Atlantic Forest: Our turn to protect the ecological corridor


Originally published on 4/29/2007

A portion of The letter, of Pero Vaz Caminha, should be rewritten as follows:
“From the interior, a view of the sea appeared to us, expansive; because as far as the eye could see, we saw nothing but pastures, eucalyptus plantations and shrimp hatcheries – a land which appeared to be highly exploited…” This was the Atlantic forest of the 21st Century, the “gracious [land] which, seeking to make use of it, lend itself to everything”, as the Portuguese predicted. In the last five centuries, the tropical forest has become one of the most threatened. The large trees of the earth still exist, but they stand in sparse plains.
Efforts to preserve the forest are underway, in what is perhaps the most realistic attempt to combat the predatory exploitation. The project in question is the Atlantic Forest Central Corridor.
It covers 12.3 million hectares of land, including the privileged view described by Pero Vaz Caminha. It extends for more than 1200 kilometers, in the South of Bahia and across the entire State of Espírito Santo. Ten years have already passed since it was first implemented and this year, the second phase will begin. However, the evidence so far is that the destruction of the forests has not stopped.
Preliminary data from a study by the Associação Flora Brasil (Flora Association Brazil) indicates that in the extreme South of Bahia alone, in an area of three million hectares, the loss of Atlantic forest was almost 100 thousand hectares between 1996 and 2004. Exactly the same area as that which has increased in eucalyptus plantations.
The deforestation of an area of land the size of a football pitch every 40 minutes has put pressure on an Atlantic forest which is already severely depleted, but which still has high diversity. Two studies cited by environmentalists exemplify this thesis. In two areas, Uruçuca (BA) and Santa Lúcia (ES), a single hectare contained more than 440 different species of trees. This environment serves as a natural nursery for various animals and plants.
What is left of the Atlantic forest is spread across various fragments, like islands in the ocean. In this analogy, the ocean would represent all the economic activities, such as open fields containing cattle, eucalyptus and coconut plantations, shrimp cultivation tanks, resorts and hotels in a strip of sand, and the highways that cut through the forest and attract new people to the region. The project aims to join the highest possible number of fragments, by means of ecological corridors. Like a game of join the dots. Joining the dots – the ‘islands’ of Atlantic forest that remain – is important for one reason: without it, animals and plants tend to disappear. Look at the example of the Golden bellied Capuchin monkey (Cebus xanthosternos), a species which is exclusive to the Atlantic forest. With the deforestation that has occurred since the 1970s due to the construction of the BR-101 highway, the creature’s habitat has decreased in the South of Bahia. It has become vulnerable. And what’s worse, it is in critical danger of extinction. The adult animals reach, on average, three kilos, sufficient weight to make them worth hunting.
The isolated flora survives, but it is lacking in exuberance. The animals are losing genetic vigor; cross-breeding occurs between families, and the species is becoming weakened. This leads to the threat of extinction. Once commonplace in the region, the spider monkey, the tapir, the howler monkey, the great anteater, and the giant armadillo are no longer seen.
A eucalyptus forest (Eucalipto sp) is one of the threats, but it doesn’t have to be this way. If there were a corridor linking one native forest to another beside each planted area, uniform and extensive, the species would be saved. This corridor could be a legal reserve, a permanent preservation area or an area of replanted native species. In practice, however, the green islands remain islands; isolated.
In 2005, the area planted with forest reform and expansion of eucalyptus was more than 100 thousand hectares in Bahia and Espírito Santo. To extend almost the same in areas set aside for preservation, the government took ten years. During that the period, 42 conservation units in the Atlantic forest were created, in a total of 92,157 protected areas. Less than 2% of the corridor is preserved area.
In that same year, the companies which plant eucalyptus, represented by the Brazilian Association of Planted Forests (Abraflor) preserved or maintained intact 904,027 hectares of the corridor. “Under no hypothesis have we destroyed the native forest. If there has been growth, it has been in degraded regions, abandoned pastures”, said Cesar Augusto dos Reis, director.
In fact, it is only in recent years that the eucalyptus companies have changed their thinking. “Our grandparents were not saints, and neither were some of our fathers”, Reis admits.
Eucalyptus growers have noticed that maintaining the native forest helps to control plagues, and helps maintain a more stable climate in the region. The rivers are fuller. The vegetation retains the rainwater, which then goes into the soil.
Also, the sector is creating social programs to benefit the local population, such as schools, crèches and paved roads. For this they maintain the minimum area required for preservation.
In Brazil, the properties are required to maintain 20% of the land intact. This is the area of legal reserve. If landowners linked one of these areas to another of their neighbors, the corridors would be ready. But this is a modern view, and due to a lack of tradition and enforcement, few comply with the law. The Institute of Socio-environmental Studies of the South of Baha discovered that in the municipal districts of Una, Arataca and Ilhéus, 93% of the properties do not have officially registered areas. And enforecement is at best scant, at worst, non-existent.
