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Longing for a lost forest

Posted on by Pablo Hoffmann
Pablo Hoffmann, Executive Director of Fauna & Flora International’s partner Sociedade Chauá, shares his hopes and fears for the future of Brazil’s Araucaria forest.

Today I woke up with a strong sense of what can only be described as ‘saudade’: “a longing for all that I have not seen”. I miss the great forest that I never had the chance to truly know. I long for the forest that reminds me of the good feeling of coming home, after a long trip away.

The Araucaria Forest was and – in some places – still is like no other place on earth. Large candelabra shaped Araucaria trees with dark green leaves make an unbeatable combination with the light green of the other species.

A unique part of the more famous Atlantic Forest, the Araucaria forest is native to much of Southern Brazil, as well as parts of Argentina and Paraguay. It used to stand over an area more than twice the size of England.

Araucaria angustifolia mature tree in forest fragment in Paraná

Araucaria angustifolia mature tree in forest fragment in Paraná. Credit: Dave Gill/FFI.

Vanishing act

Heavy exploitation of wood from Araucaria trees and other valuable species such as the imbuia triggered a frighteningly quick decline over the last century. Year on year, more than one million cubic meters of wood were cleared, filling ships heading to Europe.

With much of the valuable timber gone, mass deforestation followed, and the trees were rapidly replaced by cities, arable farms and cattle ranches. By the end of the 20th century, the best quality forest was found in tiny scattered fragments, making up less than 1% of its original cover.

In my lifetime

I was born in the mid-1970s, just in time to know some of this forest in its best stage. I saw great, towering, majestic araucarias; perhaps the oldest remaining. I saw huge imbuia trees, all with crooked trunks (the more valuable straight trunked trees had already gone; turned into dark furniture, which today is often old and forgotten in the corners of people’s homes).

I grew up believing that we, as a society, would take care of what is left. But in truth, today I feel worried because very few people realise that our forest continues to decline.

Pablo Hoffmann with his favourite tree, Sassafras, Ocotea odorifera

Pablo Hoffmann with his favourite tree, Sassafras, Ocotea odorifera. Credit: Dave Gill/FFI.

Last month, my worst fears were confirmed by results from deforestation monitoring work in the Atlantic Forest. This work started 30 years ago by two respected institutions – Instituto de Pesquisas Espaciais and SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation. Today, the Araucaria forest continues to disappear in Brazil – and the largest losses are happening in Paraná; the state where I live.

Fighting for the forest

I could not stand by and watch the forest fall. With the help of my friends we set up Sociedade Chauá – a Brazilian NGO dedicated to the conservation of the last forests.

We realised that some tree species were becoming exceptionally rare and that little was known about where and when to find fruits and seeds and how to grow and replant them – the last drops of hope for these threatened species.

Therefore, 10 years ago we developed a project to work with these species – monitoring seed trees, leading field trips, planting seeds in our nursery and monitoring their development until they were ready to be planted back in the wild.

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Volunteers transporting seedlings from the Chauá nursery. Credit: Soceidade Chauá

This work is still being conducted today by a passionate team of technicians and volunteers who care for each seedling like a precious jewel.

In partnership with Fauna & Flora International’s Global Trees Campaign programme, we are now growing more than 130 species in Chauá nursery and 80 of them are not grown anywhere else. To date, our amazing team of volunteers has helped to grow 40,000 seedlings from the forests rare and threatened tree species, helping to plant these species across the state of Parana.

Volunteers planting threatened trees back into the Araucaria forest. Credit: Sociedade Chauá

Sociedade Chauá volunteers carrying out tree planting in Flona do Assungui State Park. Credit: Soceidade Chauá

 Remarkable trees

The Araucaria forest is home to more than 350 remarkable tree species. The Araucaria is one of the few conifers native to Brazil and its seeds, “pinhões”, bring warmth to the cold winter here in Southern Brazil; it is welcome food for wild animals and people who delight in cooking or roasting it on open fires.

Pinhaos, roasted, are a popular winter snack in south Brazil.

Pinhaos, roasted, are a popular winter snack in south Brazil. Credit: Dave Gill.

Some trees, such as uvaia, pitanga and feijoa produce delicious fruits. Pitanga has a red fruit, slightly smaller than a cherry, but its shape resembles a mini pumpkin. Birds love it, and I do too! My favourite endangered species is the sassafras which is related to the imbuia. Sadly, there are few sassafras trees remaining due to the harsh methods used to extract its essential oil which was once used in toothpaste and perfume.

Although I still feel ‘saudade’ for Parana’s once great forest, the dedication of all these people is also giving me hope. We can make a difference for these species. Yes, 99% of their home has already disappeared but, with hard work, we can still give these remarkable trees a chance to survive and be a part of the next generation’s future forests.

Written by Pablo Hoffmann

Pablo Hoffmann is the Sociedade Chauá executive director. He graduated in forestry and worked with various nature conservation projects in his early career. He is passionate about plants and trees; believing that working in partnership is the only way to preserve the environment and save species.

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