It extends inland to eastern Paraguay and the province of Misiones in northeastern Argentina, and narrowly along the coast into Uruguay. Also included in this hotspot is the offshore archipelago of Fernando de Noronha and several other islands off the Brazilian coast. Long isolated from other major rainforest blocks in South America, the Atlantic Forest has an extremely diverse and unique mix of vegetation and forest types. The two main ecoregions in the hotspot are the coastal Atlantic forest, the narrow strip of about 50-100 kilometers along the coast which covers about 20 percent of the region. The second main ecoregion, the interior Atlantic Forest, stretches across the foothills of the Serra do Mar into southern Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. These forests extend as far as 500-600 kilometers inland and range as high as 2,000 meters above sea level. Altitude determines at least three vegetation types in the Atlantic Forest: the lowland forest of the coastal plain, montane forests, and the high-altitude grassland or campo rupestre.
The Atlantic Forest has spectacular bird diversity, with over 930 species, about 15 percent of which are found nowhere else. There are 23 endemic genera. Because most of the region’s forests have been cleared during 500 years of exploitation, many species are now threatened, and at least one is extinct in the wild, the Alagoas curassow (Crax mitu). The species was last sighted in the wild in 1987 and now exists only in a small captive population in Rio de Janeiro. BirdLife International has identified four Endemic Bird Areas (EBAs) in the hotspot. The Atlantic Forest Lowlands is arguably the most exceptional, with more than 50 species and 10 genera confined to this EBA. It extends from southern Bahia along the coast to Rio Grande do Sul in Brazil, and including part of Paraguay and Argentina.
There are many unusual birds in the Atlantic Forest. They include the red-billed curassow (Crax blumenbachii, EN), which has its last stronghold in the Sooretama Biological Reserve in the state of Espirito Santo, and the rare Brazilian merganser (Mergus octosetaceus, CR), a flagship for the southern Atlantic Forest in Brazil and Misiones. There are also a number of threatened parrots, such as the red-tailed Amazon (Amazona brasiliensis, VU) and the red-browed Amazon (Amazona rhodocorytha, EN). Murici Ecological Station (61 km2) in the state of Alagoas, and Frei Caneca Private Reserve (6,3 km2) in the state of Pernambuco in northeastern Brazil, protect forests fragments that are now the last stronghold for a number of threatened species. They include the Alagoas foliage-gleaner (Philydor noveasi, CR) and the Alagoas antwren (Myrmotherula snowi, CR).
By the early 19th century, forests in Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and São Paulo were being cleared for timber, cattle-ranches and, most especially, coffee plantations. The rapid of growth of the population in the region led to urbanization, an increased demand for charcoal and firewood, and further forest clearing. Rapid economic development in Brazil during the “economic miracle” from 1960 to 1984 brought heavy industry to southeast Brazil, adding insult to injury with severe air and water pollution and its damaging effects on biodiversity and forests around the cities. The southeast is today the industrial center of Brazil, home to approximately 70 percent of Brazil’s 176 million people and enormous sprawling cities such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte.
Brazil is one of the largest wood pulp producers in the world, with much of the country’s industrial forestry operations located in the states of Bahia, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo in the heart of the Atlantic Forest Hotspot. Plantations are typically monospecific stands of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.). Although recent legislation has restricted the clearing of the remaining primary forests for plantations, enforcement is difficult and logging is still an insidious and pervasive activity, gradually destroying the remaining fragments of the forests that once covered the entire region. The narrow strip of coastal forest in northeastern Brazil has all but gone—only about three percent remains. The best-preserved areas of forest in Brazil survive on the steep slopes of the coastal Serra do Mar mountains in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Paraná.
