Américas / March-April 1998
By Larry Luxner
WASHINGTON -- Conservation International, a Washington-based environmental group, is putting the final touches on Brazil's first rainforest treetop walkway.
The 350-foot-long wooden structure, to be opened to public access this June, is located in the fragile Atlantic Forest region of Brazil's northeastern state of Bahia. It'll be suspended 45 to 60 feet above the forest floor, giving 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, maned sloths and golden 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.
"Until recently, this region was planting cocoa," explains Hillel, a Brazilian native. "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."
There are at least 12 similar rainforest walkways around the world, in tropical countries such as Ghana, Peru and the Philippines. But this will be 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.
Nevertheless, according to CI, 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. Along with 16 other countries, these constitute what the organization calls the world's biodiversity hotspots.
"Just as the G-7 countries concentrate a major portion of the planet's economic wealth, the B-17, or Biodiversity-17, have within them most of the planet's biological wealth," says CI President Russell Mittermeier. "Investment for conservation in these countries should be roughly in proportion to the two-thirds to three-fourths of life on Earth that they possess."