In the Atlantic Forest, ‘food forests’ could throw a lifeline to rare Brazilian birdlife

Alice Reisfeld and team are ushering in an ecological renaissance in the world’s most imperiled tropical habitat

Alice looks out from a birdwatching tower in the Pedra D'Antas Reserve. Courtesy of SAVE Brazil
9 September 2021
9 September 2021

This article is part of a narrative series from global conservationists working as part of Trillion Trees.

By Alice Reisfeld

It is something I’ve seen often during my eight years with SAVE Brasil. Meeting schoolchildren to talk about the importance of the forest and the beauty of its birds, there comes a moment when the hands fly up and they shout: “My dad hunts!” “My grandpa sets fire to the trees to clear land for pasture!” “My uncle captures birds to sell in a cage!”

It happened again in the Brazilian state of Serra do Urubu, and it crystalizes the challenges we face to protect and extend this exceptionally rich habitat for wildlife.

I know very well the value of enthusing the next generation about conservation: my own passion for nature began at age 5 or 6, when our family’s apartment in suburban Rio de Janeiro was set beside the Parque National de Tijuca. We’d watch capuchin monkeys from our balcony, and southern anteaters and crab-eating foxes sometimes wandered into our playground. Today I manage six of SAVE Brasil’s bird initiatives nationwide, including our Trillion Trees-backed project in the northeast of the country, which seeks to restore some of the most threatened tropical forest on Earth, the Atlantic Forest.

A view over the Urubu-Murici corridor. Courtesy of SAVE Brazil
A view over the Urubu-Murici corridor. Courtesy of SAVE Brazil

If you’re looking for the razor’s edge of the global extinction crisis, this is surely it. Two bird species have gone extinct within the last decade or so, the cryptic treehunter and the Alagoas foliage-gleaner, while another 18 are hovering on the brink. Special ones include a mysterious little grey bird called the Alagoas antwren, now thought to number no more than 30 individuals, and the seven-colored tanager, a stunningly lovely bird that’s highly prized by the illegal trade. I’d love to see it in the flesh.

We are focusing our work here on the 100-kilometer-long Serra do Urubu-Murici corridor, where just 2 percent of the original Atlantic Forest ecosystem survives. Small islands of unspoiled habitat cling for life amid a pale green ocean of post-colonial sugar cane estates and small-scale family farms, and local people grub out a meager living from banana-growing, charcoal-making and perhaps a few cattle. All of this menaces the scraps of forest that remain, isolating their precious animal populations – but we think the region presents a big opportunity for recovery too, because communities are poor and farming is unsustainable. We’ve identified 270 square kilometers of forest ripe for restoration, and with the right stimulus, we can revive the fortunes of people and wildlife at the same time.

The seven-colored tanager, a vulnerable species endemic to northeastern Brazil. Courtesy of SAVE Brazil
The seven-colored tanager, a vulnerable species endemic to northeastern Brazil. Courtesy of SAVE Brazil

SAVE Brasil’s first enterprise in the corridor proves the point: in 2004 we bought the 360-hectare Pedra D’Antas reserve in Lagoa dos Gatos, saving its pristine Atlantic Forest from illegal logging and adding trees to 30 hectares or so that were especially degraded. The result is a boom in birdlife: from just three species back then to more than 70 species today. I find my own visits there immensely rewarding – our feeders flock with hummingbirds, and we’ve also recorded 35 different mammals, 23 amphibians, 66 kinds of orchid. My favorite encounters have been with a particular dwarf porcupine, which seems to show up just for me: quite rare, and just too adorable!

Our reserve caretaker Zezito remembers when Pedra D’Anta was a farm and can testify to the transformation in its fortunes. We’ve hosted more than 5,000 visitors over the years, from school groups to international bird-watchers keen to see our rarities – there is wonderful potential to grow ecotourism across the wider landscape.

The immediate priority though is to roll out a new model of bird-friendly agroforestry with smallholders here, which supports them to farm more sustainably, access new markets and plant native trees wherever they can. We have three pilot plots underway, and our COVID-safe online workshops have attracted dozens more families keen to find out how partnering with us to create ‘food forests’ can improve their livelihoods.

The progress of the reserve's restoration over the course of a decade. Courtesy of SAVE Brazil
The progress of the reserve’s restoration over the course of a decade. Courtesy of SAVE Brazil

The model essentially involves offering training and equipment so they can diversify production and boost their yields – perhaps introducing mango, guava and profitable timber species like mahogany. Meanwhile, Brazilian law requires landowners to protect or restore at least 20 percent of their ground as native forest habitat, which is where that 270-square-kilometer deficit comes in.

Our initial goal is to get 70 hectares regrowing by 2023 as a blueprint for restoring the rest, and already we’ve got USD 1 million committed to the cause by partners including Birdlife International, WWF and the Jensen Charity Foundation. Next, we plan to talk to the banks here about establishing specific lines of credit focused on ecological agriculture and forest restoration, which would make the program sustainable in the long-term, allowing us to scale up what we’re doing.

Our team can’t wait to welcome back those school parties when our reserve reopens post-pandemic. It’s inspiring to witness the wonder of people who’ve grown up just 30 or so kilometers from one of the planet’s most wildlife-rich places but have never experienced the sounds and colors of its amazing biodiversity. Once we can persuade those young minds of the value of living harmoniously with nature, the sky is the limit.


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