A few centuries ago, the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil represented twice the size of France. Nowadays, it is one of the most endangered forests in the world, and its size is more comparable to that of the state of New York. Even with only 7% of its original surface left, the Atlantic rainforest remains home to one of the most important biodiversity reservoirs on Earth: 40% of the 20,000 plant species and 30% of the 2,315 animal species it contains are endemic.
Besides being of crucial scientific importance, this rainforest is also vital to the fight against global warming. In addition, the forest plays a major economic and social role in providing the cities along the coast with water (these cities represent 60% of the national population and 70% of the GDP) and it sustains many rural communities whose livelihoods are directly linked to the conservation of forest resources.
History & Overview
A great heterogeneity of climatic, topographic, and geological ranges promotes quite unique floristic assemblages in the Mata Atlântica forest. At the arrival of the Portuguese in 1500, the forest covered 330 million acres, extending from latitudes -3° to -35°. Throughout the years, the forest has been subject to several disturbances, from logging to sugar cane plantations, from cattle ranching to mining.
Deforestation of the Mata Atlântica followed a logic, which culminated in the industrialization of the 20th century and the expansion of intensive agriculture at the expense of natural forests. After centuries of anthropogenic disturbances, the Mata Atlântica forest has been reduced to about 7% of its original cover. In addition to deforestation, forest fragmentation and local extinction of birds and mammals represent an imminent threat to several species there.
The Mata Atlântica originally covered approximately 200,000 km2 of Bahia state. Nowadays, only 13% of the original forest cover remains in the southern portion of the state, mainly as disturbed primary forests and secondary forests. Several studies have demonstrated that forests in southern Bahia hold a higher level of species endemism and richness than other parts of the Mata Atlântica. Furthermore, southern Bahia is considered to have been a forest refugium during the Pleistocene and a potential center of diversity for some major groups of plants. However, the natural forest in southern Bahia has been heavily converted into agricultural lands in the past 60 years, with only 3.1% of the original primary forest remaining in 1990. About 10% of the remaining natural forest cover in Bahia is represented by secondary forests established after the abandonment of agricultural fields.