Thursday, March 21, 2013

The Atlantic Forest

by Duncan Gromko

Atlantic Forest, Photo Credit: Ben Smith
Today is International Forest Day, so I thought I'd take the opportunity to write about my favorite forest. People that know me well know that I like trees. Don't get me wrong; other biomes like reefs, savannas, or deserts have their own appeal. But there is something about the immensity of trees and the way that being in a forest just swallows up.

Choosing my favorite forest is tough. Growing up in the midwest, the temperate deciduous forests of that region (at least the few that remain) have a special familiarity for me. Another possible favorite is the coastal forests of the Pacific Northwest, particularly those with redwood groves. Redwoods are the tallest trees on earth. Most any tree is tough to photograph, but redwoods are near impossible. How do you capture their size? But, although I love those two forest types and others, I think my favorite forest is the Brazilian Atlantic Forest.

Getting to spend a year researching the Atlantic forest - or Mata Atlantica in Portuguese - including a three week trip to Brazil has left me hopelessly biased. It's the first real tropical rainforest that I've been in and rainforests have a completely different feeling than the northern hemisphere forests I'm used to. A rainforest is just so much denser than the forests I was used to. It's hot. And humid. And it's noisy; it feels like there is so much going on all around you. The Atlantic Forest is a particularly rich, with over 20,000 plant species, 8,000 of which are endemic (meaning that they are only found in the Atlantic Forest). Conservation International has labeled the forest a "biodiversity hotspot" because of its species variety.

Pasture in Brazil, Photo Credit: Ben Smith
It's also easy to get sentimental about the Atlantic Forest because just how little of it is left. Most of the forest doesn't look like the picture above, but  more like the picture to the left: small forest fragments surrounded by various forms of agriculture. Some 90-95% of the original extent of the Atlantic Forest has been destroyed. Located along Brazil's Atlantic Coast, the Atlantic Forest has been under severe pressure since the 1600s when the Portuguese sought to extract more resources from their colony. Since, the Brazilian Atlantic Coast has become home to huge population centers, inevitably leading to destruction of the forest. 62% of Brazil's population lives in the Atlantic Forest ecosystem, including the megacities of Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. In addition to pasture for beef cattle, the other primary agricultural uses have been sugarcane and eucalyptus plantations.

In our research of the Atlantic Forest, John, Nick, Ben, and I were looking at efforts to restore the Atlantic Forest. There is a consortium of NGOs, government agencies, private companies, and academic institutions known as PACTO, which are all dedicated to increasing the extent of the Atlantic Forest. With such widespread deforestation and high population pressures, their goals are modest: restoring 15 million hectares (original extent was 120 million hectares). Doing so would reduce species extinction in the Atlantic Forest and provide critical ecosystem services, such as water supply, climate regulation, and flood regulation, to the population centers on the coast. For instance, there is a large protected forest near and around Rio de Janeiro that reduces the temperature in the city by an estimated 4-7 degrees Fahrenheit.

Although private sector actors have historically been primary culprits in deforestation, there is reason to think that they are starting to invest in restoration. The Brazilian Forest Code requires that 20% of any property be protected, natural forest. Although this law is loosely enforced, pulp and paper companies that we visited, like Veracel and Fibria, were spending large sums on restoring parts of their land to natural forest. In addition to legal compliance, another incentive for companies is that restoring other parts of their land allows them to certify their plantations through the FSC, increasing their profits.

Another reason for optimism is the parallels between the Atlantic Forest biome and the forests of the Eastern and Southern United States. Early colonials converted our forests to agricultural uses. But, as the economy has shifted and farming has become less profitable in the North and South, forests have come back. Given that about a quarter of the Atlantic Forest biome is used for low-density, low-profit cattle ranching, a similar scenario could play out in Brazil.

I sure hope so. It's a beautiful forest, but there's hardly any of it left. 

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