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Brazil's Atlantic Forest canopy
The Miami Herald / March 29, 1998

By Larry Luxner

Conservation International, a Washington-based environmental organization, is putting the final touches on Brazil's first rainforest treetop walkway.

The 350-foot-long wooden structure, which in March 1998 opened to limited groups of tourists, is located in the fragile Atlantic Forest region of Brazil's northeastern state of Bahia. Suspended 45 to 60 feet above the forest floor, it gives visitors the opportunity to view wildlife that might never otherwise be observed -- all without harming a single tree.

This $350,000 project is part of a larger effort aimed at stimulating investment in ecotourism as an alternative to destructive logging practices. One-third of the money has been donated by Anheuser-Busch, brewers of Budweiser beer. The other two-thirds come from the Ford Foundation and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"Our purpose is three-fold," says Oliver Hillel, director of ecotourism programs at CI. "First, to demonstrate that the best use of land in northeastern Bahia is to use the forest and not cut it down. Cattle ranching and logging in the long run are not economically comparable to ecotourism. Second, to give the local population an alternative livelihood that would stop them from destroying the rainforest. And third, to educate visitors."

According to an economic analysis commissioned by CI, the value of a vacation to the region would be halved if the forest were lost, but would jump by $52 per visitor, or a total of $15 million, if a forest attraction were added.

As such, the canopy walkway will attract tourists who'll pay a fee for the privilege of seeing tree-dwelling giant rats, sloths and golden-headed lion tamarin monkeys in their natural habitat. Sitting on a 130-hectare property adjacent to the Una Biological Reserve, the project is a joint venture between CI and a local non-governmental organization, the Instituto de Estudios Socioambientais do Sul da Bahia (IESB).

"Until recently, this region was planting cocoa," explains Hillel, a native of São Paulo. "We not only preserved the area, but rescued it from a logging company owned by the mayor. Now the mayor has become an environmentalist too."

Hillel says the state of Bahia -- which recently secured a $35 million World Bank loan to develop its tourist infrastructure -- would benefit far more from ecotourism in dollar terms than from traditional activities such as cattle ranching, logging or cocoa production. Nearly 300,000 visitors already visit the state's spectacular beaches annually, and CI sees "enormous demand" for forest conservation and ecotourism attractions.

"Bahia will become a major tourist destination," says Hillel, whose organization employs 400 people and has an annual budget of $20 million. "Our aim is to build up businesses that are profitable, but that also practice conservation. Otherwise, Bahia will just get run down by traditional tourist ventures. That's no better than any other business."

According to Conservation International, there are at least 12 similar rainforest walkways around the world, in tropical countries such as Ghana, Peru and the Philippines. But this is the only one in Brazil's Atlantic Forest, which CI ranks as one of the three most threatened ecosystems on Earth, having been reduced to less than 8% of its original area through deforestation.

Like its counterpart in Ghana -- which CI designed and built -- Brazil's suspended walkway was carefully designed to depend upon trees for support. No nails or bolts, both of which can injure trees, were used. Instead, steel cables were carefully wrapped and clamped on spacers around runks to provide the necessary stabilization.

Hillel says parts of the Atlantic Forest contain 456 species of trees per hectare -- the world's highest level of biodiversity -- while Brazil as a whole boasts the world's richest diversity in plants, mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, freshwater fish and insects.

The canopy walkway is located an hour's drive from Ilhéus, in an area of Brazil rich with cultural and historical significance that has nothing to do with the rainforest. Noted author Jorge Amado set his famous novel, Gabriela, Clove and Cinnamon, in the Vesúvio beachfront bar, right next to the São Sebastião cathedral in Ilhéus. The region also famous for the candomblé black slave culture centered in Salvador, about 200 miles to the north, and for the cocoa plantations that produce 65% of Brazil's cocoa. Local festivals include the Festa de São Jorge (April 23) and the Festa do Cacau (in October).

"It's very hard in Brazil to be at a beautiful beach location where in one day you can also see rainforest," says project director Keith Alger, who's been living in Brazil for the past 10 years. "In Manaus, you've got the rainforest but not the beach."

At the moment -- since private cars are prohibited within park limits -- the only way to get out to the canopy walkway is through Vrisea, a local travel agency that picks tourists up from nearby hotels and transports them via microbus to the canopy walkway. The day-long package, including typical Bahian lunch and an English-speaking guide, costs $30.

Over time, said Alger, attractions will be added such as an area to practice rope-climbing techniques, decks for swimming and inner tubing, a playground, and an interpretive center with museum-type exhibits on the Atlantic Forest.

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