Tijuca National Park is one of the world’s largest urban forests at 39.5 square kilometers. To compare, Vancouver’s Stanley Park is just over 4km2 and New York’s Central Park is 3.4km2. The forest makes up 3.5% of the cities area and contains 42 km of roads and 30 of trails. The park bisects the city of Rio de Janeiro into a north and south section and contains arguably the city’s most recognizable feature, the famous Christ the Redeemer statue.
Tijuca is and Atlantic Rain Forest and contains 328 animal species and over 1,600 species of plants. On average, about two million people visit the park which generates about R$8 million or $3.1 million Canadian in direct economic activity. But that activity is officially a side benefit of the forest. The intended purpose for this national park is the environmental services it performs and it is an interesting case study in recognizing the true value of forest ecosystems.
The History of Tijuca Forest
When the Portuguese came to this area, the old-growth forest they found was cut down for timber and to cultivate sugar and coffee plantations. By the late eighteen hundreds the negative impacts of this deforestation were felt by the local inhabitants, particularly shortages of water. Many of the mountain springs used by inhabitants literally dried up.
In an inspiring demonstration of vision and bold action, the Brazillian King Pedro II declared the forests of Tijuca and Paineiros as Protected Forests in 1861 and began expropriating the lands from farmers and other land owners. The locals like to note that this act of conservation predates Yellowstone, the first American national park established in 1872.
The task of reforestation was given to Major Manuel Gomes Archer who, working with a crew made of up employees and some slaves (yeah…bit of a tarnishing of the eco-triumph story) planned more that 100,000 trees in 13 years throughout the mountainous terrain. After Archer, the reforestation efforts continued and on July 6, 1961 the protected forest was designated Tijuca National Park.
This massive forest in the middle of a global city exists to provide environmental services for the 6 million local inhabitants. Its founding was done in a time when most of the world was ignorant of the importance of natural systems and aggressively pursuing large scale industrial development and mass extraction of natural resources. It may be one of the most strategic acts of conservation in human history.
Environmental Services of Tijuca Forest
The Government of Brazil formally recognizes the environmental services performed by Tijuca Forest and actively educates visitors as to their importance. Specifically, the services include:
- Maintenance of the mountain spring waters
- Erosion Control
- Alleviation of flooding
- Attenuation of thermal variations and local climate regulation
- Reduction of air and noise pollution
- Maintenance of carbon levels and beauty of the natural landscape
Experiencing Tijuca National Park
Erin and I took a five hour guided tour through the forest on our recent trip. Packed into the back of an open top jeep with a half-dozen other tourists from all over the globe, we raced through the streets of Rio to get to the entry of the park. As we entered the tree canopy, the heat of the sunny Rio day immediately evaporated to a very comfortable temperature. Our nostrils were filled with a mixture of the earthy smell of rich organic soil and frequent wafts of floral notes. The sounds of the city soon gave way to the relative quiet of leaves rustling in the breeze, tropical birds in song and the jeep engine struggling with the extended mountain climb. The transition was almost immediate and was in a word miraculous. From urban jungle to tropical rain forest.
As the tour guide enthusiastically explained the history and purpose of the park and forest, we passed many locals walking and riding their bikes along the network of roads and trails. The beauty and tranquility of the park provides space to recreate and a place of spiritual refuge for the people of Rio. We stopped at the Chinese Pavilion, so named in honour of the Chinese immigrants who came to Rio to cultivate tea. Beyond the pagoda monument is an amazing view of the southern portion of the city. An awe inspiriting vision of the “Wonderful City”.
We next went to one of the many waterfalls in the park. These were all but dried rock walls a mere hundred years ago. The replanted forest returned the flow of water and therefore the life downstream. To get to the waterfall we had to ditch the jeep and walk along the road and then through a worn trail. We paused briefly along the trail so that our guide could warn us about the toxicity of the snakes and spiders that we may encounter along the way. His stories were vivid and spontaneously encouraged the group to walk single file down the centre of the trail.
The tour offered an amazing, though all too brief, introduction to the park. When we return one day soon, I look forward to a real hike through the park and seeing so much more. I can’t help but wonder, if it were not for the vision of Pedro II, where would Rio be today? Would it be a global city known for its natural beauty and vibrant culture, or just an industrial wasteland known for its crushing poverty, polluted waterways and deserted colonial buildings?
If you ever get the chance to visit Rio de Janeiro, I highly recommend spending time in Tijuca National Park. Being surrounded by such natural beauty is a powerful and humbling experience. Beyond that, the park is a experiential reminder of just how dependent we are our environment and how important it is for us to do learn to live within the sustaining systems of this planet.