Protecting the Atlantic Forest

When the first Europeans arrived in Brazil in 1500, there appeared to be little of value. Forgotten for the best part of 30 years, seemingly uninhabitable and occupied by fierce warriors, Brazil seemed at first a poor treasure for Portugal. However, once the Europeans recognised the potential of the natural resources Brazil possessed, they were quick to exploit them. Brazil wood Caesalpinia echinata was especially desirable so was exported in huge quantities over a period of 150 years. Then came the rise in numbers of sugar plantations following the European colonisation of an area north of Bahia. Minas Gerias state hosted explorations for precious stones and gold, whilst urban development was largely on the trade routes through Rio de Janeiro city and Paraty.

Further destruction of the rainforest took place in the early 1800s, when the coffee cycle began in the north eastern part of Rio de Janeiro state. Slash and burn techniques were used to clear the land, causing a massive loss of habitat. Alongside this came the sale of local game meat from tapirs, monkeys, capybaras, guans and coatis.

With the European colonisation and the election of Rio de Janeiro as the capital of the Portuguese empire by the King of Portugal and Brazil, João VI, who had fled his native Lisbon due to the approaching armies of Napolean Bonaparte, there was a rapid demographic boom. This boom led to extensive timber extraction for the railway network development, an increase in exports of premium wood for the furniture trade and for fuel for brick kilns, and a demand fulfilled by Espirito Santo and Bahia states for fence posts as live stock farms prospered.

More recently, with the rapid increased population of Rio de Janeiro from 200,000 in 1900 to 10,000,000 in 2000, health risks meant that the 1940s President Vangas bought machines from America to drain the areas behind the Guarabara Bay to eradicate malaria, yellow fever and other diseases. Also, the demand for food resulted in extending plantations of bananas in the hillsides of Rio de Janeiro in the 1950s.

It is estimated that the greatest destruction of the Atlantic Rainforest occurred after the 1950s, in part as a result of the rapid development of Brazil. In theory since 1986 this devastation should have ended after a law was passed that prohibited any further cutting or clearance and established IBAMA as the state enforcer. However this was too late to protect some of the top predators such as the Jaguar Panthera onca and Harpy Eagle Harpia harpyja and favoured game species such as the Lowland Tapir Tapirus terrestris, White-lipped Peccary Tayassu pecari, Black-fronted Piping-Guan Pipile jacutinga and Red-billed Curassow Crax blumenbachii which require large areas of continuous forest and protection from hunting for their survival.

The more enlightened owners of the farms in the Guapiaçu river basin resisted the total destruction and forest clearance that occurred elsewhere in the Mata Atlântica (assisted by the inaccessible nature of some of the land) and in later years allowed some of the lower forests to re-grow naturally. REGUA’s objective is to ensure that these remaining precious forests are protected forever, and where possible damaged areas are restored and corridors created between the remaining lowland forest fragments.