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THE DESTRUCTION OF THE ATLANTIC FOREST


When the first Europeans arrived in Brazil, they encountered a lush forest along the Atlantic coast that ran from the northeast corner of the country to the region south of present-day São Paulo, almost to the border with Uruguay. One doesn’t hear much about the Atlantic Forest these days, as one does about Amazonia, for a simple reason: It no longer exists. To be sure, there are still some parks and preserves, which attract scientists and birders seeking to see and study the 150+ endemic species that inhabit those pockets of habitat. But even those parks contain mostly second-growth forest, and they represent a tiny fraction of what was once there: In the state of São Paulo, forest once covered 82% of the land; in 1950, only 18% of that remained; by 1985, that figure was down to 5%, all of it in government preserved areas (Dean 1995, 247; Sick 1993, 43). The forest outside of São Paulo state has fared no better.

How did this happen? The pre-Columbian Indian populations exploited the forest relentlessly, but they were thinly enough distributed and sufficiently mobile so that they could practice slash-and-burn agriculture on a sustainable basis. With the arrival of large numbers of Europeans and their African slaves, however, the equation changed.  The Portuguese on the frontier were more densely settled, and there were growing cities to supply. A lucrative extractive industry, mining, supplied 80% of the world’s gold in the eighteenth century but also required the clearing of six hundred square kilometers of land annually just to feed the miners (Burns 1993). Then there was sugar: Brazil produced almost all of the sugar consumed in Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and when the sugar market collapsed due to competition from the Caribbean islands, land was often turned over to cattle, which precluded any regeneration of the forest (ibid.). Finally came coffee. In 1900, there were 1.5 billion coffee trees in southeast Brazil: “Coffee marched across the highlands, generation by generation, leaving nothing in its wake but denuded hills” (Dean 1995, 181). Today, driving south from São Paulo, it is hard to imagine that the land was once a vast forest. São Paulo itself seems to go on forever, and when it ends, all one sees is agricultural land, much of it covered by a monoculture of skinny but fast- growing eucalyptus trees, producing wood pulp for paper. It is “a landscape scarred by human striving” (Dean 1995, 1), but that would not have displeased those who did the striving. In 1821 Johann Baptist von Spix declared, “When the inhabitants have cut down the woods, drained marshes, made roads, everywhere founded villages and towns, and thus by degrees triumphed over the rank vegetation and noxious animals, all the elements will willingly second, and amply recompense the activityof man” (Spix and Martius 1824, vol.1, 261). That from a man who was deeply interested in flora and fauna. In that era, it is highly improbable that any of us would have been more enlightened.