The Atlantic Forest or Mata Atlântica stretches along Brazil's Atlantic coast, from the northern state of Rio Grande do Norte south to Rio Grande do Sul.
It extends inland to eastern Paraguay and the province of Misiones in northeastern Argentina, and narrowly along the coast into Uruguay. Also included in this hotspot is the offshore archipelago of Fernando de Noronha and several other islands off the Brazilian coast. Long isolated from other major rainforest blocks in South America, the Atlantic Forest has an extremely diverse and unique mix of vegetation and forest types. The two main ecoregions in the hotspot are the coastal Atlantic forest, the narrow strip of about 50-100 kilometers along the coast which covers about 20 percent of the region. The second main ecoregion, the interior Atlantic Forest, stretches across the foothills of the Serra do Mar into southern Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. These forests extend as far as 500-600 kilometers inland and range as high as 2,000 meters above sea level. Altitude determines at least three vegetation types in the Atlantic Forest: the lowland forest of the coastal plain, montane forests, and the high-altitude grassland or campo rupestre.
Unique and Threatened Biodiversity
Very little of the Atlantic Forest remains, and what does is highly fragmented. Despite this, it still maintains extremely high levels of diversity and endemism, and is one of the highest priorities for conservation action globally.
The Atlantic Forest has been floristically isolated from other South American tropical forests by the savannas and woodlands of the Cerrado for thousands of years, explaining the region’s remarkably high plant endemism—of 20,000 vascular plant species occurring there, about 8,000 are endemic. Endemism in trees is particularly high, with more than half the species found nowhere else. More than 450 tree species have been recorded in a single hectare of forest in southern Bahia. Two trees of great value in the timber industry are today very rare: Brazil-wood (Caesalpinia echinata) and Brazilian rosewood (Dalbergia nigra). Brazil-wood has been threatened since the early 19th century because of its value for furniture and musical instruments. Another endemic timber species, Paratecoma peroba, is approaching extinction in the region.
The Atlantic Forest has spectacular bird diversity, with over 930 species, about 15 percent of which are found nowhere else. There are 23 endemic genera. Because most of the region's forests have been cleared during 500 years of exploitation, many species are now threatened, and at least one is extinct in the wild, the Alagoas curassow (Crax mitu). The species was last sighted in the wild in 1987 and now exists only in a small captive population in Rio de Janeiro. BirdLife International has identified four Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs) in the hotspot. The Atlantic Forest Lowlands is arguably the most exceptional, with more than 50 species and 10 genera confined to this EBA. It extends from southern Bahia along the coast to Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, and including part of Paraguay and Argentina. There are many unusual birds in the Atlantic Forest. They include the red-billed curassow (Crax blumenbachii, EN), which has its last stronghold in the Sooretama Biological Reserve in the state of Espirito Santo, and the rare Brazilian merganser (Mergus octosetaceus, CR), a flagship for the southern Atlantic Forest in Brazil and Misiones. There are also a number of threatened parrots, such as the red-tailed Amazon (Amazona brasiliensis, VU) and the red-browed Amazon (Amazona rhodocorytha, EN). Murici Ecological Station (61 km2) in the state of Alagoas, and Frei Caneca Private Reserve (6,3 km2) in the state of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, protect forests fragments that are now the last stronghold for a number of threatened species. They include the Alagoas foliage-gleaner (Philydor noveasi, CR) and the Alagoas antwren (Myrmotherula snowi, CR).
More than 70 mammals, of a total of over 260 species occurring, are endemic to the Atlantic Forest. They include interesting species such as the thin-spined porcupine (Chaetomys subspinosus, VU) and painted tree rat or cacao rat (Callistomys pictus), which represent monotypic genera, and the maned sloth (Bradypus torquatus, EN), a larger relative of the widespread three-toed sloths (B. tridactylus and B. variegatus). One particularly notable endemic is the Brazilian arboreal mouse (Rhagomys rufescens, CR), one of the rarest of the South American mammals. Originally described from a single specimen collected in the state of Rio de Janeiro in the 19th century, a second specimen was only recently discovered in Viçosa in Minas Gerais.Twelve mammal genera are endemic, including two primate genera that are flagships for the conservation of the Atlantic Forest—the lion tamarins (Leontopithecus spp.), with four species, one of which was discovered only in 1990 on the coast of northern Paraná, and the two species of muriqui (Brachyteles spp.), the largest of the New World primates. All six species are Endangered or Critically Endangered. Of the 14 species of primate endemic to the Atlantic Forest, nine are either Critically Endangered or Endangered, and a further two species are Vulnerable.
