RIO DE JANEIRO – Luiz Pedreira walks with other hikers beneath the Atlantic Forest’s thick canopy in Brazil, where an 8,000-km (5,000-mile) trail stretching the full length of the country is being opened up.
He hopes that the creation of the trail, one of the world’s longest, will raise awareness about the fragility of the forest — long devastated by loggers and farmers, and now facing a renewed threat under President Jair Bolsonaro.
“If you don’t know something, you don’t value it,” said Pedreira.
Inspired by long-distance tracks such as Canada’s 24,000-km Great Trail, the project will connect paths from the southern town of Chui on Brazil’s border with Uruguay, to Oiapoque on its northern frontier with French Guiana.
The result will be a continuous coastal corridor for humans and animals.
Work is already underway on the trail, which has the backing of Brazil’s environment and tourism ministries but could take years to complete.
“If you know something, if you are always in the forest, you will value it more,” Pedreira said as he stood near a cliff offering 180-degree views of the heavily forested mountains and granite monoliths that divide Rio de Janeiro’s neighborhoods. “It allows people to connect to the forest.”
Ranked by WWF as the second-most-diverse ecosystem on the planet, after the Amazon, the Atlantic Forest — Mata Atlantica in Portuguese — is teeming with thousands of plant and animal species.
When the Portuguese first arrived in Brazil in the early 16th century, the forest covered more than 1.3 million square kilometers (500,000 square miles) — an area roughly twice the size of France.
Since then, however, nearly 90 percent of it has disappeared — destroyed over centuries to make way for coffee plantations, sugar cane fields, mining, cattle grazing or cities.
While the rate of deforestation has slowed in recent years, according to SOS Mata Atlantica Foundation, there are fears that Bolsonaro’s anti-environment rhetoric will reverse that trend.
Deforestation in the Amazon — a rainforest seen as crucial to keeping climate change in check — soared 278 percent year on year in July, according to the National Institute for Space Research (INPE).
That follows a 90 percent increase in June compared with the previous year — figures Bolsonaro has called “lies” and which prompted the recent sacking of INPE chief Ricardo Galvao.
“Unfortunately, this government isn’t very good for the environment,” French businessman and long-time Rio resident Yves Lahure said after finishing a six-hour hike on a trail that will form part of the coastal track.
But history shows the forest can be revived.
Much of the Atlantic Forest that envelops Rio was felled for coffee plantations in the 19th century, says Horacio Ragucci, president of the Brazilian Excursionist Center, as he leads a group along a dirt path made by slaves.
A water crisis forced then-Emperor Dom Pedro II to seize the Brazilian land and reforest it, creating what is today Tijuca National Park.
Ragucci says the number of people visiting the forest has increased over the past 10 years, many motivated to find a scenic spot to snap a selfie.
“Today, groups meet on Facebook and gather 50 people to do a trail,” Ragucci said.
Brazil’s authorities hope the long-distance track will draw more foreign travelers to the country — already a tourist hot spot — to generate much-needed revenue and jobs.
“While the U.S. receives 307 million visitors to its parks every year, earning $17 billion, Brazil receives just over 10 million visitors and makes 2 billion reals ($500 million),” former tourism minister Vinicius Lummertz has lamented.
“This data makes no sense — we need to take action.”
The trajectory of the trail is still being finalized, as authorities try to persuade private landholders in the forest to allow hikers, runners and mountain bikers to pass through their properties.
“If I could do it every week, I would,” said Andreza Albuquerque, as she and a group of hikers take a break during their walk, their sweaty backs to the trees as they gaze over the sprawling city and Atlantic Ocean below.
“When Monday comes around, you start work with a totally different energy.”
Nearly 200 years ago, British naturalist Charles Darwin expressed similar sentiments after visiting the Atlantic Forest for the first time.
“Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest,” Darwin wrote in his diary in 1832.
Lahure says he supports the idea of a trans-Brazil trail, though he worries the forest could one day attract too many nature lovers.
“We have a city of 6 million people,” Lahure said, referring to Rio. “If everyone comes to Tijuca forest, it will be finished.”