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The rediscovery of a forest

Construction of ring road results in scientific expeditions to the Cantareira mountain region in the São Paulo metropolitan area

The beginning of a highway: the native vegetation to be removed from one of the construction sites along the northern stretch of the ring road

Eduardo CesarThe beginning of a highway: the native vegetation to be removed from one of the construction sites along the northern stretch of the ring roadEduardo Cesar

In early February, in one of the weekly expeditions of researchers from the Botanical Institute to the areas to be cut by the northern section of the ring road—the 180 kilometer-long highway in the final stages of construction around the São Paulo metropolitan area—botanist Cíntia Kameyama recognizes and collects probably rare Cerrado plant species growing in a field next to a farm 6 km from Guarulhos Airport. “The road will pass through here and this area of forest will disappear,” she says, while separating the plants collected. “The last tunnel starts there,” says botanist Paulo Ortiz, pointing to a hill covered with trees, brilliant with the colorful flowers of quaresmeiras [Brazilian spider flower]. Soon after, Regina Shirasuna returns from a walk to a cluster of trees carrying a shovel and several bags that hide only the roots of the plants she collected: “I’ll replant them today.” In six months of work, rescue teams collected about 200 plants and took them to be cultivated at the institute. Of the 20 sites visited, some were used for dumping corpses or by religious groups, which gathered in forest clearings to sing. When researchers passed by, they were greeted with “Peace, brother!”

Fieldwork intensified in April, when other groups of botanists began to rescue bromeliads and other rare plants hanging in the trees of the forest to be eliminated at the edges of the Cantareira range, the largest urban forest in Brazil. Thirty kilometers long, it is largely occupied by poor neighborhoods and luxury condominiums in the Northern area of the city of São Paulo and neighboring municipalities. At the same time, biologists and veterinarians went into the woods to cut the low vegetation and make a lot of noise to rescue baby animals and scare those that could escape to the top of the mountain. They worked quickly: soon the bulldozers will arrive to remove the native vegetation from the areas that will replaced by the lanes of the northern stretch of the ring road, with a total length of 44 km, much of which is in the municipality of Guarulhos. Three years from now, when it is ready, this section will complete the ring road that was designed to divert trucks coming from other regions of the country that now have to go through the city of São Paulo, rather than around it, worsening traffic for inhabitants.

As a result of environmental mandates, unthinkable until a few decades ago, when highways were built without regard for Brazil’s forests, a highway has probably never been built with such care—even the engineers had to give up their autonomy and work with researchers from the Botanical and Forest Institutes. To further complicate matters, the road must pass through densely populated neighborhoods in São Paulo and Guarulhos, and near the Cantareira State Park, a conservation area containing remnants of the Atlantic Forest. With an area measuring 80 km2, the park sprawls across four municipalities—São Paulo, Mairiporã, Caieiras and Guarulhos—and shelters 25% of the original area and at least 60% of the vegetation of the mountain, in addition to protecting the springs that have supplied water to residents of the metropolis since the late nineteenth century.

Since planning began 10 years ago, the route of the northern section has undergone radical transformations to reduce its environmental impacts—one of the proposals was to pass to the north of the Cantareira range, not the south, as in the approved plan. “We looked at dozens of possible routes, in conjunction with local governments and municipal environment departments,” says Carlos Henrique Aranha, CEO of Prime Engineering, the environmental management company hired by Desenvolvimento Rodoviário S.A. (Dersa), the public company responsible for building the northern section.

The city and mountains: the Cabuçu Region and the forests protected by the park

Eduardo CesarThe city and mountains: the Cabuçu Region and the forests protected by the parkEduardo Cesar

The final route is the result of much negotiation, and not only between government agencies. Protests and pressure from residents of the northern region of the capital and the municipalities to be affected by the construction resulted in several adjustments: the highway swerves to avoid a tennis court, a water tank that had just been built when the highway was announced, a luxury condominium complex and a 15 m high silk-cotton tree filled with bromeliads. But it will occupy the grounds of a school on a dirt road on the outskirts of Guarulhos, and the school will have to be relocated. No one says that the route of the highway—expected to cost R$6.5 billion—is perfect, but “the route set out 10 years ago had a greater impact,” says Geraldo Franco, a researcher at the Forest Institute. “Construction has been blocked due to opposition from environmental NGOs and government agencies that analyzed the reports principally on the impact on the Cantareira range,” he says. The highway will cut through the park through tunnels.

