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Restoration turns pastures into wildlife haven in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

A lowland tapir with its calf.

A lowland tapir with its calf. Guapiaçu Ecological Reserve reintroduced the lowland tapir to Rio de Janeiro for the first time in 100 years. Image by Nick Athanas via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

  • After centuries of intensive deforestation, experts say fragmentation and degradation are worse in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest than in the Amazon.
  • Experts say restoration can complement primary forest conservation by helping to reconnect fragments of original forest and to bring back lost biodiversity.
  • The nonprofit Guapiaçu Ecological Reserve conserves 12,000 hectares (29,652 acres) of Atlantic Forest in the Guapiaçu River Basin, protecting both the environment and the water supply of 2.5 million people.
  • In two decades, the nonprofit has planted 750,000 trees, seen a return of hundreds of birds, and reintroduced the lowland tapir (Tapirus terrestris) to Rio de Janeiro for the first time in 100 years.

CACHOEIRAS DE MACACU, Brazil — Gesturing across the still, green water reflecting the backdrop of forest-clad mountains, Nicholas Locke told of the time when this flourishing wetland was once a barren pasture after being drained, cleared, and used for cattle grazing.

Over the last five centuries, much of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest has suffered a similar fate. But since 2006, this wetland has been transformed thanks to Locke’s relentless restoration efforts to rewild one of Brazil’s most important biomes. Now, caimans can be seen peering through clusters of reeds while great egrets nest in waterside canopies. “The birds came back,” Locke told Mongabay while walking in the area.

The wetland is part of 12,000 hectares (29,652 acres) of primary and restored Atlantic Forest in the state of Rio de Janeiro, protected by Locke’s nonprofit Guapiaçu Ecological Reserve (Regua). Once largely fragmented and bare, the area now supports 487 types of birds and hundreds of tree species after 750,000 trees were replanted in the last two decades.

A lake in Guapiaçu Ecological Reserve.
Once a pasture drained of water and cleared of vegetation, conservation efforts restored the area’s former wetland and saw hundreds of species of birds return to the region. Image © Sarah Brown.

The Atlantic Forest originally stretched 1.2 million square kilometers (463,000 square miles) down the northeast coast of Brazil to the south before sprawling into the north of Argentina and southeast of Paraguay — an area the size of Peru. Since the European arrival in the 1500s, at least 90% was cleared for Brazil’s growth and development. Many of Brazil’s urban areas now lay on top of what once was the Atlantic Forest, and what remains is highly fragmented.

Despite its depletion, the Atlantic Forest remains an area of high endemism and is a global conservation priority region. “It’s a biodiversity hotspot,” Thiago Belote, conservation specialist at WWF, told Mongabay by phone. “It’s also important for people — several sectors of the Brazilian economy depend on the ecosystem services produced there.”

The most important steps to protect the Atlantic Forest are to slash greenhouse emissions and cease primary forest deforestation. “The first priority is that we should be protecting what’s already there,” Karen Holl, professor of environmental studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told Mongabay by video call.

But restoration is a solution to help rebuild what’s already been lost and encourage natural regeneration. “Restoration in the Atlantic Forest is fundamental because it’s already been degraded, even more so than the Amazon,” Ricardo Rodrigues, an ecologist at the University of São Paulo, told Mongabay by phone. “Most of the remnants have been exploited, and it is highly fragmented.”

Since 2009, communities and NGOs have united to restore 15 million hectares (37 million acres) of native Atlantic Forest in a coalition known as the Trinational Atlantic Forest Pact, recognized by the United Nations in December as one of 10 World Restoration Flagship Initiatives. More than 300 signatory organizations support the Pact, including Regua.

Guapiaçu River Basin forest.
The nonprofit purchases unused land to restore the Atlantic Forest using native species. It protects the Guapiaçu River Basin, ensuring quality water supply for 2.5 million people. Image © Sarah Brown.
Nicholas Locke.
Nicholas Locke owns the nonprofit Regua and began to restore the land at the beginning of the 2000s. Image © Sarah Brown.

A ‘win-win’ conservation approach

In the early 2000s, Locke and his wife, Raquel, created Regua when they decided to transform their farm back to its original forested state. They aim to preserve this once fragmented area, while raising awareness of the importance of conservation through ecotourism in their reserve and local community education.

