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A biodiversity Vision for the upper Paraná Atlantic Forest Ecoregion

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Land use

Mainly due to agricultural expansion westward in Brazil (coffee in the late 19th century and in the past 50 years for wheat, soybeans, sugar cane, and oranges), the Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest has been reduced to only 7.8% of its original extent. In Brazil, only 2.7% (771,276 ha) of the original Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest remains, including the Iguaçu National Park, the Morro do Diabo State Park, the Turvo State Park and a few smaller forest fragments—and virtually none outside of protected areas.

Relative isolation from human population centers in Argentine and Paraguayan portions of the ecoregion has allowed the preservation of the largest area of remaining Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest in those two countries. Approximately 1,123,000 ha (about half of the original forest area of the ecoregion in that country) remain in Argentina, forming a contiguous corridor covering a large part of the province of Misiones. Most of the remaining forest lies within what is known as the Green Corridor, an area of conservation and sustainable use of over 1,100,000 ha created by Misiones provincial law (García Fernández 2002, Cinto & Bertolini in press). Although Paraguay retains a large area (1,152,332 ha) of Upper Paraná Atlantic Forest, it is only 13.4% of the original area in that country. Paraguay has one of the highest deforestation rates of any country in Latin America, and recent deforestation there has fragmented the remaining forest (C. Tucker, personal communication) (Figure 7).

We have identified that fragmentation, isolation, and degradation of the forest fragments constitute the main threats to biodiversity conservation in the ecoregion. These processes have occurred at different intensities in different parts of the ecoregion. We will discuss later (Chapter 3) the consequences of the process of forest fragmentation and degradation on biodiversity conservation. Here, we will focus our discussion on the main causes of forest fragmentation and degradation.

Agricultural expansion has been identified as the major underlying cause of the process of fragmentation of the forest in the Upper Paraná ecoregion. The main economic activities driving this process of native forest conversion include annual crops (soybeans, sugar cane, corn, wheat, cotton, tobacco), and perennial crops (coffee, yerba mate, tea, and pine and eucalyptus forest plantations). Cattle ranching is also an important economic activity in the ecoregion that usually requires the conversion of the native forest into grasslands for grazing. The importance of these economic activities differs regionally within the ecoregion, mainly due to the different histories and development patterns of the three countries (Laclau 1994, Holz & Placci in press). For example, soybean plantations are very important in the southern Brazilian states and in eastern Paraguay, but not in the Misiones Province of Argentina. Illegal marihuana plantations are restricted to the northern part of the Paraguayan portion of the ecoregion. In Misiones, monoculture forest plantations, mainly of pine, constitute the main economic activity in the province, and these plantations are concentrated near the Paraná River. Tobacco plantations are concentrated in the state of Santa Catarina, in Brazil (Hodge et al. 1997), and in the eastern portions of Misiones. Thus, to address the causes of forest fragmentation and degradation, different actions need to take place in different parts of the ecoregion.

While large­-scale agriculture clearly has negative impacts on biodiversity, subsistence agriculture also contributes to the fragmentation and degradation of the forest in a number of ways. First, for many small producers, agriculture is economically unsustainable because they lack access to markets or other economic incentives available to large producers. As a result of the unsustainability of the production system, small producers eventually abandon their land and often sell it to large landowners or companies. These lands are then incorporated into highly intensive and large-scale production systems (Laclau 1994, Colcombet & Noseda 2000).

Second, land occupation and settlement of landless poor in areas of forest remnants is contributing to the conversion of the last forest remnants into land dedicated to small-scale and unsustainable agriculture. In this case, landless people illegally occupy private or state-owned properties, usually temporarily, to produce a few annual crops. With no other alternatives, the landless people seeking small parcels of land for subsistence agriculture are sometimes forced to illegally occupy the last forest remnants located in areas not suitable for agriculture, where soils are unproductive or are on steep slopes (Hodge et al. 1997, Cullen et al. 2001, Chebez & Hilgert in press). Cullen et al. (2001) describe the situation for the state of São Paulo: “Land concentration, land speculation, and landlessness are the main causes of imprudent land use in areas where traces of Atlantic Forest remain. Poor people who have been denied land and livelihood are being used as objects of unfair negotiations and forced into these forests fragments in ever increasing numbers, often encouraged by the state government. This land tenure system results in the exploitation of forest remnants and threatens the remaining habitats.”

The causes of environmental degradation of the ecoregion are associated with historical and present situations of social inequalities (Laclau 1994). This can be clearly seen when one looks at the unequal pattern of land tenure that is generally similar across the three countries. In Misiones, 93% of the producers have properties of <100 ha, which represents only 1/3 of the productive land. The rest of the productive activities occur in large properties that occupy the other 2/3 of the productive land. The tendency for concentration of land in the hands of a few owners, and the majority of the people owning small parcels, has increased in the last decade (Colcombet & Noseda 2000). In Paraguay, the situation is similar, 82% of the rural properties have less than 20 ha while only 1% have more than 1,000 ha. However, that one percent represents 77% of the cultivated area (SEPA 2000). A similar pattern occurs in the southern states of Brazil (Laclau 1994, Cullen et al. 2001, Figure 8).

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