Brazil's Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica)
FACTS ON BRAZIL'S ATLANTIC FOREST
Land Area: From approximately 1,233,875 square kilometers originally to 99,944 square kilometers today.
Human Population: Approximately 126 million people live in southeastern Brazil alone.
Countries: Mostly Brazil, but regions of Paraguay and Argentina, and a small area in Uruguay
Biodiversity: 264 mammals, 1,000 species of birds, over 750 species of reptiles and amphibians, 23,000 species of plants
Percent Forest Cover: Less than 7 percent of original biome extent, much of the area in small, degraded patches: 80 percent of the remaining ecosystem exits in fragments of less than half a square kilometer.
Deforestation Rate: Between 2000 and 2008, 277,763 hectares (2,777 square kilometers) of forest was lost. An average of 34,720 hectares (347 square kilometers) a year, or 0.35 percent loss annually.
Causes of Deforestation: Agriculture (primarily sugar cane and coffee), urban sprawl, cattle ranching, eucalyptus plantations.
OVERVIEW: BRAZIL'S ATLANTIC FOREST
No large tropical forest ecosystem has suffered so much loss as the Mata Atlântica, also known as the Atlantic Forest. Encompassing a variety of tropical forest habitats—from dry forests to moist forests to coastal mangroves—the Mata Atlântica once stretched up-and-down Brazil's coastline, and covered parts of Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina. Today, it survives largely in small degraded patches and protected areas.
Historically, the Mata Atlântica made up over a 1.2 million square kilometers (about a quarter of the size of the Amazon), but after centuries of deforestation for timber, sugar cane, coffee, cattle ranching, and urban sprawl the Mata Atlântica has declined by well over 90 percent: today less than 100,000 square kilometers of the forest remains.
Although nearly adjacent to the Amazon rainforest, the Mata Atlântica has always been isolated from its larger and more famous neighbor. It is, in fact, more ancient than the Amazon. Being cut off from other tropical forests has allowed the Mata Atlântica to evolve unique ecosystems, which harbor a large number of species found no-where else on Earth.
Although very little remains, the Mata Atlântica is no-less threatened: logging for tropical woods, urban and rural sprawl, deforestation for agriculture and biofuels, charcoal collection, clearing for cattle ranching, hunting and poaching, and the simple isolation and small size of many of the forest fragments have placed the Mata Atlantic in truly a state of crisis.
In recent decades conservation organizations and governments have begun to recognize both the importance of and the heavy losses already incurred by the Mata Atlântica. A number of ambitious projects are underway, including reforesting large parts of the land, but there has yet to be a turning point in degradation. To date, every year a little more of the Mata Atlântica vanishes.
Mata Atlântica in Rio de Janeiro
While most of the Mata Atlântica lines the eastern coast of Brazil, the forest complex also extends to three other countries Paraguay, Uruguay, and Argentina.
The Mata Atlântica is present in 13 of Brazil's 26 states, spreading into the interior from fifty to several hundred kilometers and rising as high as 2,000 meters. It spreads far into eastern Paraguay, covers apart of northeastern Argentina, and just touches the Uruguay coast.
Two of the world's largest cities, Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, were both built over the Mata Atlântica. Increased urban and rural sprawl has cut into remaining pockets of forest.
Despite so little forest surviving, the Mata Atlântica remains remarkably rich in biodiversity and endemic species, many of them threatened with extinction.
In terms of flora researchers have cataloged over 23,000 plants, 40 percent of which are endemic to the Mata Atlântica. The area is especially rich in unique tree species—about half of which are endemic. A survey of a single hectare in Bahia found 450 tree species.
New species continue to be found in the Mata Atlântica, in fact between 1990 and 2006 over a thousand new flowering plants were discovered The area has even yielded new primate species. In 1990 researchers discovered a new tamarin: the black-faced lion tamarin (Leontopithecus caissara). In 2006 researchers rediscovered the blonde capuchin (Cebus flavius), not seen—and largely forgotten about—since the 19th Century.
Sixty percent of Brazil's endangered species are in the Mata Atlântica. Due to a number of threats and species left in small, dwindling fragments, a Brazilian conservationist, Antonio Rossano Mendes Pontes, has called species in the Mata Atlântica: 'the living dead'.
Some standouts include:
Today, the Tupi survive in small numbers in remote areas along Brazil's coastline and the country's northern highlands. Once the dominant people along Brazil's coast, the Tupi population may have numbered as many as one million when the Portuguese first arrived. But with the arrival of westerners the Tupi were decimated by disease, war, and slavery.
The Guarani are closely related to the Tupi but speak a different language. They live today in the southern lowlands of the Mata Atlântica, stretching from Brazil to Paraguay and Argentina. The Guarani language is still widely used in regions and is the second language of Paraguay. 46,000 Guarani live in Brazil today making them the largest tribe in the country, however they are threatened by the vast network of cattle ranching, sugar cane, and soy that has been established on their traditional lands.
