Given its broad extension, the Atlantic Forest was initially composed of several forest types. The forest types go from coastal mangroves to tropical pine forests in the south, including seasonally dry forests and wet evergreen forests like the Amazon Forest. When the Portuguese voyagers arrived at the Brazilian Atlantic coast – today the Bahia State, their first action was to cut down a native tree in front of the indigenous communities. A grim foreshadowing of the future for the next centuries.
Over time, the Atlantic Forest diminished to free land for cattle, coffee, sugarcane, and other crops that degrade the soil and are moved to new lands after a few years of cultivation. Urban growth, mining, and land speculation also played their role in the taking down of the forest. As a result, less than 15% of its original cover is left, most of it in degraded remnants isolated in agricultural landscapes or in remote areas.
Despite such destruction, the Atlantic Forest still stands as one of the hottest global biodiversity hotspots, housing an estimated 2,420 vertebrate species and an estimated 13,000 tree species, of which approximately half only exist in the Atlantic Forest. For a matter of context, the whole Eurasia continent has around 4,500 tree species and the Atlantic Forest is home to 18% of all tree species on the planet. Some studies found as many as 443 tree species in a single hectare of the Atlantic Forest.
As the Atlantic Forest is crucial for people in Brazil, this biodiversity coexists with a large human population. In the Atlantic Forest, 80% of the country’s GDP is produced, and the region provides water for more than 125 million people (more than half of the country’s population). São Paulo, the 11th largest city in the world, with 22 million people, is also encrusted in this biome.
We will never know how many species and indigenous peoples were exactly lost since the first tree was cut in Bahia. It is unrealistic to expect that the Atlantic Forest will return to its original state, given the vast human population in the region, land degradation, and climate change. However, we don’t have to plant back every acre of forest and push people away to restore the Atlantic Forest. Research has shown that keeping 30 to 40% of forest cover in critical points of the landscapes of the Atlantic Forest would suffice to preserve native species in harmony with people. But this must be done strategically, conserving existing forests and creating forest corridors.