Atlantic Forest: 7 Percent Left, Still No Solution

Mention the Amazon rain forest, and most people go dreamy-eyed with visions of lush, impenetrable greenery, tropical scents of vanilla and cocoa, giant snakes slithering along vines, and Indians standing on the banks of a mighty river.

Mention the Atlantic rain forest, and most people are likely to respond, "What?"

Many environmental activists see the world's fascination with the Amazon as a misguided focus that blots from international consciousness others of the world's ecological wonders in more immediate danger of disappearing.

One of those lesser-known wonders is Brazil's Atlantic rain forest.

"Everybody talks about the Amazon, but there are many other environmental problems in Brazil, the Atlantic rain forest being just one," says Garo Batmanian, executive director in Brasila of the World Wide Fund for Nature. "And unlike the Amazon, the Atlantic only has less than 7 percent of its original land cover left."

When Portuguese explorers hit Brazilian shores nearly 500 years ago, the Atlantic rain forest stretched more than 4,500 square miles from present-day Rio Grande do Norte State to Rio Grande do Sul.

Today the Atlantic rain forest is one of the world's two most threatened tropical forests, along with Madagascar's.

Part of the Atlantic's importance lies in its dwindling but still astonishing biodiversity, which is "at least as important as the Amazon's," according to Mr. Batmanian.

Many species of primates only live in the Atlantic rain forest, he says. In November, botanists in Bahia State counted more than 450 tree species in one 2.5-acre chunk of the forest.

Today the Brazilian states that include the Atlantic rain forest are working with national and international organizations to preserve what remains and repair some of the deforested lands.

World Bank money is helping to set aside "ecological corridors" where native species can thrive, and a "tree bank" has been set up to collect the seeds of endangered trees and cultivate them.

"It's a good lesson for the Amazon," says Mr. Batmanian. "Better not to wait until there's only 7 percent of it left before serious action is taken."

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