Despite being one of the most diverse and biologically rich forests in the world, the Atlantic forest in South America is unfortunately also one of the most threatened. Only about eight percent of its original cover remains and its total area has been dramatically reduced to just less than 100,000 square kilometres. If we flip this figure; compared to the Amazon which has lost around 20% of its forest, the Atlantic forest, or Mata Atlântica as it is also known, has seen a staggering 92% decline. To make matters worse, what remains of the forest is severely fragmented and only two percent is still considered to be primary, or pristine, forest.
The Atlantic forest extends along Brazil’s eastern coast, into Paraguay and northeast Argentina. It is home to thousands of species that are not found anywhere else in the world; for example, no fewer than 8,000 of the total 20,000 or more plant species are totally unique to the Atlantic forest, including over half of the forest’s trees. Examples include the Endangered Pau brasil and the Vulnerable Brazilian rosewood tree. But it’s not just the plants: there are many mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish and invertebrates that are found exclusively in the Atlantic forest. As more of the forest is degraded and fragmented by deforestation, these species are increasingly at risk of extinction.
Deforestation in the Atlantic forest is a result of human settlement, dating back centuries to when Europeans arrived in South America and began to clear forest to make way for timber and cattle ranches, as well as to grow crops such as sugarcane, coffee and cocoa. In more recent years land use has shifted towards soy cultivation and pine, tobacco and eucalyptus plantations. The spread of invasive species and the ever-looming presence of climate change are also playing their part, providing competition for food and resources, and decreasing the resiliency of species to changes in their environment.
Of the 100,000 remaining square kilometres, only approximately 23,800 square kilometres are under protection; less than 2% of the forest’s historic range. There are, however, also a range of conservation initiatives working to protect and restore parts of the Atlantic forest.
One such reforestation project by The Nature Conservancy began in 2008 with the ambitious aim of planting one billion trees in Brazil’s Atlantic forest within seven years. If successful, the ‘Plant a Billion Trees’ project will repopulate 2.5 million acres of land, increasing the forest’s significance as a carbon sink that will potentially be able to remove four million tonnes of carbon from the atmosphere each year. As numbers currently stand, 12,574,689 trees have been planted, with one tree planted per dollar donated. Despite being far from the target, this level of reforestation is still significant.
The Nature Conservancy are not alone in their bid to reforest areas of the Atlantic forest. The Alstom Foundation’s project aims to promote long-term sustainability in the remaining forest, and to reconnect fragmented areas which will help to support wildlife. Its target is to restore 15 million hectares of degraded lands by the year 2040, amounting to 12 percent of the forest’s original ecosystem.
While we could go ahead and list every project working to reforest areas of the Atlantic forest, the important message to take from this is why these collective efforts are significant. Many species are on the verge of being lost from the Mata Atlântica, including the jaguar, lowland tapir and giant anteater, and many more species will continue to decline if further action is not taken. Large numbers of these species occur nowhere else in the world, and they require large areas of connected forest to survive and reproduce.
With climate change on the tip of everyone’s tongue, restoration in this forest could serve to provide a much-needed carbon sink, able to remove and store huge amounts of carbon from the atmosphere. Reforestation projects are also able to help local communities to build their knowledge of soil use, conservation and land management, enabling them to protect their land in the future and encouraging them to undertake their own forest restoration, thereby continuing reforestation efforts in the long-term.
Find out more about the Atlantic forest on ARKive’s Atlantic forest ecoregion page.
Find out more about reforestation in the Atlantic forest on ARKive’s reforestation topic page.
Become a conservation professional and help plant trees in the Atlantic forest with Team WILD!
Kaz Armour, ARKive Text Author