Tracing the footsteps of Saint-Hilaire

Botanists note a loss of biodiversity, but preserved areas as well, as they retrace an 1822 expedition

in Bananal

The marks of time: at left, forests and mountains of Pindamonhangaba in 1827. Above, eucalyptus trees and an eroded hill on the outskirts of Bananal in 2015

Illustration: Pindamonhangaba, c.1827, Jean-Baptiste Debret | Photo: Eduardo Cesar The marks of time: at left, forests and mountains of Pindamonhangaba in 1827. Above, eucalyptus trees and an eroded hill on the outskirts of Bananal in 2015Illustration: Pindamonhangaba, c.1827, Jean-Baptiste Debret | Photo: Eduardo Cesar

“The region is becoming increasingly mountainous. The road is flanked by very dense virgin forest; in some places it is becoming quite rough and difficult to negotiate”
– Saint-Hilaire, April 25, 1822

Vilmar da Silva, a businessman from the Brazilian city of Bananal, found it strange when he spotted from his car a fiftyish gray-haired man who looked like a foreigner. The man had climbed up a steep bank and was holding onto a shrub at the entrance to Silva’s small farm on Tropeiros Highway, the old Rio-São Paulo road. But the tension soon dissolved. Marc Pignal, a French botanist from the National Museum of Natural History in Paris, had only climbed up the bank to collect a specimen from a plant that had caught his attention. It was nine o’clock on the morning of June 9, 2015, the first day of an expedition to trace the São Paulo portion of a trip that French naturalist Auguste de Saint-Hilaire made to the area in March and April of 1822.

In the field: Gaglioti collects branches from a tree

EDUARDO CESARIn the field: Gaglioti collects branches from a tree…EDUARDO CESAR

Four botanists spent five days perusing sites, starting from the area around Bananal, on the border between the states of São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, to Mogi das Cruzes, in the São Paulo metropolitan region—some of which had changed considerably while others still looked preserved when compared with Saint-Hilaire’s records, published in the book Segunda viagem do Rio de Janeiro a Minas Gerais e a São Paulo [Second trip from Rio de Janeiro to Minas Gerais and São Paulo]. In many cases the changes were significant, but neither Saint-Hilaire nor the botanists on the June expedition yielded to nostalgia. Although he was fascinated by the tropical flora, the French naturalist anticipated that the forests might disappear and give way to progress and civilization. “He thought about development alternatives for Brazil, based on ideas from the French Revolution, and he had a utilitarian view of space,” says Sérgio Romaniuc Neto, a researcher at the Botanical Institute of São Paulo and leader of the expedition.

Funded by the Institute and the French government, the trip is part of a plan to reclaim the work of Saint-Hilaire in Brazil, coordinated by Romaniuc and Pignal. Romaniuc became familiar with Saint-Hilaire’s field notebooks and Brazilian plant collection at the Museum of Natural History in Paris, where he did his doctoral research from 1996 to 1999. In an effort to bring this material back to its home country in image form, he implemented a cooperation agreement between the museum, the Botanical Institute and the Reference Center on Environmental Information (CRIA) in Campinas, and he was among the coordinators who assembled a virtual herbarium that includes the notebooks and some 9,000 records of plants collected by Saint-Hilaire (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 229). When the virtual herbarium went online in 1990, Romaniuc and Pignal, who coordinates the museum’s virtual collection, began to plan trips to retrace the routes taken by the French naturalist. This was the first one. The next trip, scheduled for October 2015, will take them from France to northern São Paulo State, Itapeva, and on to the south.

Just before he reached the entrance to the Joana D’Arc farm as the field work began, Romaniuc stopped on the side of the road to peruse the landscape. “It’s a beautiful forest, but it’s not primary anymore,” he explained, pointing to one of the stands of trees amidst pastures and areas of eucalyptus and bamboo. “There are no more large trees. There are firetrees, which are large, but they too are part of the secondary vegetation, and they grow and die quickly.”

“It looks like there are no native species anymore,” Pignal said as he came down from an embankment. “Maybe none have been introduced,” comments Marc Jeanson, coordinator of the French national herbarium at the museum in Paris, as he collects a branch from a shrub of the genus Mimosa. Dotted along the edges of the road and the forests were many simple yellow flowers of bitter melon (Momordica charantia), of no importance to the botanists—“a sign of plant globalization,” Jeanson points out. The forest they were examining occupied what is now a defunct coffee plantation, noted Silva, who owns the farm. The forest is at least 60 years old, he said, because it was already there in the 1950s when his family bought the land. “It’s still preserved just like it was,” he added.

... pressing the specimens...

Eduardo Cesar… pressing the specimens…Eduardo Cesar

Before continuing on to the city, Silva walked over to a neighboring farm and pointed to a river, narrowed to a stream, that passed beneath the highway. It was almost completely covered over by Surinam grass, an exotic species adopted as cattle feed because of its low cost. “The Carioca River here used to have fish, but now they’re gone.” On that day and the next, Romaniuc saw rivers that Saint-Hilaire had described as generous in size, now transformed into timid streams covered by earth that slides down from the hills, which are more susceptible to erosion because of the pastures.

