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May 272009
 

By John DeFore
Green Right Now

Ascending through the dense greenery on the way up Rio de Janeiro’s Corcovado mountain, travelers may be caught off guard by the sight of a Toucan or the call of a far-off monkey, they may marvel at the beauty of a wild orchid, and they’ll almost certainly be struck by the size of it — the sensation of being far from civilization, not smack in the middle of a metropolitan area housing well over 10 million people.

Few visitors, one suspects, would guess that this forest is man-made — a mammoth greenification project, dating back over a hundred years, that serves as an example (albeit an over-sized one) of how governments might set out to combat the side effects that office buildings and sidewalks have on both the ecosystems surrounding them and the humans living within them.

Corcovado, home of the city’s famous Christ the Redeemer statue, is situated within the Tijuca National Park, said to be the largest urban forest in the world. I spent a couple of days in the park this spring, and barely explored a fraction of the natural attractions that could keep eco-tourists busy enough to forget that the world’s most famous beaches are only minutes away.

At Corcovado, exposure to the forest is accidental for many tourists: Visitors who want to see the mountaintop statue, and take in the spectacular views of the city below (assuming the peak isn’t shrouded in fog, as it was the day I went) must take an open-sided cog railway (see photo below). The train climbs through vegetation ranging from common looking trees to Brazilian rosewood and cinnamon. The heat of the city below is quickly replaced by cool, moist air, and, while the train passes some small hillside neighborhoods, one feels completely transported by the time the train arrives at the tourist center above.

Another of the Park’s most impressive features is one designed solely for nature-lovers. The two hundred year-old Botanical Garden is a place both for study and for pleasure, an enormous refuge whose paths wind organically past family-friendly lawns and romantically secluded benches.

Opposite sides of the moisture spectrum are represented here, with a fascinating cactus garden on one end of the garden balanced by an orchid house at the other. Most impressive is a huge Bromeliad exhibit in which the most famous member of that plant family, the pineapple, is joined by hundreds of stranger and more colorful cousins.

Wrapped around the Garden and Corcovado is a network of green spaces occupying over twelve square miles and offering a range of experiences, from casual afternoon strolls to picnic hikes and serious expeditions through Atlantic rainforest terrain, where observant hikers can see many plant and wildlife species threatened with extinction.

And yet, the area was practically barren in the mid-1800s. The land here had been deforested by years of sugar-cane and coffee farming, resulting in a disruption of the city’s water supply. (Today, 60% of Rio’s water comes from the park.) Emperor D. Pedro II set out to undo the damage caused by overuse, and hired a forester who spent the next dozen years planting 72,000 saplings; as detailed here, the process emphasized native species and was extensive enough that it fostered natural reforestation in surrounding areas.