Mention of Brazil’s biodiversity conjures up images of the Amazon basin and its rapidly diminishing tropical rainforest. There is, however, another endangered ecosystem in Brazil that demands even more urgent attention.
The Atlantic forest — Mata Atlântica — once covered 1.2 million square kilometres, over 12 per cent of Brazil. Bordering the Atlantic coast for thousands of kilometres, it used to stretch up to 1,000 kilometres inland. Today, only about 80,000 square kilometres — around 7 per cent of the original forests — remain.
The forest now consists of small, vulnerable fragments of land. But they are home to 7 per cent of our planet’s animal and plant species. As Laury Cullen Jr explains: "The Mata Atlântica is the very top ecosystem for endemism on the planet — 55 per cent of the animals and plants found here are found nowhere else."
Linking Forest Fragments
The Brazilian forestry engineer has spent the past decade coordinating efforts to conserve a large part of the remaining inland Atlantic forest in the state of São Paulo through an ambitious project involving farmers, landowners, sugar plantations and local government.
He now plans to expand his project, linking forest fragments with new forested wildlife corridors, and helping over 400 families to cultivate 120 square kilometres of degraded farmland. For this plan, which will have major benefits for many people and species, 38-year-old Laury Cullen has been chosen as an Associate Laureate.
In São Paulo state about 84 per cent of the remaining inland Atlantic forest is in the Pontal do Paranapanema, a poor, rural area that includes the 360-square-kilometre Morro do Diabo state park — home to more than 350 species of trees and 300 species of butterflies, along with 275 bird and 40 mammal species — together with a dozen smaller forest fragments totalling 120 square kilometres. Outside the park, most land is privately owned and used for sugar plantations and cattle ranching — activities that have resulted in deforestation and land degradation.
Space for Wildlife
After completing a bachelor’s degree in forestry engineering at the University of São Paulo in 1990, Cullen moved to Pontal do Paranapanema to study a critically endangered monkey, the black lion tamarin. He realised that the forest fragments were fast becoming too small for the many species living in them to survive. So he began researching the genetic diversity and behaviour of threatened species, including jaguars and tapirs, and fitted some of these animals with radio collars in order to use them as "ecological detectives", tracking their movements from one forest fragment to another.
Working with the Instituto de Pesquisas Ecológicas (the Institute for Ecological Research — IPÊ), which he co-founded in the early 1990s, Cullen coordinated studies of the larger forest fragments in a bid to determine how to conserve them and link them to one another, providing the animals with the means to migrate easily across the smaller forest fragments and breed within a sufficiently large gene pool.
Educating New Settlers
Even while Cullen and his colleagues worked to ensure the survival of the forest, a political plan presented a potential threat. In the late 1990s, the Brazilian government launched an ambitious scheme to relocate 50,000 families from shanty towns to rural areas, giving each family a plot of land. Many larger farms have since been subdivided, and plots of 12 to 15 hectares handed over to 6,000 poor families.
In São Paulo state, much of the land given to settlers is adjacent to forest fragments that still support an outstanding diversity of flora and fauna — including the black lion tamarins, jaguars, ocelots, pumas, tapirs and blue-and-yellow macaws.
Cullen decided that the forest fragments needed to be both protected and linked to ensure that the agricultural practices of the new settlers did not cause further biodiversity loss. "These isolated forest patches are now too small to maintain their ecological integrity without genetic exchange with other forest patches," Cullen says. So the fragments are being linked in a biodiversity network.
An IPÊ team has set up a scheme to educate farmers about the importance of conserving the forest. This includes training members of the powerful landless workers’ movement, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais, in the use of agroforestry, land management for the simultaneous production food, crops and trees. "We teach them that by using agroforestry principles they can bring back the productivity of the land," says Cullen.
Reforesting Pilot Areas
This project led to the IPÊ reforesting pilot areas of land with the help of small landholders. Using information from the radio-tagged animals, the farmers helped create protected wildlife corridors, planted with native trees.
The farmers began planting 50m-wide belts of native trees around the existing forest patches, to provide a buffer zone against the damaging incursion of invasive plants. They are also planting "stepping stones" — new patches of native trees that increase connectivity between forest fragments and provide shade for crops such as coffee beans.
The farmers have donated their time to the project in exchange for training and equipment to protect their new trees from their cattle. By the end of 2003, 80 small landholders were involved at all stages of the project.
Between now and 2007, Cullen plans to link five remaining forest fragments in Pontal do Paranapanema with new wildlife corridors. Where these are not feasible alone, he plans, in partnership with farmers, to establish fenced buffer zones and stepping stones.
Helping the Poor
Adopting forestry techniques is the only way these people will make a living on such degraded land. This creates a win-win situation for conservationists and farmers alike. "We win because we now have an army of people helping to plant new forest, and the small landholders win because they get to make a ‘living’," says Cullen. So the landless people who were seen as a problem because of their need to deforest and cultivate land have become part of the solution.
Laury Cullen’s success in weaving together an environmental protection plan combining agroforestry techniques, wildlife research and farmer participation is winning him high praise, not least from Dr Richard Bodmer, of the University of Kent, in England, who is supervising Cullen’s Ph.D. research on jaguars in the Pontal region. "His project, combining agroforestry and wildlife habitat corridors in a new exciting way, is at the cutting edge of conservation and will have lasting impact both for wildlife and for local people," Bodmer says. "This is exactly the type of project that is needed for successful conservation."
Published in 2004