Protecting Brazilian Atlantic Forest
according to universal ecocentric ethics
The Serra Bonita Reserve is a private initiative to protect and study Atlantic Rain Forest remnants, in the cacao growing region of the state of Bahia, Brazil.
The Brazilian Atlantic Forest originally covered approximately 321,2 million acres along the Atlantic coast. We know little about its biodiversity, but it is one of the richest biomes on Earth, with about 3,500 animal and 20,000 plant species known to science, of which over 500 animal and 8,000 plant species are endemic. Despite the intense human occupation and deforestation, the Atlantic Forest still supplies fresh water to 80% of the Brazilian population.
The Serra Bonita Reserve and Instituto Uiraçu By Vitor O. Becker, PhD.
Fast deforestation in the last 50 years, farming, industrialization, urban growth and other human actions have reduced the Brazilian Atlantic Forest to less than 2 million acres in highly disperse fragments. It became a global hotspot, the Planet’s second most threatened biome. Although only 171 species are considered endangered by the Brazilian Ministry of Environment, all the Brazilian Atlantic Forest´s species are endangered due to dramatic habitat loss, and 11 are already extinct. Newly discovered species immediately join the Ministry of Environment´s and IUCN´s Red Lists, such as the Parana antwren and the golden-headed lion tamarin. Other species are disappearing even before scientists are able to describe them.
In 2003, the Brazilian Federal Government created a national program to protect and link Atlantic Forest fragments through biodiversity corridors, in the 2 most significant remnant areas of the Atlantic Forest: the Corridor of Serra do Mar, in the States of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo, and the Central Corridor, in South Bahia and the State of Espírito Santo. These areas harbor exceptional biological richness, diversity and endemism. Years before, since the 1990´s my wife and I already dreamed of protecting nature.
Clemira is an educator dedicated to social and political causes. Throughout her carrier she created, implemented and developed many projects on education and social inclusion, making the University of Brasilia, where she worked as a public server, a national reference.
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I am an entomologist dedicated to the taxonomy of New World tropical moths. Along my years of public service at a Brazilian research institution, EMBRAPA, I managed to gather, identify and describe over 1 million specimens of New World moths and butterflies into the Becker Collection, which became a global reference in this field of Science, and is my object of research.
On our kids´ vacations, we used to go on field trips together. We saw the forests quickly disappearing, and realized there is no point to preserve dead specimens in museums if nothing was done to protect them in nature. So we decided that, when the kids were grown and we were ready to retire, we would find a place where urgent environment protection was needed. In 1997, we chose the Serra Bonita mountain, in the municipality of Camacan, almost 870 miles from Brasilia, to buy land to create a Reserve.
In 1998, with our own personal funds, we started to purchase land in Serra Bonita, including 1,500 huge jequitibá trees (an endangered species), some hundreds of years old, from a property whose owner was selling to loggers. Six months later, we bought this property, perpetuating the protection of those trees.
By 2001 we had purchased nearly 50 properties, amounting to a little over 2,200 acres, and applied for the Ministry of Environment to register the area as a Private Reserve. In the same year, another philantropist bought three properties next to ours (1,230 acres), and applied for Reserve legalization. By 2005, together we had about 3,400 acres under protection: the largest privately owned protected area in the Central Corridor.
Looking for support to expand the Reserve, we soon realized that most funding was not available to private owners, and that it would be difficult to establish formal partnership with universities and research institutions.
So, in 2001, we created the non-profit association Instituto Uiraçu, to protect the whole Serra Bonita mountain range, and to promote environmental education and scientific research for Atlantic Forest conservation and protection. We learned to run an NGO from scratch, and as time passed, more volunteers and partners joined in. Projects, grants and donations became possible and we were even able to temporarily hire and train staff.
In the last few years, with funds from grants, the IU has bought a few more properties, which are undergoing legalization as reserves to expand the protected area in another 2,500 acres, kept permanent surveillance and research, and carried out numerous activities with the community.
Instituto Uiraçu´s community outreach activities include field trips to the reserve, technical and environment education courses, cultural activities, public hearings, seminars, lectures, workshops and assistance in creating and guiding the activities of the Municipal Environment Council and the Municipal Environmental Education Council.
We have accomplished these activities in collaboration with local volunteers and partners, the Municipal Administration, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of Science and Technology, and Federal and State Universities that also promote scientific research in and about the Reserve: over 50 flora and fauna studies have been carried out, or are underway, by different institutions in partnership with Instituto Uiraçu, at the Serra Bonita Reserve. A flora inventory by the NY Botanical Garden in partnership with the State University of Santa Cruz has identified over 1,000 vascular plants, 15 previously unknown to science.
The organization Birdlife International has established Serra Bonita as an Important Bird Area, with over 300 bird species, 59 endemic, including the recently discovered, rare and endangered pink-legged graveteiro (photo on the right). Twenty new species have been found, including a bird, two new species of frogs, one snake and two lizards.
There is still a lot to do. It is very difficult to run a non-profit organization on eventual project funding. For years, our family and friends have worked as volunteers and played an essential role in managing the Reserve and IU, but to achieve the Reserve´s long-term sustainability we need a solid, self-sustainable organization. This is one of our main difficulties, since the project has become too large for us to carry out on our own.
So, we continue in search of partnerships to:
- protect the whole Serra Bonita mountain range, 18,500 acres, through land acquisition and conversion into a big consortium of reserves, managed by the Institute through a Management Fund. We also need better surveillance and protection, better infrastructure and equipment, and training and hiring staff.
- establish a model environmental education center at the SBR. Clemira has designed a beautiful project called The Science Park, a place of information, investigation and dialogue directed mainly to the local community.
- establish the Serra Bonita Reserve as an international research station, open to universities and research institutions all over the world, focused on studies about the Atlantic Forest, to enhance its protection.
To reach these goals, we need to strengthen Instituto Uiraçu. You can TAKE ACTION to help us. Or, if you have any questions, feel free to CONTACT US. Clemira and I will enjoy hearing from you or receiving your visit, and on behalf of all our animal and plant friends, we thank you for your interest and support!
Note: The Instituto Uiraçu is named after the Harpy Eagle, the Harpia harpyija. In the Brazilian indigenous Tupi language, Uirá (bird) – Açu (big), “big bird” (pronounced wee-rah-sue). It is the largest raptor in the New World, reaching 2.2 meters wingspan. It soars high and has acute vision, as we are inspired to be. It is almost extinct in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, but has been sighted at the SBR: it has come back to us!