Replacing what is cut
To reduce the impact of the highway, the rule is simple: replace what has to be removed. Dersa announced that it will ensure compensation or a new home to the 3,490 families affected by the project. There is also a major concern with respect to wildlife—including about 1,000 dogs and 800 cats fed by residents—and flora. “We might have to perform fewer rescues than in the southern section because the animals can flee to other areas,” said the veterinarian Plínio Aiub, coordinator of the group of companies responsible for scaring and rescue of fauna, in a planning meeting held in early February at Dersa.

According to previous inventories, 234 species of birds, 49 species of reptiles and 65 species of mammals—including monkeys, sloths, deer, skunks and hedgehogs—live in the region through which the road will pass. It is thought that building tunnels and corridors with ropes between trees across roads that cut through the mountains, to prevent animals from being hit by vehicles, will facilitate the passage of animals. “Will it work? We won’t know until we test it,” says ecologist Márcio Port-Carvalho, of the Forest Institute.

The native vegetation that must be cut must be replaced: this is known as compensatory reforestation, and was done in the southern section, opened in 2010, and should also occur in the eastern section, already under construction. In 2007, as a condition for approval of construction of the southern section, state and federal environmental agencies required that Dersa replant 1,016 hectares of forests (one hectare is equivalent to 10,000 square meters), in areas near the future highway, to compensate the loss of 200 hectares of Atlantic Forest surrounding the Greater São Paulo area. As of January 2012, in one-third of the 147 areas planted, most of the trees had died or had not grown as expected because of flooding, arson, frosts, invasion of cattle and opposition from neighboring residents (see Pesquisa FAPESP nº 191).

Ahead of the tractors: cutting brush and rescuing animals and plants

Plínio AiubAhead of the tractors: cutting brush and rescuing animals and plantsPlínio Aiub

Now, reforestation of about 1,000 hectares must be done in still unidentified nearby areas. A problem for which the experts have not yet found a solution is how to restore the Cerrado areas unexpectedly found in the municipalities of Guarulhos and Arujá, now considered precious because they represent a type of vegetation eliminated with the growth of cities and construction projects like the Guarulhos airport. The plan is to reuse the soil that must be removed in the new areas, but there is no guarantee that this strategy will work because, so far, biologists, agronomists and forest engineers have not been able to satisfactorily cultivate Cerrado plants outside the areas in which they grow naturally. “Studies on the production of Cerrado seedling are still in the initial stages,” says Franco.

The movement of men and machines involved in the construction of the northern section is increasing the visibility of the mountains covered in Atlantic Forest that help the residents of São Paulo orient themselves geographically. However, the area is still little known. Each year, 90,000 city residents visit Cantareira Park (open only on weekends), 20 km from the city center, where one can see a magnificent view of the metropolis from a thousand feet up. This is a small number compared to Ibirapuera Park, which has 70,000 visitors on just one sunny Saturday.

Studies of the animals and plants in Cantareira Park are as rare as visitors. “There are still many tree species, including two cinnamomums, which have not yet been described,” says João Batista Baitello, biologist at the Forest Institute. In 2010, his colleague Frederico Arzolla presented 101 species of shrubs and trees that grow in clearings that had formed after the installation of power transmission towers in 2011, and 179 other species of trees found on 11 km of trails within the park. Since the beginning of the last century, studies have focused on the most pristine areas of the park, such as the Pinheirinho, which Baitello first visited shortly after being hired by the institute in 1976. Six years later, he and Osny Tadeu de Aguiar presented the first comprehensive survey of the region, containing 189 species of trees, including some majestic varieties like the Brazilian oak, guatambu[gen. Aspidosperma], canela-preta[Nectandra globosa], jequitibá-branco [gen. Cariniana], pau-terra [gen. Qualea] and the pau-furado, the largest of all, reaching up to 40 meters tall and 3 meters in diameter. According to the management plan, the most complete inventory done so far, the park is home to 678 species of trees and 866 species of animals that have already been described, This document, which can be found on the Forest Institute’s site, also defines priority areas that should be studied further (see map).

Bromeliads and orchids collected and cultivated in nurseries

Eduardo CesarBromeliads and orchids collected and cultivated in nurseriesEduardo Cesar

The biological diversity is due to the combination of two distinct types of Atlantic Forest—a dense, closed-canopy forest found in mountains, and the semi-deciduous forest, with trees that lose their leaves in the driest periods of the year—and differences in altitude, ranging from 775–1,200 meters. According to Alexsander Antunes, a bird specialist at the Forest Institute, the fruit-bearing period of a given species can vary depending on attitude: the juçara palm, for example, bears fruit between April and June in the lower regions and at the end of the year at higher altitudes, thereby providing fruit for bellbirds and thrushes throughout the year.