Anderson Morais, a business man and former university professor looks out from the balcony of his comfortable house, over a picturesque wood. It would be a privilege to have a back yard with bushes and shrubs such as bromeliads and orchids, but for one detail;
Morais is a shrimp farmer, and only maintains 20% of this piece of reserve in the land because the law requires it. The remainder of the 91 hectare property is used for shrimp hatcheries of up to 3 hectares.
Anderson Morais is from Santa Catarina and today lives in Canavieiras, in the South of Bahia, because the State government invited him. The fishing company Bahia Pesca discovered that the city had 5 thousand hectares of prime land for cultivation of the crustacean, Litopenaeus vannamei. With the exception of two farmers from Bahia, who exchanged pasture for shrimp farming, all the others migrated over the last five years from the South Region. They occupy 400 hectares and a further 2 thousand have already been purchased on salt marsh and mangrove swamp areas.
Morais, shrimp farmer and president of the producers’ association, has a neighboring property full of hatcheries. At each end of the property are the legal reserves, one with 13 hectares and the other with 18 hectares. They are separated by extensive sheets of water, which are the tanks. A Golden bellied Capuchin monkey would have to walk a long distance to cross from one point to the other. “I am not an environmentalist to know if in this area would be of sufficient size for one, two or ten families of capuchin, but what the law required, I did”
In Caravelas, there is a 1500 hectare shrimp farming project which is now under legal dispute. In a single day, it would consume 880 million liters of water. It would take clean water from the mangrove swamp, and return it with remains of chemical products. This could be fatal for snook, jewfish, red snapper and muttonfish (the preferred fish of fishermen), sete-barbas and pink shrimp, oysters, sururu (a type of mussel) and lambretas (similar to oyster). All these depend entirely on the mangrove swamp for their existence. And the Abrolhos reefs depend on them to maintain their equilibrium.
“The Vanammei (shrimp) has already been found outside the tanks, competing with native species”, warned biologist Guilherme Dutra, of Conservação Internacional. For this reason, the corridor project includes 8 million hectares of coastal strip.
“We can no longer promote public policies in a simplified way. Efforts should be redoubled when bringing a high risk activity to a sensitive environment” said the environmental secretary for Bahia Juliano Matos. The message is clear: shrimp farmers will have to adapt to the new reality.
Decline in cocoa led to increased deforestation
The decline in cocoa (Theobroma cacao) in the 1990s left everybody adrift in the South of Bahia and the hardest hit was the Atlantic forest. Farmers depend on the standing forest to plant the fruit. This was the cabruca system, whereby the cocoa trees grow in the shade of the native trees. This rare example of productive conservation was eradicated with the introduction of witch’s broom blight and the decline in prices of the product. Thus, cocoa gave way to livestock, coffee, rubber plantations, peach palm, sugar cane, coconut, shrimp and eucalyptus. Vital activities for generating jobs, although few, and consumers of large swathes of deforested land. A single cow, for example, needs 2 hectares to graze. The cocoa, for better or for worse, fulfilled the role of a minicorridor. Deborah Faria, a researcher with the Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz, coordinated studies on cocoa planting close to conservation units in other, more distant areas. The biodiversity was better maintained in the first case.
A pair of jaguar, the last big cat to enter the Americas, needs 40 mil continuous hectares of forest to live well, said André Guimarães, of the Instituto Bioatlântica. This no longer exists in the stretch of corridor. Eucalyptus companies for which Guimarães acted as consultant believe that a minicorridor from Porto Seguro to Linhares, in the Sooretama Biological Reserve, in Espírito Santo, will only be created 20 years from now. This would form a type of “jaguar passage”.
“Unfortunately, there is no way of stopping the deforestation. The economic system has a much bigger impact on the environment”, said Marcelo Araújo, of the Institute of Socio-environmental Studies of the South of Bahia. “We want to oppose it, but by negotiating alternatives.”
The first phase of the project involved the planning and implementation, widening the inspection systems and structuring conservation units. The concrete actions will now begin. “We are not interested in throwing anybody out”, the project coordinator, Militão Ricardo of the Ministry of the Environment hastened to add. A proposal: Finance reforestation of the native forest, according to the philosophy of corridors There are plans to create or expand 22 conservation units in the two States, enlarging the protected area by 500 thousand hectares.
Aiming high, or utopically, the target of the government is to increase the protected area to 6.5%. E.N.
The sad struggle to save species
Researchers of the Una Biological Reserve are working to add the golden headed lion tamarin (Leontopithecus chrysomelas) to the list of animals at risk of extinction. With the loss of its habitat, it is becoming increasingly difficult to find them in the wild. The struggle of this professor to record the loss is sad, but it may be the only way to save a species. Native to the Central Corridor of the Atlantic Forest, the golden headed lion tamarin is beginning abundant in captivity, but rare the forests of the South of Bahia. Highly territorial, they live in groups and dispute for trees with bands of the same species.The happily coexist alongside the black tufted-ear marmoset (Callithrix Kuhli), but for part of the day only. They are ‘fussy’: they only sleep in hollows, eat few types of fruit and small insects, and drink the clear water of bromaliads.
