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At the top of the mountain range

Biological reserve reaches its 100th anniversary, celebrated with a book of summaries of the research carried out there

MUSEU PAULISTA/USP Hermann von Ihering and his wife Meta at the reservationMUSEU PAULISTA/USP

The initiative of a scientist interested in the preservation of a particularly enchanting part of the forest at the top of the Serra do Mar mountain range in the state of São Paulo gave rise to the first biological station in the Mata Atlântica coastal rainforest in Brazil. The German naturalist and physician Hermann Friedrich Albrecht von Ihering visited the region of Paranapiacaba, now within the district of Santo André, back in 1909. Established in Brazil, and holding the position of director of the Paulista Museum, von Ihering was impressed with the exuberance of that segment of the forest and, upon the suggestion of a friend who collected decorative plants, he bought a small tract of land, which he paid for himself, with the help of some friends. He was already thinking about establishing “a biological station, with a park and forest reservation”. On April 26 of this year, the Alto da Serra de Paranapiacaba Biological Reservation reached its 100th anniversary. The birthday gift was a book, released last month, in which 77 researchers from several areas show the results of the scientific studies conducted at that site.

The reservation was only given its current name in 1985, when it became part of the State of São Paulo heritage registry. It was previously known as the Alto da Serra Biological Station, although von Ihering had named it the Park of Cajuru (a native Indian word meaning “gateway to the woodlands”) when he acquired it and built a house on as its headquarters. In 1913, however, the scientist found he was no longer able to bear the station’s expense and granted it to the state government. Its management was turned over to the Forestry Service of the Agriculture, Industry and Commerce Bureau and the area was expanded as a result of the donation and acquisition of new tracts of land.

In 1917, Frederico Carlos Hoehne came from the National Museum in Rio de Janeiro to develop a forest reservation along with the Butantan Institute. This gave rise to a Botanical Section to which the Biological Station was subordinated. Hoehne was one of the first Brazilian researchers to conduct systematic, wide-ranging, long-term studies about the native flora and related subjects, such as biogeography and ecology. From 1917 to 1938, the scientist saw his Botanical Section handed over from institution to institution, until the creation of the Botany Department (renamed the Botany Institute in 1942), which he headed. Until his retirement, Hoehne worked toward expanding the reservation, ensuring its conservation and developing suitable infrastructure for research. For instance, he built the Naturalist’s House, which consisted of lodgings only for researchers who needed to spend a longer time studying the region’s native flora.

Instituto de Botânica [Botany Institute] Hoehne in 1933: intense conservation workInstituto de Botânica [Botany Institute]

The small reservation’s total size, today, is 336 hectares. It is near the petrochemical companies in Cubatão, on the plain, and the Greater São Paulo cities, on the plateau. Both take a high toll. “Atmospheric pollution badly affected the reservation  in the 1980s, to the point of so-called paliteiros, dead trees that remain standing, appearing”, tells us Márcia Inês Martin Silveira Lopes, editor of the book Patrimônio da Reserva Biológica do Alto da Serra de Paranapiacaba – A antiga Estação Biológica do Alto da Serra [Assets of the Biological Reservation of Alto da Serra de Paranapiacaba – The former Alto da Serra Biological Station], along with Mizué Kirizawa and Maria Margarida da Rocha Fiuza de Melo, researchers from the Botany Institute. Since then, work has been carried out to recompose the vegetation and research conducted on the impact of pollutants. “Today, despite environmental pollution and the occasional invasions to extract heart of palm or ornamental plants, the area continues to be relatively well preserved”, says Márcia, revealing only that a mere eight outsourced guards are in charge of caring for the 336 hectares. The problems, however, do not keep the old Park of Cajuru from continuing to be an important object of study and contemplation among researchers, students and visitors.