Agro-ecology in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil – Part 2

by Michael Wironen

Smallholder farmers in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil face challenges providing for their families while also meeting the requirements of Brazil’s Forest Code. Participants in an Agro-ecology Atelier organized by the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics are working as part of a broader effort to identify solutions to protect and restore the Atlantic Forest. This is the second entry in a series documenting the trip.

After a long journey our group arrived in Brazil. We met at a hotel near the beach in Campeche, on the island of Florianopolis. The island is in the midst of a long building boom, with investors from across Brazil as well as Europe, the United States, and beyond flocking to the island’s sub-tropical climate and 40+ beaches. This influx of people and capital presents challenges, e.g. development pressure on remaining forest tracts, as well as opportunities, e.g. the chance to market organic, forest-friendly food products to the region’s increasingly affluent population.

The Mata Atlantica in Santa Catarina State

The first part of our Atelier was dedicated to learning about the Atlantic Coastal Forest (Mata Atlantica) and the ongoing efforts to conserve the few large remaining tracts of forest. The remaining forest is highly fragmented, with only about 2% of the original extent of the forest under permanent protection. As we quickly learned, even areas that are ostensibly protected are not immune to the pressure of development and private interests.

We spent two days visiting the Parque Estadual da Serra do Tabuleiro, one of the largest preserved tracts of the Mata Atlantica in Santa Catarina. As the southernmost “large” tract of preserved forest, the park is of critical importance to the biome’s ability to adapt to climate change.

Development Pressure Threatens Critical Coastal Habitat

We visited a reserve and nature center on the coastal plain just south of Florianopolis. The staff were kind enough to open the reserve for us – it has been closed for a year due to funding shortages – and take time to share their efforts to protect a lowland habitat of mangroves, swamps, and scrub/heath forest that has been virtually eliminated from Brazil’s coast.

Walking through Coastal Lowland Forest/Heath

Walking through Coastal Lowland Forest/Heath

We walked through the forest trails and spoke with the staff, who described some of the challenges facing the coastal lowlands that comprise part of the Park. Given the prime location, the areas abutting the coast have been subject to illegal development. Further development was recently “legalized” through a controversial amendment to the Park’s borders, which declared several prime tracts in the lowlands, including mangrove swamp and a coastal lagoon, as available for development. This is a major loss for the park and will impact rare, sensitive habitat and ecosystem services if development continues as planned. A local environmental non-profit, Fundacao do Meio Ambiente (FATMA), is seeking to reverse this change to the Park’s borders.

Areas in Red Were Recently Removed from Protection

Areas in Red Were Recently Removed from Protection

A Visit to a Rare Stand of Old-Growth Forest

From the coast, we then travelled inland to the heart of the Parque Estadual da Serra do Tabuleiro. After a night of interesting presentations from the State Minister of Agricultural Development and a local forestry professor (more on this in a future post), we settled in for some sleep.

In the morning, a local naturalist briefed us on the habitat and biodiversity in the Park. The Park is a biodiversity hotspot with dozens of endemic species. More tree species are found in a typical hectare of the Park than can be found in all of New England. In addition to a wide range of forest types, high altitude grasslands have developed on organic (peat) soil. Despite being located in a subtropical region, the highest peaks in the Park can get quite cold in winter. During the 2014 winter, the high peaks received snowfall for the first time in decades.

Crossing a Stream

Crossing a Stream

We hiked up a valley, gaining elevation as we moved through the forest. For the first couple of kilometers we passed through secondary growth of differing age. Much of the forest surrounding communities and in the valley lowlands was cleared in the 1940s and 1950s as part of a malaria control program. Some of this forest has started to regrow, creating dense secondary forest.

Secondary Growth

Secondary Growth

After several hours we reached a rare stand of old-growth Atlantic Forest. The height of the canopy was much lower than in the Amazon. Epiphytes clung to tree trunks, limbs, and lianas. We paused for a group discussion, filmed some video, and headed back down to the trailhead. At least for the immediate future, the forest would remain, a testament to the beauty of nature and the capacity of humans to protect the ecosystems upon which we rely for our survival.

Old-Growth Forest in the Mata Atlantica

Old-Growth Forest in the Mata Atlantica

The next post will feature a discussion of the challenges facing farmers in rural Santa Catarina, including examples from several conventional farms in Santa Rosa da Lima.

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