A young biologist Carlos Eduardo Guidorizzi, aged 27, compares these with capuchin monkeys which inhabit in a reserve in a semideciduous forest, where there is a more severe and clearly-defined dry season, in the town of Itororó. The first is preserved area. In the second, any area of 500 hectares is called a forest. Leonardo Neves, aged 30, analyzes the geographical distribution of the animal, to discover priority conservation sites. For both of conservationists, and for Nayara Cardoso, aged 25, another biologist who works in the Uma reserve, there is no doubt that the primate can only survive in preserved areas. They are lucky to have Jiomário dos Santos Soua, known as Bila, a former sawmill worker. Today he is making amends by working as a field assistant to the researchers. He is the one who locates, in the forest, the animals with identification collars. Working in the Uma Biological Reserve, on the BA-001 highway in the Una to Ilhéus portion, is a priviledge. Only researchers have access to its 11 thousand hectares. It’s like a Garden of Eden for the fauna and flora of the Atlantic forest. This is very different from the work of biologist Vera Lúcia de Oliveira with the maned sloth (Bradypus torquatus). She receives animals that have lost their home. They are always fragile, stressed, or injured, and have low changes of survival. She returns those that survive in the yard where she works, to an area of 43 hectares the Ceplac Zoobotanical Reserve, in Itabuna. “People are earning millions form the animal, while the creature is dying. They only come to carry out research for self- promotion, to publish a work”, he said. She also spoke angrily of the destruction of the Atlantic forest, which only has added to her work, and of eucalyptus, one of the greatest villains. She is skeptical when she reads of colleagues proclaiming that the creature survives in coffee or eucalyptus plantations. “Where is the ecological corridor?” The maned sloth lives hanging from native trees. It spends days and days, without coming down. It only eats the new leaves of species such as figs and ficos. Since 1993, the receovery center has already received 235 maned sloths and liberated 83, the same number as those that remain. “Unfortunately, I am only delaying the extinction of the species”, said Vera, with tears in her eyes.
Espírito Santo and Bahia to receive US$ 14 million in resources
In 2003 alone, deforestation in the South of Bahia has reduced. The result of legal action by the Network of NGOs of the Atlantic Forest and the Bahia Environmentalist Group (Gambá), which prohibited trucks from circulating with sawn logs. “While we were discussing and thinking about the project, the Atlantic forest was disappearing”, said Renato Cunha, coordinator of Gambá. It’s a known cycle: Removal of the noble woods, illegal burning and charcoal ovens. In the Conduru State Park, illegal logging continues until today. There is a lack of inspection. Since 2002, when the project gained resources from the European Community, the German Government and a portion from the Brazilian Government, Bahia has received no further resources. The Government has ignored the project. In the first phase, we received US$ 5 million. In this second phase, we will receive US$ 28 million for the Atlantic forest, which also includes a corridor project. In Amazônia, the idea was to preserve what is left: continuous areas of up to 300 thousand hectares. In the coastal corridor, the average area is 10 thousand hectares. Hence the need for dialog. “We see that for years we have been remonstrating with companies and nothing has been happening”, said Luiz Paulo Pinto, director of International Conservation. The private sector, NGOs and the Government are now sitting down to discuss what to do. One of the discussions is on how to spend the nearly US$ 14 million destined exclusively for the Atlantic forest. For this year alone, US$ 4 million has been signed in agreements. In Bahia, the Public Prosecution Service today punishes those who contribute to deforestation. Previously, loggers or rural landowners felled 10 hectares of native forest and, if caught, paid the price of a basic food hamper. In Espírito Santo, teams now have a helicopter and GPS devices. From above, they can spot areas where forests are being burned, and wood being removed wood illegally and mark out the coordinates with their device. They immediately call the police, who note down the location and go directly to charge the perpetrators of the crime. E.N.
Logging continues with ‘industrianato’
The cutting of noble woods of the Atlantic forest continues in a very peculiar industry, “industrianato” – a term used for production which is a mixture of handicraft and industrial. Despite the ban, the selective removal of jacaranda, pau-brasil, rue, bullet wood and arapati is carried out, to produce wooden dishes, bowls, plates and other utensils. 30 thousand cubic meters a year. “It’s not handicraft, its industrianato”, accused Oscar Artaza, of the Associação Flora Brasil. The pieces are generally sold cheap by Pataxó Indians at the roadsides, near Porto Seguro, Prado and Monte Pascoal, but they were manufactured in back yards. Hundreds of people making a living from this industry, because there are thousands of consumers willing to buy the pieces. E.N.


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