Of the more than 300 reptile species occurring in this hotspot, approximately 95 species, and eight genera, are endemic. About half of the nearly 20 species of Bothrops snakes present are endemic. Threatened reptiles in the region include the golden lancehead (Bothrops insularis, CR), endemic to the Ilha Queimada off the coast of São Paulo, the Brazilian snake-necked turtle (Hydromedusa maximiliani, VU) from the states of Espírito Santo, Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro, and São Paulo, and Hoge's sideneck turtle (Phrynops hogei, EN), which ranges from the Rio Itapemirim basin to the Rio Paraíba basin in southeastern Brazil. Five of the world's marine turtle species are known from Brazilian waters: the loggerhead (Caretta caretta, EN), green (Chelonia mydas, EN), hawksbill (Eretmochelys imbricata, CR), leatherback (Dermochelys coriacea, CR), and olive ridley (Lepidochelys olivacea, EN). The Abrolhos reefs, off the coast of southern Bahia, are important feeding grounds for the first three. Throughout Brazil, sea turtles are threatened by hunting, egg collection, and the destruction of critical nesting habitat on the area's beaches.
Amphibian diversity is very high, with more than 450 species recorded, more than half of which are endemic. Fifteen genera, and one entire family—the Brachycephalidae, with six species of the genus Brachycephalus—are endemic. Examples of the many threatened species in this hotspot include three that are Critically Endangered and known from single localities: Phyllomedusa ayeaye, from Poços de Caldas in the state of Minas Gerais; Scinax alcatraz, from the Ilha de Alcatrazes in the state of São Paulo; and Hyla cymbalum, from Grande da Serra in the state of São Paulo (and which has not been recorded during recent surveys and may be extinct).
There are at least 350 fishes known from the Atlantic Forest streams and lakes, and 133 species and 10 of the 68 genera are endemic.
There are two groups of Amerindian cultures in the Atlantic Forest: the Tupi, who live along the Brazilian coast and in the northern highlands, and the Guaraní, who live in the southern lowlands, in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. About 134,000 Tupi and Guaraní people live in the Atlantic Forest region, including all three countries, today.
These societies have lived in the area for hundreds of years but the destruction of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil began in earnest in the 16th century, when Portuguese, Spanish and French colonial settlements were established along the Atlantic coast. Forests inland were cleared for timber, which was then traded for cattle to stock the ranches that were expanding along the major rivers. In the northeast, sugar plantations were established along the coast, leading to the near total destruction of the coastal forests.
By the early 19th century, forests in Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and São Paulo were being cleared for timber, cattle-ranches and, most especially, coffee plantations. The rapid of growth of the population in the region led to urbanization, an increased demand for charcoal and firewood, and further forest clearing. Rapid economic development in Brazil during the “economic miracle” from 1960 to 1984 brought heavy industry to southeast Brazil, adding insult to injury with severe air and water pollution and its damaging effects on biodiversity and forests around the cities.
The southeast is today the industrial center of Brazil, home to approximately 70 percent of Brazil’s 176 million people and enormous sprawling cities such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. Brazil is one of the largest wood pulp producers in the world, with much of the country's industrial forestry operations located in the states of Bahia, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo in the heart of the Atlantic Forest Hotspot. Plantations are typically monospecific stands of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.). Although recent legislation has restricted the clearing of the remaining primary forests for plantations, enforcement is difficult and logging is still an insidious and pervasive activity, gradually destroying the remaining fragments of the forests that once covered the entire region.
The narrow strip of coastal forest in northeastern Brazil has all but gone—only about three percent remains. The best-preserved areas of forest in Brazil survive on the steep slopes of the coastal Serra do Mar mountains in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Paraná.
Argentina’s Misiones province has a greater proportion of its original forest cover remaining (about 45 percent or 10,000 km2). However, is too is rapidly being degraded and fragmented, which has placed the region's biodiversity at risk. Principle activities there include the intensification and expansion of agriculture, including the cultivation of yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) and tobacco; logging; clearing for plantation forestry by large pulp and paper operations; and the proliferation of small farms due to the influx of landless peasants from other regions of Argentina, besides Brazil and Paraguay.
Although 13 percent (11,618 km2) of Paraguay's original forest cover still exists, the forests have been intensively clear-cut in recent years. It is being deforested to make way for agricultural development and rural settlements, and its remaining forest patches are highly fragmented.
The end result is that destruction and degradation of the Atlantic Forest over the last 50 years has been at least as severe as that of the previous three centuries. Only about eight percent remains of the unbroken tropical and subtropical forests which formerly covered more than 1,233,875 km2.
