a hub for industry, logging and wood processing, though there is little published research on the impact of local timber harvesting, legal or otherwise, on the Atlantic Forest. Companies based in the area include Indusparquet subsidiary Masterpiso, which sells products made from tree species endemic to these forests such as bracatinga (Mimosa scabrella) and guajuvira (Patagonula americana). Any human activity in such a fragile bioregion has environmental impacts, warns environmentalist Mantovani, who led the non-profit SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation for three decades.

A recent study found that the Atlantic Forest's seemingly stable native forest cover over the last 30 years has hidden the destruction of older trees.37 Data compiled by SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation and Brazil's national space research agency, INPE, report an uptick in deforestation rates in recent years.38 According to the figures, five states including Paraná accounted for 89 per cent of recorded deforestation.

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