Thursday, June 26, 2008

Restoration and Redemption on Hunchback Hill

At 125 feet, Christ the Redeemer of Rio de Janeiro stands tall and proud on Corcovado, the highest peak in Rio. There is not a more defining image of Rio and this statue of Jesus looms large over this beautiful city -- the silhouette can be seen from miles away.

Corcovado means "hunchback" in Portuguese and this monolithic granite dome rises up out of the Tijuca forest some 2300 feet above Rio. It's breathtaking and humbling at any angle and from any religious perspective.

The panoramic views are stunning. Looking across the city to the right you can see another much beloved granite-domed peak - Sugarloaf Mountain. Looking up from the city this statue seemingly floats in the air as an ever-present sentinel seen for miles around Rio.

Capuchin monkeys and tufted-eared marmosets frolic on the fringe of the forest and romp around the periphery of the statue wedged out of the forest growth.

New world vultures riding swift thermals are almost a permanent fixture to the aerial landscape.

It's an otherworldly place. Corcovado and Tijuca, like that cordillera of distant hills beyond Sugarloaf, is home to the some of the last remaining 7% of Mata Atlantica - the Atlantic Rainforest -- one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. That only 7% remains is heartbreaking, on any level, really -- but to be witness to the diversity present is gut-wrenching when considering the losses.

Dancing around this cascatinha (Portuguese for little waterfall) like whimsical little ballerinas was an untold number of resplendent birds and metallic butterflies. The Atlantic Rainforest stretches for about 8000 miles along the east coast of Brazil and, according to Conservation International, is among the top 5 biodiversity hotspots on Earth.

The diversity of flora and fauna is almost incomprehensible - 250 species of mammals, 340 amphibians and reptiles, 1023 birds, including this Toco toucan (Ramphastos toco) that momentarily posed, and some 20,000 species of trees. Don't just breath it in -- take a picture -- its disappearing at an alarming rate due to deforestation from agriculture and real estate expansion.

The Tijuca forest where we stand today, however, is a bit of a success story. At 8000 acres, it is reportedly the largest urban forest in the world and was once completely deforested and turned into a coffee plantation. In 1861 the Emperor Don Pedro II returned the land to the city and employed the first forest administrator - who, with only the help of six slaves, painstakingly hand planted 100,000 seedlings from existing Mata Atlantica forest -- taking 13 years. It is now a national park in Brazil. In the 1970's - on the recommendation of ecologists and biologists, once endemic amphibians, reptiles and mammals were reintroduced to the park in order to restore the ecological balance.

Corcovado and the Tijuca forests of Rio serve as a fitting tribute to both the power of redemption and restoration. Hopefully the success will spread to other parts of the Brazilian, Paraguayan and Argentine coastal forests.

The Nature Conservancy has been working in the Atlantic forests of Brazil since 1991 and has "an ambitious plan to protect and restore 30 million acres of this magnificent forest by 2015". I'm heading over there now to off-set the carbon footprint my work creates.

For more on the Atlantic Rainforest -- head over to the Nature Conservancy. For more beautiful skies -- visit Wiggers World.
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