On April 25, 1822, as he approached what was then the village of Bananal on his way from Minas Gerais to Rio de Janeiro, Saint-Hilaire, anxious to return to Paris because of his ailing mother, wrote in his diary, “The region is becoming increasingly mountainous. The road is flanked by very dense virgin forest.” Nearly 200 years later, the botanists confirmed that the mountains are clearly still standing, but the older forests have become sparse, particularly along roadsides.

“We’ve lost biodiversity due to uncontrolled agricultural development, which has swept aside any concern about environmental balance,” said Romaniuc late on the morning of the first day. “We can’t imagine Saint-Hilaire at time zero,” observed Pignal, who has been traveling to Brazil since 1993 and was in the city of Salvador the previous week. “When he was in these parts, there was already deforestation, sugarcane and grazing.” When he arrived in the town of Areias, now a city of 4,000, Saint-Hilaire noted the diversity of the landscape: “This intermixture of coffee plantations, virgin forests, cornfields, shrub vegetation, valleys and mountains, these ranches, these shops, these small dwellings surrounded by black people’s shacks, and groups of travelers coming and going—together lend this region the appearance of great variety.”

Pignal, on an embankment with Jeanson

Eduardo CesarPignal, on an embankment with JeansonEduardo Cesar

Saint-Hilaire arrived in Rio de Janeiro in the company of the French ambassador in 1816, and before coming to this region he had previously traveled around the states of Rio, Minas Gerais, northern and southern São Paulo, Mato Grosso, Espírito Santo and the southern states, in addition to Uruguay, Argentina and Paraguay. Other Europeans were also exploring Brazil on their own expeditions during that time. Botanist Carl Friedrich von Martius and zoologist Johann von Spix, both German, explored extensively from São Paulo to Amazonas from 1817 to 1820. Soon after, between 1822 and 1829, Russian-German Baron Georg Heinrich von Langsdorff traveled through several states with a team of 39 including a botanist, a physician, an astronomer, and artists. Saint-Hilaire explored the countryside of Minas Gerais with Langsdorff, later writing, “In the company of Langsdorff, the most active, indefatigable man I’ve ever met in my life, I learned to travel without wasting a single instant, to subject myself to all manner of hardships, and to suffer cheerfully through every kind of discomfort”.

Traveling with a team of only seven assistants, the French naturalist took note of the expansion of coffee-growing in the region. He wrote the following about Bananal, which then had just a single road: “It will probably soon become important, because it lies in the midst of a region where coffee is widely grown and whose inhabitants, therefore, have considerable income.” Because of the coffee plantations, which occupied what had been forests, Bananal and neighboring cities prospered for several decades, but they subsequently declined when the coffee plantations moved to other fertile lands. Today these cities provide a modest living based on tourism. In the words of one resident of Bananal, the younger ones leave to pursue an education, the older ones leave for jobs, and a few women stay to teach school to the children. Several historic buildings from the coffee era still remain (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue nº 232), as well as bits of forest, some of which are protected by the Serra da Bocaina National Park.

088-093_Saint Hilaire_234A large wolf apple
André Luiz Gaglioti, a botanist studying several plant groups from Saint-Hilaire’s collection as part of his postdoctoral research at São Paulo State University (Unesp), used the opportunity of a layover with the group to investigate a pasture behind the farm/hotel where they were staying. “I saw on Google Earth that there’s a forest over here,” he said. He was disappointed at first when he found that the forest consisted mostly of bamboo and had no scientific interest, but after half an hour’s walk, they came across a strip of forest alongside a tank that holds water for cattle, at the top of a hill. “It was this one. Small, but it should have some interesting things.”

There they found a tree from the botanical family Anacardiaceae, which also includes mangos and cashews. It looked typical of the region—and therefore was probably, at last, a native species—so they collected a branch for more detailed identification in the laboratory. Adjacent to a pasture, they collected parts of a shrub known as a wolf apple (Solanum lycocarpum), inexplicably much taller and with larger fruit than the shrubs of the same species in the Cerrado savannah of central Brazil.

The collected plants were organized at the end of each day, placed between newspaper pages and pressed between sheets of cardboard. They would later be identified in the laboratory and compared with the ones collected by Saint-Hilaire, to give a comparative look at the species in that area 193 years ago versus today. In late July 2015, the botanists’ preliminary analysis confirmed that, like the French naturalist in 1822, they had found an earpod tree (Enterolobium contortisiliquum), a candeia (Moquiniastrum polymorphum) and a shortleaf fig (Ficus guaranitica), but no jequitibá (Cariniana estrellensis), Cattley guava (Psidium cattleianum) or Brazilian sassafras (Ocotea odorífera), all typical of the Atlantic Forest and reported by Saint-Hilaire, and this reinforced their hypothesis on loss of biodiversity.