Conservation Action and Protected Areas
Many of the remaining forest fragments in the Atlantic Forest need to be protected immediately in order to prevent species extinctions. About 23,800 km2 of the remaining Atlantic Forest in Brazil is officially under strict protection (including IUCN categories I, II, III), in 224 protected areas—108 national and state parks, 85 federal and state biological reserves and 31 federal and state ecological stations and reserves. The private reserve system in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest is also quite extensive, totaling 443 and covering almost 1,000 km2. In Argentina, 4,598 km2 are under protection in 60 protected areas of various categories, representing about 21 percent of the original Atlantic Forest in Misiones province. There are eight protected areas totalling 1,392 km2 in the Atlantic Forest portion of eastern Paraguay, covering less than two percent of the original extent.
In all, despite the Atlantic Forest’s grim past, the outlook for the future looks bright, thanks to the availability of new conservation instruments, funding mechanisms and a large body of well-trained conservation professionals. The Atlantic Forest region has been the cradle of the Brazilian environmental movement, with the growth of NGO capacity there over the past 30 years being among the most impressive in the tropical world. The most recent survey indicated that there were approximately 700 environmental NGOs active in Brazil; about 30 of these have annual budgets of over $300,000 and about 20 are national in scope.
The Atlantic Forest has experienced a period of renewed interest in environmental issues, particularly in the search for effective mechanisms of protecting biodiversity. This is a consequence of several new initiatives emerging from public policies as well as from an increased involvement of non-governmental organizations.
Data-driven identification of conservation targets at the site level has been implemented by BirdLife International through the Important Bird Areas program for the Atlantic forest, and work is underway to expand this approach to define Key Biodiversity Areas that consider all taxonomic groups. These initiatives build from expert-based priority-setting workshops promoted by the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment that have been conducted in all of Brazil’s major biomes and incorporated as government policy through the Brazilian Biodiversity Program. Priority-setting workshops for the Atlantic Forest were held in 1999, coordinated by Conservation International and other institutions, and in April 2000 for the interior Atlantic Forest, involving participants from all three countries. The results of these workshops were the identification of 183 biodiversity conservation priorities in the Atlantic Forest.
Because many of the fragments and protected areas in the Atlantic Forest are threatened and too small and isolated to maintain populations of many species over the long term, the establishment of conservation corridors has been an important conservation strategy. These corridors link key sites by means of a matrix of biodiversity-friendly land use and reforestation. Four conservation corridors have been identified in the Atlantic Forest, covering about 20 percent of the total area of the region. The Pilot Program to Conserve Brazilian Rain Forests (PP-G7), administered by the World Bank, will contribute $44 million over the next several years to establish two corridors, one in the Atlantic Forest and one in the Amazon. The Atlantic Forest corridor centers on southern Bahia and Espírito Santo. Other corridors include the Serra do Mar Corridor in Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and São Paulo, the Pernambuco corridor in Northeast Brazil, and the Green Corridor in the interior Atlantic Forest, which was designated through an important tri-national initiative between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay to link up important forest fragments in the three countries.
There are several major regional conservation initiatives underway in the Atlantic forest. One is the implementation of the Central Biodiversity Corridor, sponsored by the World Bank and G-7 countries in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment, state environmental agencies, and NGOs. Another major initiative is the implementation of the Atlantic Forest Biosphere Reserve. The Biosphere Reserve has been highly successful in its engagement of both government and civil society to promote policies and actions to conserve the last remnants of Atlantic Forest. The Brazilian Natural World Heritage Sites Program is a 10-year initiative, supported by UNESCO and a group of Brazilian agencies. Three of the seven Natural Heritage Sites in Brazil are in the Atlantic Forest, and this program seeks to develop mechanisms, competencies and skills to support key protected areas and enable local communities to pursue development goals that are compatible with biodiversity conservation. The second major initiative related to protected areas is a program promoted by the German Government, through the KfW Bank, in close partnership with some of the southern and southeastern states of Brazil. A large investment was made for the implementation of a number of Atlantic Forest protected areas in the states of Paraná, São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul.
Finally, the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) was launched in the Atlantic Forest in 2002. CEPF is making grants to civil society organizations along three strategic directions: (1) the “Species Protection Program,” which focuses on the conservation of threatened and endemic species; (2) “The Program for Supporting Private Natural Heritage Reserves (RPPN)”, which assists landowners in sustainable management of private reserves; and (3) “The Institutional Strengthening Program” which provides technical capacity and support for small projects related to biodiversity conservation.
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