The forest and local history
The Cantareira range is closely linked to the history of the state capital. “Most likely, the trees used to make the beams for the mud walls of the Pátio do Colégio [the first building in the city of São Paulo], built in the sixteenth century, came from the Cantareira range,” says Baitello, who then displays a canela-preta board at least 460 years old, which an inhabitant of the city, José Nunes de Vilhena, gave as a gift to Dom Bento José Pickel, a Benedictine priest and curator of the herbarium, of what was then called the Forest Service, later renamed the Forest Institute.

As farmers sought more land on which to plant coffee, tea or sugarcane, deforestation in the hills grew considerably until the late 19th century, when the state government decided to act, expropriating farms to protect springs and streams that fed the city – the name Cantareira, incidentally, comes from the Portuguese word for pitcher, in which locals and travelers used to store water. “Environmental conservation in São Paulo started here, even before the concept of a park or reserve,” says Arzolla. The oldest national park in Brazil, Itatiaia, was established in 1937.

A frog from one of the areas through which the highway will pass

ACERVO J. B. BAITELLO/IFA frog from one of the areas through which the highway will passACERVO J. B. BAITELLO/IF

The creation of the Forest Service in 1911, and the Forest Rangers a year later, ensured preservation of the forest and many of the animals that inhabited it. Jaguars and peccaries disappeared as a consequence of the fragmentation of the forest and hunting, but the park and surrounding areas are home to one of the largest populations of monkeys (Alouatta clamitans) in Brazil. “Hundreds of monkeys live here,” says Port-Carvalho, who is finishing an estimate of their population. Of the four native species of primates currently found in the Cantareira range, the only endangered with extinction is the buffy-tufted marmoset (Callithrix aurita). One of the biggest threats is cross breeding with other species of marmosets that did not live in the hills, such as Callithrix penicillata. “Last week, I saw a C. aurita together with a group of C. penicillata in a contiguous area of Cantareira Park for the first time,” says Port-Carvalho.

“Of all the Atlantic Forest parks, this is the easiest one in which to see animals, monkeys as well as birds,” says Antunes, who lives in a condo two kilometers from the park, and in whose garden monkeys, toucans and 80 species of birds live. Since 2005, he has identified 250 species of birds in the park, including some that had never been seen in the city of São Paulo, such as the white-rumped hawk (Pararbuteo leucorrhous), the robust woodpecker (Campephilus robustus) and the green ibis (Mesembrinibis cayennensis). Solitary Tinamous (Tinamus solitarius), already rare in the state of São Paulo, can be seen in the park “relatively often,” he says. “When we get to the top of the mountain on a humid day, with mist rising, you can see yellow spots moving on the ground,” reports Gláucia Cortez, a biologist at the Forest Institute. The yellow dots are the little frogs called sapinhos-pingos-de-ouro or Brachycephalus nodoterga.

One of the roads cutting through the mountains

Eduardo CesarOne of the roads cutting through the mountainsEduardo Cesar

It is not known how plants and animals will react to the reduction of the forest, construction, and then the highway. “The negative impacts for some groups of animals may appear only after many years, so long-term monitoring is important,” says Port-Carvalho. Those planning, building or monitoring the new highway are already on alert. “We will be watched all the time,” says an engineer at Dersa. They fear that residents of nearby condominiums will photograph and publish any irregularities on the Internet as soon as they see them.

In mid-April, Plínio Aiub and his team had already found snakes and spiders and removed them to safer areas of the forest. They have also seen groups of capuchin monkeys that appeared to monitor what was happening. “We were called to rescue a rattlesnake and found a Phyllomedusa, a genus of frog that usually lives in low-lying wetlands, but was in a high, dry region,” he says. “In the southern section, we rescued animals up until the last day of construction. They tend to go back to where they are accustomed to living.”

Artigos científicos
ARZOLLA, F.A.R.D.P. et al. Composição florística e a conservação de florestas secundárias na serra da Cantareira, São Paulo, Brasil. Revista do Instituto Florestal. v. 23, n. 1, p. 149-71, 2011.
BAITELLO, J.B. et al. Estrutura fitossociológica da vegetação arbórea da serra da Cantareira – Núcleo Pinheirinho. Revista do Instituto Florestal. v. 5, n. 2, p. 133-61, 1993.
LEONEL, C. (Org.). Parque Estadual da Cantareira: Plano de manejo. 1ª ed. São Paulo: Fundação Florestal, 2009 (livro eletrônico).