Can We Learn From Our Mistakes? A Tale of Two Forests


Miguel Monteiro

Conservation Fellow

Miguel is a passionate conservationist based in Brazil who has been entirely dedicated to wildlife conservation in tropical forests. After graduating in Rio de Janeiro he moved to a small town deep in the Amazon to start working at Mamirauá Institute, a social organization that develops research and conservation projects together with the local communities. He's had experience working with camera-traps, but over the past years has done research on human-wildlife conflict involving jaguars and traditional communities in the Amazon.

Learn more about Miguel Monteiro

May 13, 2021

Can We Learn From Our Mistakes? A Tale of Two Forests


I was immersed in half-empty forest fragments, surrounded by concrete or pastures, for most of my life. The once-thriving Atlantic Forest along Brazil’s coast was burned and razed over centuries of development, leaving behind mostly small and degraded patches of forest that account for less than 30% of its original extent. However, an incredible amount of wildlife still persists in what was a constant struggle for survival in this biodiversity hotspot. Nowadays, deforestation has dwindled in the Atlantic Forest, and rewilding and restoration efforts are in place. Nevertheless, the destruction of our forests did not slow down, only shifted. The Amazon Rainforest, the most biodiverse region on the planet, has been Brazil’s target for cattle ranching and agricultural expansion over the past few decades.

The mystical jungle of Serra do Divisor National Park in western Brazil spreads far beyond the horizon and into Peru. In this region, the flat lowland forests of the Amazon rise up to meet the Andes mountain range, hosting an incredible amount of biodiversity.

When I came to work in the Amazon over two years ago, far away from where most of the deforestation occurs, I marveled at the seemingly endless stretches of forest around me, a scene I had never witnessed while working in the Atlantic Forest. No cities or pastures around, only lush green vegetation. For a moment, I felt as if I had been transported back in time to an era where pristine forests were abundant and the environmental crisis we see today was an unimaginable future. A mixture of excitement and sadness took over me as I could visualize what the Atlantic Forest must have looked like hundreds of years ago, with towering trees teeming with wildlife.

This three-striped poison frog (Ameerega trivittata) crept silently into our camp, curiously observing me as I took its photo. It probably had never seen a human being before, since this area of Serra do Divisor National Park has very little human activity.

At the end of 2019, I participated in a scientific expedition to Serra do Divisor National Park, a largely unexplored protected area at the border between Peru and Brazil, to explore the park’s biodiversity and conduct species inventories. The jungle stretched as far as the eye can see, and new species of wildlife and uncontacted indigenous communities lay somewhere within the emerald vastness.

The smallest of the New World monkeys and one of the smallest in the world, the pygmy marmoset (Cebuella pygmaea) is one of the 14 different species of primates that can be found foraging among the trees in Serra do Divisor National Park.

However, to my despair, local researchers told us the government had plans to downgrade the national park into an “environmental protection area”, which essentially strips it of its legal protection and opens it up for development. Their plan is to build a highway connecting the Brazilian state of Acre, where the national park is located, to the Peruvian city of Pucallpa. The environmental impact of such an endeavor would be tremendous and incalculable. All I could think of was that if even a remote, pristine area of forest is under threat, the Amazon as a whole truly is under siege.

With its extravagant display of feathers, this Amazonian royal flycatcher (Onychorhynchus coronatus) was caught in a mist net by researchers that were cataloging the species of birds found in Serra do Divisor National Park.

Once again I am reminded of the forests back home. Although there is still hope to avert the complete demise of the Atlantic Forest, many species have been lost along the way, together with entire cultures and livelihoods. Deforestation in the Amazon is reaching a point of no return, where the impacts of our actions might become irreversible. If critical measures such as promoting more sustainable agricultural techniques and reducing meat consumption are not set in place to halt the destruction of the world’s largest rainforest, the Amazon is destined to go down the same, sorrowful path as the Atlantic Forest. Yet, it doesn’t have to be this way. Let us learn from the mistakes that were made when the Atlantic Forest was being ravaged in order to avoid the collapse of the forests that still stand.


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