Saving the Atlantic Forest in Brazil and Paraguay

Serra do Uruba. Photo: Pedro Develey

Since 2004, BirdLife Partner SAVE Brasil has been working to conserve the Atlantic Forest at Serra do Urubu in Pernambucu State, Brazil. Just 2% of Pernambucu’s Atlantic Forest survives, so despite its small size -around 1000 hectares- Serra do Urubu is of extreme biological importance. Recognised by BirdLife as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA), it is home to one of the rarest passerines in Brazil, the Alagoas Foliage-gleaner Philydor novaesi, and at least 20 other endemic species from the Atlantic Forest slopes of Alagoas and Pernambuco, several of them new to science. Most endemic birds from this region are considered threatened with extinction.

Initial funding from the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation enabled SAVE Brasil to buy the 360 hectare Pedra Danta estate, adjacent to the existing Frei Caneca Private Nature Reserve (630 hectares). The two sites are surrounded by sugar cane plantations. The forest in Pedra Danta was mostly intact, but entirely unprotected, and with high levels of poverty in surrounding communities, illegal logging and charcoal production were increasing. 

SAVE Brasil hired a caretaker, and erected signs around the reserve boundary explaining that access was now restricted. With a year, charcoal production had ceased, and the gaps in the forest were beginning to regenerate. Joint patrols of the reserves were arranged with the national conservation agency, IBAMA, and the Frei Caneca Reserve.

The next task was to persuade local people the forest was worth protecting, and work with them to find more secure and sustainable alternative livelihoods. SAVE Brasil commissioned a socio-economic study of the communities around the reserves, and worked with local partner NGOs with experience in social inclusion and poverty alleviation. The Serra do Urubu Conservation Education Centre was established in the city of Lagoa dos Gatos, and SAVE Brasil began a programme of educational and outreach work.

Among other indicators of success at Serra do Urubu, annual bird monitoring has confirmed populations of hreatened species are stable, and the list of species recorded continued to rise. In 2011 the Pedra Dantas Private Natural Heritage Reserve (PRNP) was officially recognised by the Pernambuco State Environmental Agency, becoming part of the national system of conservation areas. 

But charcoal production was starting up in other forest fragments in the area, and SAVE Brasil obtained further funding from the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation to broaden the scope of the work to the entire region. 

Serra do Urubu is now a pilot area for the “Partnership for the Restoration of the Atlantic Forest”, an initiative involving NGOs, businesses and Brazilian universities, which aims to restore 50 million hectares of forest by 2015. SAVE Brasil’s strategy for the long-term restoration of the forests of the Serra do Urubu region includes developing agro-forestry systems which help rebuild forest connectivity and reduce the pressure for timber and charcoal from the remaining forest patches. They are working with landowners to identify priority forest patches for conservation and restoration. Local people have received on-the-job training at Pedra Dantas and are qualified to undertake forest restoration activities elsewhere. 

Ten years of survey work in the San Rafael National Park, the first IBA to be declared in Paraguay, have established that it is “as important for both avian diversity and threatened species as any other location in South America”. The 405 species recorded so far include 70 Atlantic Forest endemics, and 16 Near Threatened and 12 globally threatened species, including the Endangered Black-fronted Piping-Guan Pipile jacutinga and Vinaceous Amazon Amazona vinacea. San Rafael is also important for grassland birds, with 93 species recorded.

Although San Rafael was decreed a national park in 1992, the boundaries were only delimited in 1997, and still have to be legally recognised. In partnership with the World Land Trust, Guyra Paraguay has already secured the future of 7000 hectares of forest and grasslands, and in 2012 a further 270 hectares of pristine forest were brought under a new model of co-ownership (condominio) with the indigenous Mbyá Guaraní people. Formerly marginalised by lack of land tenure, the rights of the Mbyá Guaraní to use the forest and its products and services are now enshrined in law.

Elsewhere in San Rafael, the La Amistad smallholder settlement is benefiting from a project which encourages them to retain and extend the forest cover on their land.  Payments funded by carbon offset payments from oil and gas extraction services company Swire Pacific Offshore ensure that farmers are better rewarded for conserving the forest than for clearing it for cotton and soy.