“The fruit of this restoration is the tapir reintroduction program,” Locke said. Their reserve supports the reintroduction of the largest land mammal in South America, the lowland tapir ​​(Tapirus terrestris), previously extinct in Rio de Janeiro for 100 years. Currently, 15 tapirs thrive within Regua’s grounds, with plans to increase the population to 50.

The region is also within the Guapiaçu watershed, one of the most important river basins in northern Rio, ensuring clean water for 2.5 million people who are vulnerable to unstable water security, a 2021 study found.

“It’s a win-win,” Locke said. “The forest maintains biodiversity, connects existing forest fragments and contributes to water security for the watershed’s downstream population.”

Relying on donations, Regua has so far purchased 110 surrounding properties that no longer have any agricultural potential. “There is a consensus that the best way to protect land is through purchasing,” Locke said. “We have received enormous support from around the world in our endeavors to secure these properties to protect forests and biodiversity.”

Experts say that a long-term commitment is important to the success of restoration projects, and purchasing land is one way of achieving this. “In that sense, this project [Regua] looks good because they’re making sure there is secure ownership,” Holl said.

Guapiaçu River Basin forest.
As well as conserving the primary forest on its land, Regua aims to boost biodiversity and reduce fragmentation with restoration efforts. Image © Sarah Brown.

Restoring a forest

In a spacious, humid greenhouse, Raquel Locke, Nicholas’ wife, wandered through rows of seedlings planted tightly together in pots and tucked into soil-filled tubes. They spend one year in the nurseries, Raquel explained, before the seedlings are replanted in land designated for restoration.

“There are 120 native species here at the moment,” she told Mongabay. “Almost all the seeds are gathered from the nearby mature forests.” Up to 90% are collected from the forests in the surrounding mountains. The rest are brought in by state-owned nurseries.

As well as being a time-intensive process, restoration can be expensive. It costs on average between $5,000 and $6,000 per hectare for restoration. “The downside is that a project of this magnitude takes years and requires extensive support to establish,” Raquel Locke said. “Once set up, though, costs go down and ecoservice payments along with tourism keep it going.”

For restoration efforts to be successful, they must provide value to local communities, experts say. More than 70% of Brazilians live in an Atlantic Forest region and depend on the biome’s environmental services to maintain air quality and supply energy and water. Regua works with local schools to provide weekly environmental education activities to emphasize the importance of conserving their forests and protecting the water supply. They also welcome local and global universities as well as visiting researchers to go there to help study the species of the Guapiaçu watershed. “This helps involve the community and better understand the wildlife in the region,” Locke said.

The different native seeds.
The nonprofit uses native seeds to restore the surrounding land. Up to 95% of the seeds are collected from primary forests 400 meters (1,300 feet) up the Serra do Mar mountain range. The rest are sourced from state-owned nurseries. Image © Sarah Brown.
A nursery of seedlings.
The nursery contains thousands of seedlings representing 120 species. Within the Regua region, they have identified 700 different tree species. The whole Atlantic Forest contains approximately 4,500 different species. Image © Sarah Brown.

Protecting a vulnerable biome

Deforestation is still an issue for the Atlantic Forest, especially in the states of Bahia and Minas Gerais, which are among the two worst affected. In September last year, SOS Atlantic Forest environmental foundation reported that 21,302 hectares (52,638 acres) were deforested — an area equivalent to twice the size of Paris.

Data from research collective MapBiomas shows forest cover has remained stable between 1985 and 2020 after years of high deforestation. However, the apparent stability hides the loss of mature forests versus the regeneration of young forests. During the same period, the loss of primary vegetation was 10 million hectares (24.7 million acres), whereas the area of secondary vegetation gained 9 million hectares (22.2 million acres).

Complementing conservation of the primary forests with restoration efforts is fundamental, experts say. With 80% of the Atlantic Forest in private hands, landowners, such as the Locke family at Regua, play a huge role in the future of the forest.

In the garden just outside the Regua visitor center is the belvedere, a two-tier viewing platform. From its elevated viewpoint, Locke looked out across the bustling canopies and the Serra do Mar mountains. “All of this was once bare,” he said. “We want to raise awareness of why this forest is precious,” he added as a chorus of birds whooped and whistled in the background.


Banner image: A lowland tapir with its calf. Guapiaçu Ecological Reserve reintroduced the lowland tapir to Rio de Janeiro for the first time in 100 years. Image by Nick Athanas via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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Natural regeneration and women-led initiatives help drive Atlantic Forest Pact

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