22 Nov 2019

90% of this rainforest was destroyed. We’re protecting the rest

The Amazon’s plight, while serious, pales in comparison to that wrought on South America’s other great rainforest, the Atlantic. Over 90% of its original coverage has disappeared over the last century – but BirdLife Partners are working to safeguard what remains.

Tufted Capuchin © Emilio White
Tufted Capuchin © Emilio White
By Emilia Ulloa

Just a hundred years ago, the Atlantic Forest of South America was one of the largest in the world – spanning more than one million square kilometres. Today, however, this crucial habitat is a mere sliver of what it once was - with only eight percent of the original forest remaining, in sparse and isolated fragments. As a result of logging, urban development and the spread of invasive species, the once-imposing Atlantic Forest has become a fragile ecosystem that we are in grave danger of losing forever.

Stretching across the eastern coastlines of Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay, the Atlantic Forest, even in its current impoverished state, remains an incredible collection of eco-regions that house biodiversity to rival the Amazon. Inside its boundaries are species not found anywhere else on the planet: roughly 8,000 species of plants, 90 mammals, 94 reptiles, 286 amphibians and 133 species of freshwater fish.

The destruction of this incredible forest began centuries ago, when European colonists began cutting down the forest for timber and converting land to cultivate sugar cane, chocolate and coffee. And human activity has only increased: currently, the Atlantic Forest coexists alongside a population of more than 148 million people. Two of the largest cities in the world – San Pablo and Rio de Janeiro – are located right in the heart of this forest, and to accommodate this, large swathes of surrounding forest have been converted into soya plantations, pineapple farms and ranchlands where cattle graze. Its vegetation has been felled indiscriminately and many of the plants and animals within the forest have been exploited to the point where they now teeter on the border of extinction.

The few fragments of forest which remain continue to deteriorate due to illegal logging, urban expansion and the illegal trafficking of wildlife. These threats are the same in every country which houses the Atlantic Forest, although the local pressures for each country are unique.

A logging road through the Atlantic Forest © Emilio White

But in unity there is strength, and BirdLife Partners in all three countries have banded together to protect what remains of this irreplaceable forest and restore parts thought to be lost forever. In 2018, the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation, who have kindly funded local work in Brazilian and Paraguayan sections of the Atlantic Forest since 2004, awarded BirdLife International a grant to assist with the long-term conservation and restoration of the Atlantic Forest.

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This investment will considerably scale up our Partners’ activities over the following four years, and will centre around two main strategies. The first is to create buffer zones of sustainable habitat management around the forest. The second is to focus on protecting 13 threatened bird species – of which six are Critically Endangered, two are Endangered and five classified as Vulnerable. This cross-border partnership has the potential to protect over one million hectares of IBAs.


Argentina: protecting the home of nearly half the Altantic Forest

Defined by its red earth and stunning waterfalls, the rugged Misiones Province is home to over 40% of what remains of the Atlantic Forest. Given its importance, it’s no surprise Aves Argentinas are ramping up their work in this area, striving to conserve the southernmost portion of the forest by creating new protected areas and strengthening those that already exist.

Aves Argentinas aims to develop ecotourism in three areas with the highest biodiversity: Iguazu, Yaboti, and the surrounding pastures. A birdwatching route in already in place in Iguazu, and Aves have also begun work to support rural park rangers and promote restoration initiatives in key areas.

Green-headed Tanager © Ciro Albano

Brazil: safe havens for imperilled endemics

SAVE Brasil already protects two of the most important areas for bird conservation in the north east of the country: Serra do Urubu and Murici. It has been 15 years since the organization acquired a 360-acre reserve in Serra do Urubo in order to put in place conservation projects that combine surveillance, community participation, restoration, bird monitoring and ecotourism. In 2001 SAVE Brasil collaborated with the Brazilian government to create a 6000-hectare protected area in Murici. It may be too late to save the Alagoas Foliage-gleaner Philydor novaesi and Cryptic Treehunter Cichlocolaptes mazarbarnetti, two endemics which disappeared around the same time, and are expected to have their extinctions confirmed in 2019’s Red List update. But these havens will hopefully ensure other Critically Endangered endemics, such as Alagoas Antwren Myrmotherula snowi, avoid the same fate.


Paraguay: producing shade-grown yerba mate

The San Rafael Reserve, tucked away in the southeast of Paraguay, is a critical area for biodiversity housing a large number of endemic birds. This land was purchased thanks to a grant from the Aage V. Jensen Charity Foundation in 2012, enabling Guyra Paraguay to begin a project which supports livelihoods of the indigenous Mbya Guarani community, as well as local ranchers. The project involves the promotion of cultivated organic Yerba mate, an invigorating hot beverage popular throughout much of Latin America. Instead of acres of precious forest being flattened to make room for sickly, intensive crops of Yerba Mate tree Ilex paraguariensis, the crops are grown under the shade of forest canopies, as nature intended, improving both the flavour and quality of life for the reserve’s vulnerable local communities, who are now managing around 100 hectares of organic yerba mate.