In all over 130,000 Tupi and Guarani live in Brazil, Paraguay, and Argentina.
Montane moist forests: higher altitude wet forests across mountains and plateaus of southern Brazil.
Coastal Resingas: low forests that grow on coastal dunes.
Atlantic Moist Forests: also known as 'coastal forests', they are evergreen tropical forests with four-tiered structures.
Semi-deciduous forests: inland forests where trees drop their leaves in the dry season.
Atlantic Dry Forests: one of the furthest inland, this forest is a border between the cerrado and the caatinga shrublands. Tropical climate with five dry months.
Campo rupestre: high altitude shrubby grasslands.
To date less than 7 percent of the Mata Atlântica remains, and only 3 percent of the forest that once lined the entirety of Brazil's coast survives. Forest cover is better in other countries: in Argentina 48 percent of Mata Atlântica forests survive while 13 percent of Paraguay's forests still stand. However, both countries' forests face large threats..
Destruction of the Mata Atlântica began in the 1500s when the Portuguese first arrived on Brazil's shores. Wood exportation, especially of the valuable (and now nearly vanished) Brazil wood, began immediately, as did deforestation for cattle ranching and sugar plantations.
The area became the economic heart of Brazil by the nineteenth century producing timber, coffee, beef, sugar, charcoal, and firewood. In the twentieth century eucalyptus plantations took over vast areas of forest, making Brazil a top producer of wood pulp.
In Argentina where a sizable portion of the Mata Atlântica remains, clearing for yerba mate and tobacco plantations, pulp and paper, and logging continues to take its toll. Impoverished landless peasants are also moving into the area. Paraguay's Mata Atlântica forests are suffering much the same fate.
Clearing forests for agriculture—both industrial and small-scale—remains one of the largest causes for deforestation. Big crops in the region remain coffee and sugar. Vast forests have also been cleared for cattle ranching and eucalyptus plantations. In some areas forests are still cut for timber. In Argentina clear-cutting for yerba mate and tobacco are a problem.
Urban sprawl from some of the world's largest metro areas continues to destroy pockets of the Mata Atlântica. Proximity to large urban areas also poses pollution problems. Outside of urban areas, rural towns and crops are expanding as well.
For species within surviving forest fragments, hunting and poaching is a problem in some areas. Poverty is a problem in many parts of the Mata Atlântica and people, desperate both for food and fuel, are exploiting the small pockets of forest.
The size of forest pockets and the distance between them worries many ecologists, as the forests are likely victims of edge-effects. In a changing climate, small pockets of forests will have less resiliency than larger stands to warmer temperatures.
Between 2005-2008, 102,938 hectares of the Mata Atlântica were destroyed, averaging 34,121 hectares per year (down slightly from an average of 34, 965 between 2000-2005). The most extensive losses occurred in the Brazilian states of Minas Gerias, Santa Catarina, and Bahia.
A few notable protected areas:
Serra dos Orgaos National Park lies just an hour outside of Rio de Janerio and spans 11,000 hectares (110 square kilometers). The park is home to endangered birds like the Vinaceous-breasted parrot (Amazona vinacea), the Large-billed Seed-Finch (Oryzoborus crassirostris) and the Black-fronted Piping Guan (Pipile jacutinga).
Poço das Antas Biological Reserve is also close to Rio de Janeria (two hours), but the reserve and adjacent private area is home to the world's only wild population of golden lion tamarins, which has become a symbol for the Mata Atlântica.
Chapada Diamantina National Park spans three major Brazilian ecosystems: the Mata Atlântica, the cerrado, and the caatinga shrublands. The park is also home to Brazil's highest falls.
Iguazu National Park protects 67,000 hectares (670 square kilometers) of Argentina's Mata Atlântica region, as well as the world famous Iguazu falls. The park has 68 species of mammals, 422 birds, 38 reptiles, and 13 amphibians.
San Rafael National Park covers 70,000 hectares (700 square kilometers) of the Mata Atlântica in Paraguay. Classified an Important Bird Area (IBA) by International Birdlife, the park has little infrastructure and is considered by many to be simply 'a park on paper' with numerous impact from poaching to deforestation still on-going in the park.
One initiative was established by Brazil's President, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in November 2008. At the time Carlos Minc, Brazil's Environment Minister, said the government aims to restore the Atlantic forest to 20 percent of its original cover, which would require reforestation on an estimated 150,000 square kilometers—more than doubling the forest cover that survives today. It's an ambitious plan, but the proof will be in implementation.
A separate program by the Nature Conservancy is working to plant one billion trees over approximately 10,000 square kilometers in the Mata Atlântica. Donors can plant a tree for every US dollar given. So far the program has planted nearly six million trees.
The project is focusing on reforesting important watersheds in the area in order to improve their water quality. Farmers are being compensated for the amount of 'clean water' they produce byway of reforestation.
The Nature Conservancy hopes to complete the project by 2015.
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