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Deforestation drops in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, but risks remain: experts

Golden lion tamarin Leontopithecus rosalia. Image by Mab Shoot CC BY 2.0

  • A joint report from the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and NGO Fundação SOS Mata Atlântica based on satellite imaging shows an annual reduction of 9.3 percent in deforested areas in the Mata Atlântica, the country’s most endangered biome.
  • The cleared area in 17 Atlantic Forest states between October 2017 and April 2018 totaled 11,399 hectares (28,167 acres), which is 1,163 hectares (2,874 acres) less than over the same period a year earlier.
  • However, intense pressure from agribusiness and the real estate market continues placing the Mata Atlântica’s ecosystems under threat, risks that include ongoing deforestation, losses in biodiversity, and potential extinction of species, experts warn.

Deforested areas in Brazil’s most imperiled biome, the Mata Atlântica, were reduced by 9.3 percent from October 2017 to April 2018, compared year-to-year, according to a joint report from the Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and Fundação SOS Mata Atlântica, an NGO.

While this is good news, intense pressure from agribusiness and the real estate market continues to place Mata Atlântica ecosystems under increasing threat, with ongoing risks that include deforestation, biodiversity losses, and possible extinction of species, experts said.

No large tropical forest ecosystem has suffered as much loss as the Mata Atlântica, also known as the Atlantic Forest. Encompassing a variety of tropical forest habitats — ranging from dry forests to moist forests to coastal mangroves — the Mata Atlântica once stretched up-and-down Brazil’s coastline, and covered parts of Paraguay, Uruguay and Argentina. Today, it survives largely in small degraded patches and protected areas.

In the 2017-2018 period, an area of the biome totaling 11,399 hectares (28,167 acres) was cleared in 17 Brazilian states, which is 1,163 hectares (2,874 acres) less than the 12,562 hectares (31,041 acres) of deforestation recorded a year earlier, the report said.

The data is based on the analysis of 87 percent of the approximately 131.03 million hectare (32.38 million acre) total area of the Mata Atlântica biome. The report explained that 10 percent was only partially evaluated due to cloud cover, while 3 percent could not be assessed due to unavailability of images.

Forest losses weren’t evenly distributed throughout the biome, with just four Brazilian states accounting for more than 80 percent of cleared areas in the Mata Atlântica. The Southeastern state of Minas Gerais accounted for the biggest deforested area: 3,379 hectares (8,350 acres), followed by the Northeastern state of Piauí with 2,100 hectares (5,189 acres), the Southern state of Paraná with 2,049 hectares (5,063 acres), and the Northeastern state of Bahia with 1,985 hectares (4,905 acres).

This Envisat satellite image shows a portion of three Brazilian states along the Atlantic coast: Rio de Janeiro, Espírito Santo and southern Bahia. To the south, clouds cover the country’s second largest city, Rio de Janeiro. Much of the area pictured was covered by the Atlantic Forest, or Mata Atlântica, a region containing a diverse and unique mix of vegetation and forest types. It is one of the most threatened biomes on Earth. Image courtesy of European Space Agency CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO.

Atlantic Forest under pressure

While logging and conversion of native vegetation for croplands and cattle pastures have been the primary drivers of Mata Atlântica deforestation for centuries, the real estate market and “authorized” deforestation are now also reducing the number of trees in urban areas, mostly in the Southeastern region, said Mario Mantovani, director of public policies at Fundação SOS Mata Atlântica, an NGO.

“There is a lot of pressure on Mata Atlântica’s remaining areas in big cities and metropolitan regions.… In the past people had moved to the city to escape the woods; today a lot of people are moving to live closer to nature,” Mantovani said.

Deforestation in the Mata Atlântica. Image by Themium CC BY 1.0

In rural areas, charcoal production has also become a key deforestation driver, especially in the northern areas of Minas Gerais and Bahia, he noted.

