The “mata atlântica”, the other devastated forest of Brazil

An aerial shot of the Amazon River winding through the canopy. A jaguar lying on a branch, two of its paws dangling nonchalantly in the air. the Chief Raoni surrounded by children, his mouth adorned with a ritual labret delivering cries for help.

Huge tree trunks give way under the teeth of roaring chainsaws, before being loaded onto large trucks. Flames that carry away thousands of hectares of almost unexplored vegetation.

The forest that hides the forest

These images of the Amazon rainforest, we all know them, they have long belonged to our collective consciousness. They are deeply implanted in the brains of all human beings who have had access to television or the Internet in recent decades.

Thanks to them, no one today is unaware of the threat that legal deforestation and illegal of the Amazonian forest weighs on its splendours, its inhabitants and its biodiversity. Not to mention the overall ecological risk of losing what is called somewhat easily “the green lung of the planet”.

If this media coverage did not prevent Jair Bolsonaro from doubling the level of deforestation during the four years of his presidential mandate, it sometimes conceals the tragic fate of another forest of capital importance for biodiversity: the mata atlanticathe atlantic forest.

The mata atlantica according to the border defined by the WWF. | NASA and Miguelrangeljr via Wikimedia Commons

“The Atlantic Forest is a very large set of eco-regions that covers the entire southeastern coast of Brazil, up to eastern Paraguay and northern Argentina”describes Daniel Vallauri, forest expert for the World Wildlife Fund for Nature (WWF).

An immense territory which once extended over more than 1.29 million square kilometers but whose surface area has shrunk dramatically over the centuries: “The most pessimistic analyzes consider that there are only around 11% that are well preserved and 28% for the most optimistic. It is therefore at least two-thirds of this forest which has been degraded, used to build cities, for agricultural exploitation, or which are victims of overgrazing which has deeply damaged the grounds”adds the researcher.

A reservoir of biodiversity unique in the world

Contrary to what is done in the Amazonian zone, whose defenders are trying to protect the integrity, the challenge here is to preserve what remains, that is to say very fragmented zones, “small patches of forest”, which should be linked together. Some species, such as the jaguar, need to move over large areas to survive.

“It is a hotspot for global biodiversity since it is home to around 7% of plants and around 5% of vertebrates on the planet. Above all, it has extremely high endemism, which means that when a species disappears there, it disappears for the whole world, not just in this area.continues Daniel Vallauri.

“She no longer appears to people as a jewel to be protected, they have known her like this for too long, degraded.”

Joannès Guillemot, specialist in ecophysiology at CIRAD

An analysis that confirms Joannes Guillemotspecialist in ecophysiology at the Center for International Cooperation in Agronomic Research for Development (CIRAD): “It is a unique biome in terms of its characteristics. This forest was isolated by the glaciations and by the droughts of the Amazonian forest, which explains its high rate of endemic species, which only exist there. The level of specific diversity, ie the number of different species per hectare, is at least equivalent to that of the Amazon, and even higher in certain areas. We are talking about 400 species per hectare compared to perhaps 5 in a temperate forest in Europe.”

So, according to the WWF websiteat least 6,000 endemic species populate the mata atlanticaof which 160 are mammals, 263 amphibians and 1,500 vascular plants.

A territory degraded for five centuries

In terms of biodiversity, the exceptional importance of the Atlantic Forest is therefore not a debate, it is an indisputable fact. How to explain then that his fate is so little publicized? That hardly anyone in Europe has heard his name despite the annual publication of the famous “soccer fields” who are disappearing in the Amazon?

First track: its geographical position. “The historic area of ​​the Atlantic Forest is home to the Brazilian megalopolises that are the fruit of colonialism and Brazil’s insertion into the world economy. They were first ports, or developed next to ports, used to export natural resources to the rest of the world. It is around these ports that all the powers, economic, political, banking and industrial of the country have been concentrated, by sedimentation effect.describe Christopher Venturaresearcher at the Institute for International and Strategic Relations (IRIS) and author of Geopolitics of Latin America (Eyrolles, 2022).

Located on the coast where the conquistadors landed in the 15the century, the mata atlantica began to deteriorate much earlier than its neighbour. Wood, cocoa, coffee and others, this biome has borne the brunt of all the exploitations thanks to which Brazil has developed, serving the needs of the richest countries, whether European or North American.

Later, extensive farming, soy or even eucalyptus took over, always aimed at great powers, old, new or emerging. For Joannès Guillemot, this very early degradation and exploitation could be the cause of the lack of popular interest in the Atlantic Forest. “She no longer appears to people as a jewel to be protected, they have known her like this for too long, degraded”explains the CIRAD researcher.

And for good reason: “For centuries, it has provided ecosystem services like providing wood, fruit, purifying water, etc. to a very large population. It is estimated that nearly 130 million Brazilian men and women and about 35% of the South American population currently live in what the biome was originally.

Collateral victim of economic development

This utilitarian function of the Atlantic Forest is, moreover, another reason why its fate is of less concern to the masses than that of the Amazon. The extractivist system that has so deeply degraded it is the one on which Brazil’s development is based. “This exploitation reminds us that it has inserted itself into the global economic system as a country of exploitation and export to global markets, like many other South American countries”emphasizes Christophe Ventura.

Still according to the IRIS researcher, trade in agricultural products alone represents a third of Brazilian foreign trade and employs, directly or indirectly, more than 80 million people in this country where 61.1 million people live under the poverty line in 2021. It is difficult in this context to imagine that the country is turning to a more virtuous model, despite the the victory of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in the October 2022 presidential election.

Although he worked in the fight against deforestation from 2006, during his second term, the former trade unionist does not necessarily question Brazil’s economic model. “This is not the subject on which Lula and Jair Bolsonaro are the most divided. Like many other Brazilian political leaders, left and right, Lula considers that there is a differentiated responsibility between the countries of the North and the South, which means that they do not think that it is up to the South to pay for the past actions of the North. They agree to make an effort, but not at the cost of their development or their fight against poverty,” explains Christophe Ventura on this subject.

And to add: “You also have to understand that for most Brazilians, forests like the mata atlantica and the Amazon rainforest belong to their country, to their identity. It is not a common good of humanity, even if they know its importance for the world.

However, this does not prevent the Atlantic Forest from serving the future of the entire planet.. “The fact that she is very degraded but that she is essentially in a country like Brazil where she is closely followed by a large network of researchers, NGOs, etc., makes her a real case of school. It is therefore both the past and the future of a lot of forests in the world, states Joannès Guillemet, the CIRAD researcher. Although there is a lot to do there, there is also a lot to learn in order to operate more effectively in other tropical contexts.”

Because if it remains confidential for many people, many organizations such as CIRAD, WWF and many others have been fighting for a long time to protect it. Far from the cameras, the big declarations and the crocodile tears of those who cry over the future of the Amazon without trying to change the system that threatens it.

The “mata atlântica”, the other devastated forest of Brazil