How the Atlantic Forest in Brazil Slipped Away From Us

Photo by kyle hargus. Some rights reserved.

Two weeks ago to this very day I arrived in Foz do Iguaçu, a small city in the Paraná state of southern Brazil. The purpose of my trip? To visit the nearby Iguazu Falls, a jaw-dropping natural wonder on the Western side of the Atlantic Forest, on the border between Brazil and Argentina. The falls divide the Iguazu River (which flows from further north in the Atlantic Forest) into its upper and lower counterparts, by way of a breathtaking chasm of waterfalls (272 separate waterfalls in total) that stretch out across 2.5 miles of sparkling emerald jungle. I’ve been telling people I’ve spoken to since getting back to the states that it was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen, and that’s no exaggeration. Here’s another photo from my trip for emphasis:

Photo by kyle hargus. Some rights reserved.

As I witnessed them, the falls were extremely well preserved, thanks to the conservation work of the Brazilian and Argentinean governments. Both sides of the falls have been turned into national parks by their respective governments, and while they both fall victim to some of the trappings of tourist culture, their obstruction of the falls themselves is minimal, and their efforts to reduce waste and ecological footprint in these parks is admirable. However, the falls themselves have only been so fortunate as to be so well preserved because there is an obvious financial motivation to keep them pristine – the surrounding rivers and forest patches of the Atlantic Forest region have not historically been so lucky. Tropical deforestation and fragmentation in this region has destroyed a huge amount of rainforest. While the Atlantic Forest once covered over half a million square miles of Brazil’s eastern coast, almost 90% of it has been destroyed irreparably by agricultural growth and construction of roads and cities. What’s left is a sad, scattered patchwork of forest fractions, little isolated pockets of forest that house near-extinct species (such as tapirs, giant anteaters, jaguars, and white-lipped peccaries) and require protective care now more than ever.
A new study released this week by the Public Library of Science (PLoS) One journal documents this natural catastrophe and projects models (species-area relationship models) that shows a grim future of the biodiversity of this region based on the limitations of these forest patch regions, showing that only 22 percent of the animals that originally inhabited the Atlantic Forest are still present in the patches that are left.
There have been conservation efforts underway in the Atlantic Forest region in the recent past, but researchers are unsure how much of the damage can actually be undone. In 2009, Argentina and Paraguay made a pledge at the XIIIth World Forestry Congress to work towards a zero net sum of deforestation and to put measures into effect to enforce commitments made to protect the region, which having seen bits of it myself, certainly seems more than worth protecting.

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