Atlantic forest in more peril than Amazon

A new report calls spot where Portuguese landed in 1500 one of planet's 5

Over the past few years, this small beach community on Brazil's northeastern coast has gained a new airport, a convention center, hundreds of new hotels, and even an IronMan triathlon.

But it has lost trees.

When Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvarez Cabral dropped anchor in the sheltered reef off the coast in 1500, the land fringing the white, sandy beaches was covered in the lush vegetation of the Atlantic Forest.

However, here and all along Brazil's coast, less than 8 percent of the forest's original flora remains today. Back in the widely pillaged Amazon basin, a stretch of land even vaster than Western Europe, scientists estimate that 14 percent of the original land has been destroyed. Although the Amazon garnishes the lion's share of media attention, it is here along the Atlantic where the clock is ticking fastest.

The British journal Nature recently listed this, one of the most ecologically biodiverse places on the planet, as one of the world's five most endangered hot spots. These areas feature "exceptional concentrations of endemic species and are experiencing exceptional loss of habitat."

As Brazilians prepare to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the country's discovery on April 22, environmentalists are warning that the land on which the Portuguese first set foot is in danger of disappearing altogether. Compared to here, even the Amazon is safe, they warn.

"It will be decades before we see a massive loss of species in the Amazon," says Stuart Pimm, a conservation biologist who co-wrote the Nature report. "The massive loss of species in the Atlantic Forest is happening right now. We are in danger of losing a lot of species very quickly."

The World Wildlife Federation just released a report last week projecting that the oxygen-rich Amazon could be completely wiped out in 172 years. Depletion of the Atlantic Forest, scientists say, could come much sooner.

But there are some steps being taken to curb the problem.

Ecologists are encouraging authorities to take more steps to halt the forest's decline. Experts are calling on the Brazilian government to declare more areas off limits to the public and to make more effort to unite landowners, small farmers and other residents who use and often abuse forested areas. And to award those who cause no harm.

Already, a coalition of 40 Brazilian corporations - from furniture manufacturers to floormakers - has made a commitment to solely purchasing lumber logged legally.

Five hundred years ago, the Atlantic Forest stretched across 14 states from Brazil's southern border with Uruguay up along the coast to the country's northeastern corner. Today, construction, logging, mining, and industry all continue to eat away at an area home to more than 70 percent of Brazil's officially endangered species.

The plight of the brazilwood is the most salient example of the area's demise. The Portuguese decided to name the new nation Brazil after seeing the tree's coveted red dye was the color of flaming embers. The wood was perfect for making furniture or boats, and by the year 1605, more than 2 million brazilwood trees had been cut down and taken back to Europe. Despite warnings by the crown and attempts to cut back on exploitation, the Brazilwood was already in danger of becoming extinct.

Things did not improve much over the subsequent four centuries, and it is only in the last few years that Brazil has taken serious steps to save the Brazilwood by setting up government-funded reserves and privately owned plantations.

The anniversary has already helped highlight the plight of the tree that will forever be associated with this huge nation of 165 million inhabitants. People are beginning to understand that such an important piece of their history must be saved, comments Dan Erico Lobao, the chief forestry engineer at a government Brazilwood reserve near the Porto Seguro coast.

"People are now more aware of environmental issues," Mr. Lobao says, as he gingerly makes his way through a nursery of young saplings. "The 500-year anniversary has worked in our favor, and people are showing an interest. Institutions are receptive to saving the Brazilwood tree and are giving money and resources."

The dedication of people like Lobao has paid off. and although it is still rare to find large numbers of Brazilwood in the wild, the numbers in enclosed reserves mean the tree is no longer in immediate danger.

Conservationists like Pimm hope the inclusion of the Atlantic Forest on Nature's hot-spot list and the publicity surrounding Brazil's 500th birthday will serve to focus attention on other endangered species in an area containing 2.7 percent of the world's plants and 2.1 percent of its vertebrates.

Already, one program that gives landowners tax breaks for simply doing nothing to large tracts of forested land has proven a success, says Gustavo Fonseca, a Brazilian who heads the Center for Applied Biodiversity Science in Washington.

Mr. Fonseca and other environmentalists point out that the continued disappearance of the flora would not only rob Brazil of thousands of species and vast swaths of natural beauty, it would provoke a chain reaction adversely affecting the general public.

Fonseca, however, is optimistic that the Atlantic Forest can be saved. Although the efforts are only starting to attract widespread international support, Brazilian activists have understood the challenges for some time. Many live in urban areas like So Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, where enough of the forest exists for activists to see what they are losing.

If the flora is not recycled naturally more money will have to be spent on artificial fertilizers, pushing up agricultural costs, says Vilmar Berna, head of Coopernatureza, a Rio-based environmental organization. Disappearing plant life and more flatland accentuates global warming, meaning more money will go into air conditioning, and water will become more scarce, Berna adds.

Around this growing beach resort, the disappearance of plants and trees has loosened the topsoil on the banks of rivers, and the area is now more vulnerable to landslides and floods, says Paulo Botticelli, a biologist who runs a local environmental organization. Already, soil erosion on rivers north of the town threatens Atlantic coral, four types of which grow nowhere else in the world, he adds.

"The realistic goal is no further deforestation and no more loss of biodiversity," he says. "If we are to achieve the goal for biodiversity it has to be up to 20 percent (of the original forest) in the next 50 years."

"I think we have seen the worst," he adds. "All the elements are in place to change the tide in the region. If we can't do it here we can't do it any place."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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