Saving Brazil's Atlantic forests
Twenty years of effort had failed to protect the shrinking remnants of Brazil's Atlantic Forests. But in 2001, 61 square kilometres of forest at Murici in the northeast of the country was declared an Ecological Station, the highest form of environmental protection in Brazil.
The turning point in the long and very complicated campaign to save Murici was the British Birdwatching Fair (BBWF) in 1999, when £133,000 was raised for BirdLife's Rescuing Brazil's Atlantic Forests project.
Murici is home to 15 globally threatened bird species, including the Alagoas Foliage-gleaner Philydor novaesi and Alagoas Antwren Myrmotherula snowi, endemic to Brazil's northeast, the former being probably now confined to Murici.
The Alagoas Foliage-gleaner and Antwren were among four bird species new to science found here in the last decades of the 20th century, an indication that perhaps further riches are to be discovered in this biodiversity hotspot.
"We're always trying to help the government with what they need to carry out the next step in implementing the reserve." —Jaqueline Goerck, Head of BirdLife Brazil Country Programme
The BBWF money was used to set up Birdlife's Brazil Country Programme, and to appoint Jaqueline Goerck as its Head. The task of persuading the Brazilian government to take action over Murici now began in earnest.
Jaqueline has worked with national and local departments and organisations, as well as the police, to draw up a plan of action for the site. With the government's agreement, BirdLife has carried out species status surveys - so far, for example, they've found just three Alagoas Foliage-gleaners. "We're always trying to help the government with what they need to carry out the next step in implementing the reserve. If they need a map of the landowners, we try to produce it. Under Brazilian law, each reserve needs an advisory committee, so we helped the government to establish one. We're represented on it indirectly through a local NGO."
Murici isn't saved yet: its status on paper hasn't resulted in much positive action on the ground. The forest remains under the control of the landowners, who clear it for sugarcane and, increasingly, cattle pasture. Cattle enter the forest for shade, and browse the understorey, on which so many of the endemic birds depend. There is illegal hunting and trapping of birds like the Seven-coloured Tanager Tangara fastuosa and Yellow-faced Siskin Carduelis yarrellii for the cage bird trade, and local people take wood for fuel and poles.
"Serra das Lontras was virtually unknown before we started our activities"
The BBWF money lasted three years, and made it possible to raise cash from other sources. It was used, for example, in preparing fundraising applications for a second site, Serra das Lontras, a mountain region forming part of the coastal massif of southern Bahia, also in northeastern Brazil. The money raised purchased 500 hectares of land, which now form a private nature reserve, a refuge for nine globally threatened birds.
Such primary forest as still exists at Serra das Lontras has become confined to the inaccessible tops of the mountains, as agriculture creeps up the slopes.
"Serra das Lontras was virtually unknown before we started our activities," Jaqueline explains. The Bahia Tyrannulet Phylloscartes beckeri, new to science, was discovered in another mountain range, but has now been found here. Two more new species are currently being described from the region. "They were discovered before our work began, but our surveys confirmed that they were new species."
Another recently discovered species, the Pink-legged Graveteiro Acrobatornis fonsecai, is the only representative of its genus, and is dependent on canopy trees in the cocoa plantations. Traditionally cocoa is grown as an understorey crop, in the shade of large forest trees, making it one of the least damaging agricultural uses of the land.
"We have moved a long way since the beginning of the programme."
BirdLife is working with farmers to move to organic cocoa production. "To qualify for organic certification in Brazil, farmers must maintain 20 percent of original forest on their plantations," Jaqueline says. "That will mean corridors and patches of forest on the slopes." The organic cocoa proposals arose out of planning activities funded by the BBWF money.
Jaqueline is frustrated by the slow implementation of real protection at Murici. But as she says, the government created the reserve against all expectations, since two decades of effort had led to a widespread belief among conservationists that the conflicts between different interests at the site were too complicated to resolve. "It's still very complicated, and there are still a lot of issues, but we have moved a long way since the beginning of the programme."
Credits: Nick Langley
British Birdwatching Fair