Argentina’s Misiones province has a greater proportion of its original forest cover remaining (about 45 percent or 10,000 km2). However, is too is rapidly being degraded and fragmented, which has placed the region’s biodiversity at risk. Principle activities there include the intensification and expansion of agriculture, including the cultivation of yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) and tobacco; logging; clearing for plantation forestry by large pulp and paper operations; and the proliferation of small farms due to the influx of landless peasants from other regions of Argentina, besides Brazil and Paraguay. Although 13 percent (11,618 km2) of Paraguay’s original forest cover still exists, the forests have been intensively clear-cut in recent years. It is being deforested to make way for agricultural development and rural settlements, and its remaining forest patches are highly fragmented.
The end result is that destruction and degradation of the Atlantic Forest over the last 50 years has been at least as severe as that of the previous three centuries. Only about eight percent remains of the unbroken tropical and subtropical forests which formerly covered more than 1,233,875 km2. The Atlantic Forest has experienced a period of renewed interest in environmental issues, particularly in the search for effective mechanisms of protecting biodiversity. This is a consequence of several new initiatives emerging from public policies as well as from an increased involvement of non-governmental organizations.
Data-driven identification of conservation targets at the site level has been implemented by BirdLife International through the Important Bird Areas program for the Atlantic forest, and work is underway to expand this approach to define Key Biodiversity Areas that consider all taxonomic groups. These initiatives build from expert-based priority-setting workshops promoted by the Brazilian Ministry of the Environment that have been conducted in all of Brazil’s major biomes and incorporated as government policy through the Brazilian Biodiversity Program. Priority-setting workshops for the Atlantic Forest were held in 1999, coordinated by Conservation International and other institutions, and in April 2000 for the interior Atlantic Forest, involving participants from all three countries. The results of these workshops were the identification of 183 biodiversity conservation priorities in the Atlantic Forest.
Because many of the fragments and protected areas in the Atlantic Forest are threatened and too small and isolated to maintain populations of many species over the long term, the establishment of conservation corridors has been an important conservation strategy. These corridors link key sites by means of a matrix of biodiversity-friendly land use and reforestation. Four conservation corridors have been identified in the Atlantic Forest, covering about 20 percent of the total area of the region. The Pilot Program to Conserve Brazilian Rain Forests (PP-G7), administered by the World Bank, will contribute $44 million over the next several years to establish two corridors, one in the Atlantic Forest and one in the Amazon. The Atlantic Forest corridor centers on southern Bahia and Espírito Santo. Other corridors include the Serra do Mar Corridor in Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and São Paulo, the Pernambuco corridor in Northeast Brazil, and the Green Corridor in the interior Atlantic Forest, which was designated through an important tri-national initiative between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay to link up important forest fragments in the three countries.
There are several major regional conservation initiatives underway in the Atlantic forest. One is the implementation of the Central Biodiversity Corridor, sponsored by the World Bank and G-7 countries in collaboration with the Ministry of Environment, state environmental agencies, and NGOs. Another major initiative is the implementation of the Atlantic Forest Biosphere Reserve. The Biosphere Reserve has been highly successful in its engagement of both government and civil society to promote policies and actions to conserve the last remnants of Atlantic Forest. The Brazilian Natural World Heritage Sites Program is a 10-year initiative, supported by UNESCO and a group of Brazilian agencies. Three of the seven Natural Heritage Sites in Brazil are in the Atlantic Forest, and this program seeks to develop mechanisms, competencies and skills to support key protected areas and enable local communities to pursue development goals that are compatible with biodiversity conservation. The second major initiative related to protected areas is a program promoted by the German Government, through the KfW Bank, in close partnership with some of the southern and southeastern states of Brazil. A large investment was made for the implementation of a number of Atlantic Forest protected areas in the states of Paraná, São Paulo, Minas Gerais, Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul.
The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) was launched in the Atlantic Forest in 2002. CEPF is making grants to civil society organizations along three strategic directions: (1) the “Species Protection Program,” which focuses on the conservation of threatened and endemic species; (2) “The Program for Supporting Private Natural Heritage Reserves (RPPN)”, which assists landowners in sustainable management of private reserves; and (3) “The Institutional Strengthening Program” which provides technical capacity and support for small projects related to biodiversity conservation.