Beyond the Bad Press: Rio de Janeiro’s Urban Forests- Part 2

With the Olympics in full swing, we continue to highlight the remarkable environmental aspects of Rio de Janeiro or Cidade Maravilhosa (the Marvelous City) that may be lost amid the negative media attention the city has received leading up to the games. In our previous post, Part 1 of the Beyond the Bad Press series, we started looking at Rio’s National Park of Tijuca (Parque Nacional da Tijuca), part of the Mata Atlântica forest and known as the largest urban forest in the world. With over 15 square miles of forest located in the middle of the city, spectacular views from its highest peaks, and a large diversity of unique flora and fauna, the National Park of Tijuca is easy to impress. There is another aspect of Rio de Janeiro’s urban forest that warrants additional awe: its history.

When hiking throughout the park with magnificent and monumental trees that tower over you and emit an aura of grandeur and wisdom; it’s normal to assume that the forest has been there forever. However, in reality, there was a time when much of this park was actually cleared of forest. Most of the park is second-growth forest (forests that naturally replace original forests that have experienced disturbances), and a section of the park (known as Floresta da Tijuca) was actually completely replanted– by hand– in the late 1800s.

Starting in the 1600s and continuing into the 1800s, much of the original Mata Atlântica forest in the city was cut down to make room for coffee plantations and sugar mills. By 1840, although coffee production had mostly moved to other areas, the region was left with severe watershed damage and droughts that the threatened the city’s water supply and the economic growth. By this time, the imperial government of the Empire of Brazil realized the extent of the damage and made the first declaration acknowledging the need to reclaim the deteriorating watershed to address the water shortage, but efforts proved futile.

Between 1845 and 1848, small-scale tree planting and forest protection measures began on government-acquired private properties to revive the city’s water supply. However, it wasn’t until 1860 when Emperor Pedro II issued an order to reforest Rio’s watersheds with native plants that the true replanting efforts began. Between 1862 and 1887 about 95,000 native seedlings were planted in what would soon be called the Floresta da Tijuca. The majority of the planting occurred between 1862 and 1872 when 60,000 seedlings were put into the earth. These planting efforts, as well as the effective land management practices in other parts of the forest, allowed the forest to grow back undisturbed.

Interestingly, reforestation was not specifically motivated by conservation or recreation purposes. Rio’s national park was only designated as such in 1961, a century after reclamation efforts began. The efforts, at first, were simply a response to the fact that cities need green areas for the essential resources and services (ecosystem services) they supply. Forests and parks in urban areas are vital to providing cities with, among other things, runoff reduction, carbon storage, temperature moderation, air pollution filtration, as well as clean water. Although in the early 20th century Rio tapped into other water sources outside the Tijuca watershed, without this reforestation, Rio’s water shortage problems might have prevented the city from becoming the Cidade Maravilhosa we know today. Through Rio’s urban forest, we witness nature’s resiliency and its capacity to flourish again when given a chance and a little human help.

Although it would be difficult to rival, Rio’s National Park of Tijuca shows that it’s not too late for urban forests and parks to be introduced into a city. Cities, developing or developed, mega or small, can carve out green space in areas that are already built-up, unused, or abandoned (think New York City’s High Line and Lowline). Green spaces can and should be integrated into cities not only for the people that live there to enjoy, but also to supply cities with the ecosystem services they need. As we will examine in the next piece of this series, Rio’s urban forest presents cities (both in developed and developing countries) show the potential of urban green spaces for sustainable development.

Don’t miss Part 3, the last piece of the “Beyond the Bad Press: Rio de Janeiro’s Urban Forests” series by The Sustainability Co-Op, to be published next week.

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