For André de Almeida Cunha, a professor at the Department of Ecology at the University of Brasília (UnB), one of the major environmental challenges is to balance Mata Atlântica preservation against agribusiness expansion, particularly in the states of Bahia and Piauí, where the accelerated advance of grain production is fast consuming habitat.

“Minas Gerais, Bahia and Piauí are strategic states for the conservation of what remains of Mata Atlântica, along with Paraná and Santa Catarina [states]. On one hand they still hold a considerable part of the Mata Atlântica forest, but on the other they face the highest cover losses,” Cunha said.

“Just as important as analyzing the loss of Mata Atlântica in the last [most recent] period is to look at the historical series, and think about prospects going forward,” he added.

Fog settles over a portion of the Mata Atlântica in Paraná state. Image by Angeloleithold CC BY-SA 3.0.

“More worrying” than the Amazon

Although most national and international environmental outcry has focused on Amazon deforestation, it’s also important to shed light on, and show concern for, other biomes where forest loss is “even more worrying,” said Pedro Brancalion, a researcher at the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (Esalq) at the University of São Paulo (USP).

“Mata Atlântica is still the most threatened biome. The [deforestation] process we see in the Amazon began 500 years ago in Mata Atlântica… There is still deforestation [underway] in Mata Atlântica [today] where biodiversity losses have not been offset by reforestation initiatives,” Brancalion explained.

“If we lose 100 hectares of mature forest and gain 500 hectares of new forest, we cannot say that everything you lose in mature forests will regenerate in new forests… Sometimes biodiversity losses in this process are even unknown,” he noted, calling for more Atlantic Forest conservation programs instead of just relying on reforestation projects.

Close up view of the Atlantic Forest, state of Paraná, Brazil. Image by Angeloleithold CC BY-SA 3.0.jpg

It’s important to note that the term “reforestation” has many definitions depending on who is using the word, and can include plantation forests, such as large-scale plantings in Brazil of Eucalyptus trees, utilized by the international paper industry. Eucalyptus monocultures have been characterized by environmental activists as “biodiversity deserts.” Such industrial plantations, which are common within the Atlantic Forest biome, are not counted in the annual deforestation/reforestation analyses done by INPE and Fundação SOS Mata Atlântica.

Unlike the Brazilian Amazon, the Atlantic Forest biome until recently lacked a real time system of deforestation alerts. Then in June of this year the region was included in MapBiomas Alerta, a system that validates and refines native vegetation loss alerts in all Brazilian biomes with high-resolution images, and which is considered by experts to be a cutting-edge system for tracking spatial deforestation and for providing timely alerts. The initiative was launched by open-access platform MapBiomas — a network of NGOs, universities and technology companies in collaboration with Google.

“[Before Mapbiomas alerta]… there were monitoring systems just to provide information after the problem happened in Mata Atlântica… Today the alerts system is a great tool that helps monitor deforestation when it happens,” Brancalion said. He added, however, that political will is needed to transform that data into action to curb ongoing deforestation.

“Today’s Mata Atlantica could be tomorrow’s Amazon, depending on adopted public policies,” Brancalion said. But strong forest protection measures seem unlikely to be forthcoming from the agribusiness-friendly Bolsonaro administration.

INPE and Fundação SOS Mata Atlântica have monitored Mata Atlântica deforestation since 1986. The biome is protected under federal law through a measure which has been endorsed by all 17 states in the region, Mantovani said.

“Even though the government hasn’t invested much in science, INPE has become an island of excellence,” he said of the agency’s monitoring operation, considered by many experts to be the finest deforestation measuring and warning system in the tropics.

INPE’s cutting-edge satellite-imaging technology used to track deforestation has recently been endorsed and defended by experts contacted by Mongabay. Those analysts dismissed Bolsonaro administration accusations of data manipulation. The government has offered no evidence to back up its recent charges of the inaccuracy of INPE data, which has shown that Amazon forest losses may be on the rise since Bolsonaro took power.

Banner image caption: Golden lion tamarin (Leontopithecus rosalia). Image by Mab Shoot CC BY 2.0.

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