Helping Nature Help People at a Brazilian Historical Landmark

At the U.N. Framework Convention on Climate Change’s 19th Conference of the Parties (UNFCCC COP 19) currently underway in Warsaw, Poland, one of CI’s objectives is to spread the word about the critical role that ecosystem-based adaptation must play to help communities adjust to the impacts of climate change. Today on Human Nature, CI’s Camila Donatti blogs about a recent visit she made to a project on Brazil’s “Discovery Coast.”

Atlantic Forest

The Atlantic Forest is one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth. (© Conservation International/photo by Camila Donatti)

When the Portuguese first arrived in Brazil in the year 1500, the first place they settled was what is now the municipality of Porto Seguro (“safe port”) in the state of Bahia — at least that’s what the history books say.  The first sight of the Portuguese sailors was the magnificent Atlantic Forest. As an ecologist born and raised in Brazil, and with the Atlantic Forest very close to my heart — and to my hometown — I wish I could be transported back in time to see what the Portuguese saw that day.

More than 500 years later, this forest — one of the most diverse ecosystems on Earth — has suffered several cycles of heavy exploitation and destruction by practices like logging, extensive cattle ranching, sugar cane and coffee plantations and urbanization. As you can probably imagine, these forces affected more than the natural ecosystems. Most of the indigenous groups that once lived in the Atlantic Forest were uprooted or wiped out completely. Many of these threats continue today. Only 7% of the Atlantic Forest’s original area currently remains, most of it limited to a few protected areas surrounded and pressured by human activities.

In addition to these threats, a new villain has also been found to be impacting the Atlantic Forest, its associated ecosystems and their services, as well as the people that directly depend on them: climate change. Climate change may reduce freshwater availability due to an increase in temperature and a decrease in rainfall. It may decrease crop pollination due to changes in the distribution of native bees and other pollinators. It could also increase coastal erosion due to sea level rise and shifts in water dynamics.

In fact, protecting natural ecosystems like the Atlantic Forest, which we once neglected and destroyed, can help us adapt to those expected changes. Forest protection in certain high-altitude areas is key, as these areas capture fog, maintaining the provision of fresh water even in a drier future. The establishment of corridors and restoration of forest in areas where the distribution of pollinators will shift can maintain crop pollination as the climate changes. And the protection of mangrove areas can decrease the input of sediments to the ocean and increase coastal protection against more frequent storms that are expected in the future.

Ecosystem-based adaptation (or EbA as climate scientists often call it) is the use of ecosystems as part of an overall strategy to help people adapt to the adverse effects of climate change. CI is currently conducting a project funded by the International Climate Initiative (IKI) of the German Government, which aims to carry out ecosystem-based adaptation in coastal, marine and terrestrial regions to improve livelihoods and conserve biodiversity in the face of climate change.

The concept of EbA is relatively new. By implementing and testing EbA pilot interventions in Brazil, the Philippines and South Africa through this project, CI is playing an important role in showing that these sorts of practices can provide cost-efficient, effective ways to help people adapt to environmental changes that have already been set in motion.

In Brazil, this project is also innovative because we are using a “ridge to reef” approach — conducting activities in both marine and terrestrial settings. CI-Brazil is implementing EbA demonstrations in the municipality of Porto Seguro, the site of the Portuguese explorers’ fateful first landing. One of those interventions is the development of the municipal plan for protection and restoration of the Atlantic Forest in Porto Seguro, the first of those plans in Brazil that will take EbA into account. The other is the protection of a coral reef to ensure coastal protection in Ponta do Corumbau.

Shyla Raghav, CI’s senior manager on climate adaptation policy, and I recently had the opportunity to go to Brazil to participate in the first of two workshops through which Porto Seguro’s Atlantic Forest protection and restoration plan will be developed. On the same trip, our colleagues from CI-Brazil, Renata Pereira and Ivana Lamas, kindly took us to Ponta do Corumbau to see the coral reefs.

CI-Brazil is implementing EbA demonstrations in the municipality of Porto Seguro, the site of the Portuguese explorers’ fateful first landing. (© Conservation International/photo by Camila Donatti)

CI-Brazil is implementing EbA demonstrations in the municipality of Porto Seguro, the site of the Portuguese explorers’ fateful first landing. (© Conservation International/photo by Camila Donatti)

My first impression was that the area covered by coral is way bigger than I was picturing — it has a radius of approximately 3.5 kilometers — and it is in good condition overall. Our guide, Gilmar Jesus de Souza — a local fisherman and longtime CI partner — pointed to a couple of dolphins and sea turtles during our boat ride. He and our boat driver, Jeronimo Amaral, swore that they heard and smelled the burp of the Atlantic goliath grouper. Luckily I did not hear or smell anything!

I have been hearing about this site ever since I started working for CI two years ago. This coral reef is particularly important because it protects the coast against erosion, acting as a barrier to reduce the intensity of the waves that reach the coast. With climate change, this protection will be even more important, due to the projected increase in sea level rise and changes in wave dynamics.

CI-Brazil is conducting a series of activities, including enforcement of a no-take zone and raising awareness about the importance of sustainable practices and the importance of protecting mangroves to reduce coastal erosion and the amount of sediments that gets into the reef.

I returned from my trip reinvigorated. Not only had I seen beautiful places and met wonderful people, but I had also seen for myself that our work is helping to increase awareness about the value of Brazil’s natural wealth and its role in helping communities to thrive and to adapt to climate change. I hope that the climate change negotiators in Poland are paying attention.

Camila Donatti is climate change adaptation manager in CI’s Betty and Gordon Moore Center for Science and Oceans.


  1. Julia Meier says

    It is very interesting that the climate change impacts so many things. It does look beautiful. I hope good changes continue in Porto Seguro.

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