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Bye-bye to Brazil's bio-paradise?

Disappearance of the richly diverse Atlantic Forest has been slowed by the rise of a benign use: ecotourism.

Sloshing through the green tangle of Brazil's Atlantic rain forest, park guide Antonio Toninho stops short and holds up a finger.

"Monkeys," he whispers.

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The guttural grunts, he says, are a prediction of another day of heavy rain by some of this pristine reserve's diverse inhabitants - perhaps even the endangered muriqui, a small black-faced monkey.

The monkeys at Intervales State Park may be put out about all the rain - their prediction was correct - but they should be happy about their home in the southwest corner of So Paulo State. The 121,000-acre park near the town of Capo Bonito is one of the last intact expanses of a rain forest that once covered 466,000 square miles - an area larger than Texas and California combined - along the Atlantic coast of Brazil.

Today less than 7 percent of the original Atlantic Forest remains. Even the remnants are being leveled at the rate of a soccer field every five minutes, according to SOS Mata Atlntica, a So Paulo-based forest conservation group.

But, even as the destruction continues, the Atlantic Forest is garnering new attention in Brazil and internationally. This reflects both the astounding biological richness still being discovered in this damaged ecosystem, and the lessons offered by such a reduced forest for heavily threatened rain forests around the world, including the neighboring Amazon region.

"The Atlantic Forest is so fascinating to people because even what is left presents incredible biodiversity," says Marco Egydio, director of So Paulo State's Forest Foundation, which operates Intervales Park. "The potential is still there for discovering new species and developing new products, new medicines."

Recently the spotlight fell on the golden lion monkey, a species found only in the Atlantic Forest. The first one to be born in captivity arrived in October - weight, 2 ounces - at Rio de Janeiro's city zoo.

As for plant life, specialists from the New York Botanical Garden found a hectare (2.47 acres) of this forest in southern Bahia State with more tree species - over 500 - than any similar piece of forest in the world.

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The international interest in the Atlantic Forest is heightened by conservation biologists' growing attention to the world's remaining centers of biodiversity.

Focus on 'hot spots'

"In terms of global priorities we are focusing on what we call 'hot spots' or areas extremely rich in species but heavily degraded and threatened," says Ian Bowles, vice president for conservation policy with Conservation International (CI) in Washington. "From that perspective the Atlantic Forest is one of our very top priorities."

CI has species research and conservation projects in the Atlantic Forest, but it is also placing growing emphasis on economic development projects that help local populations live from the rain forest without destroying it.

As seemingly unstoppable pressures mount against the world's remaining forests, some experts appear to be resigned to hoisting the white flag. Last month scientists at the European Union's Joint Research Center in Italy issued a report concluding that efforts to save remaining rain forests in the developing world are largely doomed to failure. The report recommended retrenching conservation efforts to a few remaining rain-forest areas in the Amazon basin, Congo, and New Guinea.

But Brazilian and international experts working in the Atlantic Forest say they are banking on a mix of conservation and economic development involving local populations to emerge as the key to future forest preservation.

"I took this job [as forest foundation director] to prove that sustainable development is something feasible," says Mr. Egydio. "We can help people living in and around the forests learn that the resources there can be developed and maintained to their benefit."

Intervales offers an example of both the potential of and gathering threats to the rain forest. Surrounded by endless expanses of unproductive pastureland that was once lush forest, the park is a budding ecotourism center where a local cooperative runs a hotel and restaurant for visitors. Park officials work with settlements on the park's outskirts to demonstrate how the park's declared multiuse areas can be managed for a variety of income-producing pursuits.

A recent species census undertaken in Intervales by Brazilian and Spanish biologists left the participants pleasantly surprised. "We found that, considering how fragmented the forest is, this piece of it is in pretty good shape," says Katia Pisciotta, a zoologist with So Paulo's Forest Foundation. Most "indicator species" that give an idea of an ecosystem's health were found in unexpectedly good numbers.

All of which does not mean this small gem of a park is safe. Part of it lies over a limestone deposit coveted by a nearby cement company. It also has several palm tree species that are the source of succulent - and top-dollar - hearts of palm.

"Unfortunately hearts of palm has become all the rage in So Paulo restaurants," says Ms. Pisciotta. Poor farmers sneak into the park and chop down 10-to-20-year-old palm trees solely for the tender heart found at the top.

Such experiences are convincing conservationists that the rain forest will always be threatened unless locals are convinced the forest is of benefit to them.

More profitable than pastureland

Understanding this, Conservation International recently completed an "economic assessment" study of intact sections of the Atlantic Forest in southern Bahia State. The area had long been preserved owing to the presence of environmentally friendly cocoa plantations, which require canopy tree cover. But, when cocoa prices collapsed in the early 1990s, cocoa farmers began looking at other income sources, including logging and converting forest to pastureland.

The CI assessment found that logging had an initial high return, followed by little income. Converting forest to pastureland was even less profitable, and it involved high up-front investment.

The best sustained return came from ecotourism development, the assessment found. CI proceeded to work with local landowners to develop a canopy tree walkway that is already demonstrating the income potential of conservation.

"Our findings in the Atlantic [Forest] can also serve for the Amazon, where deforestation is slower but still a threat to important species diversity," says CI's Mr. Bowles.

Yet, as promising as such projects may be, the Atlantic is still a rain forest under intense threat. Earlier this year SOS Mata Atlntica - working with satellite data furnished by Brazil's National Space Research Institute - found that deforestation had slowed in the 1990-95 period, but it was still proceeding at a rate to eliminate the forest within 50 years. The organization also found that Rio de Janeiro State is the current "champion" of Atlantic Forest deforestation - a distinction akin to landing on Hollywood's worst-dressed list.

"The Atlantic rain forest has never had the focus of attention in Rio de Janeiro [State] that it has in So Paulo and other places, and that disregard is now showing," says Rogerio Rocco, a longtime environmental activist in the state of Rio. Now director of environmental law enforcement in Niteroi, a bayside city with magnificent views of the city of Rio, Mr. Rocco says the SOS deforestation "award" has spurred on environmentalists: A state conference in March will draw up an action plan for Rio's remaining Atlantic Forest.

"Part of the problem is that the Atlantic is a coastal forest where development pressures are high, and part of it is that existing laws to protect what's left aren't enforced," says Rocco. "These are problems facing rain forests everywhere."

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