A preserved spot: the church of Nossa Senhora da Escada, in Guararema

Eduardo CesarA preserved spot: the church of Nossa Senhora da Escada, in GuararemaEduardo Cesar

Over a period of six years in Brazil, Saint-Hilaire accumulated nearly 2,000 species of birds, 16,000 insects, 120 mammals, 35 reptiles and 76,000 plants, of which 4,000 have yet to be described. In 1816, soon after arriving in Brazil, the French naturalist was the first to describe yerba mate (Ilex paraguariensis), on a farm near the city of Curitiba, and the pequi tree (Caryocar brasiliense), in Minas Gerais. Upon returning to France, he published the three-volume book Flora Brasiliae Meredionalis, in which he described the plants he had collected in Brazil.

An unexpected forest
Late on the first day, the botanists unexpectedly identified a preserved strip of forest on a hill next to the highway from Bananal to the nearby city of São José do Barreiro. “It’s similar to the ones that covered the hills and valleys in this region 200 years ago,” Romaniuc said. “Over there in the middle is a Cecropia hololeuca, a tree that grows in mature ombrophilous (rain-loving) forests, and down here near the road there’s a Cecropia pachystachya, which is typical of areas that have been undergone more change.” The former species is also called silver cecropia, for the color of its leaves, which at the time had red flowers, and the other is called white cecropia. The two trees stood out in the forest because of their thin trunks and leaves shaped like an open hand.

Flower and fruit of a wolf apple shrub (Solanum lycocarpum)

Eduardo CesarFlower and fruit of a wolf apple shrub (Solanum lycocarpum)Eduardo Cesar

From Bananal, Saint-Hilaire went to Rio de Janeiro and was dazzled by the landscape there. “There is perhaps nothing in the world as beautiful as the environs of Rio de Janeiro,” he wrote. “Virgin forests as old as the world display their majesty before the doors of the Brazilian capital.” Out of convenience, the botanists on the June expedition went in the opposite direction. On Wednesday, June 10, they left Bananal, traveled through São José do Barreiro, Areias and Silveiras, crossed Dutra Highway, reached Cruzeiro and continued on to a valley in the Mantiqueira Mountains called Garganta do Embaú, on the border with Minas Gerais (see map). Further on, in Minas, they reached the well-preserved forests of the municipality of Pouso Alto, where Gaglioti found Myriocarpa stipitata, a rare tree species of the Urticacea family with flowers simpler than those of the nearby species.

Saint-Hilaire arrived in Pouso Alto on March 12, 1822, having sent an assistant ahead of him to introduce himself to the comandante, the town’s highest official, and obtain a place to sleep that night. The comandante was not available, so it was the vicar who examined his documents, and then proceeded to take leave without offering the desired resting place. “So we were obliged to seek out a secluded corner in a small shop, where they gave me a filthy room full of fleas. At night we witnessed a tremendous brawl between mulattos,” he wrote. Nor did the children escape his ethnological perspective. Upon passing through the town of Taubaté on March 26, he wrote: “In nearly every house one can see children who are quite beautiful, but that changes by the time they reach the age of 12 to 15; by then they are thin and sickly-looking, with a cadaverous, earthen color, no doubt from a poor diet and unhealthy or insufficient food.”

Botanist Renata Scabbia, a professor at the University of Mogi das Cruzes, joined the group on June 11. Together, they explored the Itapeti Mountains, a 5,300-hectare (53 square-kilometer) forested area partially occupied by farmers and residents of outlying neighborhoods. On the next morning, the last day of the trip, they traveled around the outskirts of Mogi das Cruzes under a light rain. “This area still has many elements of the original biodiversity, but they are losing out to expansion by the outlying neighborhoods,” Romaniuc observed.

and red cecropia (Cecropia glaziovii)

Eduardo CesarRed cecropia (Cecropia glaziovii)Eduardo Cesar

The next stop was at the church of Nossa Senhora da Escada, on a square in Guararema, which had been an Indian settlement before the time of Saint-Hilaire’s visit. “There are so few left here today that I haven’t seen a single one, in either the city or the surrounding areas,” he wrote. He was also struck by the poverty of the place: “Most of the houses are built around a square, and you can tell how poor it is from the fact that I asked for sugarcane rum at several shops and had no success.” The main square, with a large fig tree, is still there and is surrounded by houses that no longer have the look of poverty.

Upon arriving, Romaniuc asked several people if they knew anything about the river behind the church. No one had heard anything about the river; it had been covered over, and the site was occupied by several houses. “Saint-Hilaire said he had immense difficulty obtaining information from the residents of the places he found,” he said. “Not much has changed.” Shortly afterward, the botanists returned to São Paulo along a road that was bucolic and tree-lined in the times of Saint-Hilaire but is now completely urbanized—a wide avenue that cuts through the outskirts of Mogi, Suzano, Poá and Itaquaquecetuba, then opens onto an extensive slum area to the right as you come into Guaianazes, the first São Paulo neighborhood encountered from that direction.

Saint-Hilaire Virtual Herbarium (nº 2006/57363-4); Grant Mechanism: Research Grant; Principal Investigator: Sérgio Romaniuc Neto (Botanical Institute of São Paulo); Investment: R$160,123.56 (FAPESP).

SAINT-HILAIRE, A. Segunda viagem do Rio de Janeiro a Minas Gerais e a São Paulo. Belo Horizonte: Editora Itatiaia, 1976, or through Brasiliana Eletrônica