The Michelin Ecological Reserve lies in a region known as the Costa do Dendê (the Oil Palm Coast) in the Baixo Sul (Lower South) of Bahia. Today the landscape is characterized by a variety of distinct ecosystems including coastal Atlantic evergreen broadleaf rain forest, piaçava (Attalea funifera) restinga forests, jataipeba (Brodriguesia santosii) restinga forests, mangrove-lined estuaries, rivers, wetlands, and the open sea, and diverse agroforestry systems with more than 60 cultivars planted. More than 4,000 forest fragments remain in the vicinity of the reserve, occupying an area of approximately 40,000 ha, with the majority of the fragments <30 ha and the few >500 ha accounting for most of the forest cover. The mixed tree crop landscape of the Colônia lies to the north of the reserve, large rubber/cacao/banana plantations to the east and south, and a 13,000+ ha forest to the west. In the following paragraphs we describe the history of land use, geography, climate, and habitats of the reserve.
History of land use
The region has a long history of human settlement beginning with the shellfish gathering Sambaqui peoples who arrived some 7,000 years ago. We know very little about the subsequent waves of human colonization (none of these peoples left stone monuments or written records) other than that these peoples were hunter-gatherers. The Tupi-Guarani peoples who moved out of the Parana River Basin and up the Atlantic coast some 1,500 years ago introduced agricultural to the Atlantic Forest, probably arriving in the reserve region at least 1,000 years ago. At the time of the Portuguese conquest in the 16th century, the reserve lay on the northern frontier of the Tupiniquin´s territory with the bellicose hunter-gatherer Guerens (a.k.a, Aimorés, Botocudos, Engereckmung) inhabiting the vast forested lands beyond the coastal palisade. While we imagine that the hunter-gatherer peoples had a limited effect on the landscape, the Tupi agriculturalists transformed the forest through their agricultural practices. They planted manioc, maize, beans, squash, peppers, pineapples, sweet potatoes, papaya, tobacco, and cotton in their swiddens with manioc as their staple crop. In doing so they created a landscape mosaic of forest, fallows, and agricultural plots. The land under fallow may have been extensive as manioc plots are only cultivated for one harvest (1.5 years) and it takes centuries for these sites to revert to old growth forest. It is likely that the Tupiniquin cleared forest in the reserve to plant their crops, because the Cachoeira Grande River is one of the largest rivers in the region and has several kilometers of relatively flat alluvial land along its lower course. Nonetheless, it is clear from early accounts of the Portuguese that the greater landscape was still largely forested after 500-1,000 years of Tupi farming.
By the close of the 16th century the Tupiniquins were a conquered people, having suffered severe population losses due to prolonged warfare with the Portuguese and recurrent epidemics resulting from introduced diseases. With the population decline it is likely that much of the former farmland reverted to forest. The fierce resistance of the Guerens kept the Portuguese from penetrating the hinterlands so that pressure on the forest during the early colonial period was limited to a narrow coastal strip. Ituberá was founded in 1682 as an outpost of the Jesuit mission of Camamu, with a subsistence economy based on manioc cultivation and limited wood extraction. Even after the Guerens were finally defeated in the mid-18th century, the region remained a backwater with a small population and agriculture largely restricted to lands within a few kilometers of the coastal towns. As such, it is likely that the reserve’s forests remained largely undisturbed. Likewise, while loggers felled trees in the region throughout the colonial and imperial periods, they mostly restricted timber operations to forests with easy access and are unlikely to have exploited the reserve forests in any significant way. In the late 18th and early19th centuries families of posseiros (farmers living on unused government lands) moved away from the towns and into the hills, clearing forest to plant manioc and bananas and rearing hogs. Some of these families colonized the reserve forests, clearing the flatter lands along the larger rivers and streams and eventually felling forest on the steep hill slopes as well, especially along the Pacangê River Valley. The population density in the reserve remained low throughout the posseiros’ tenure, but they had a profound effect on the forest by creating extensive areas of secondary forest and by hunting. Even though the landscape remained largely forested in the mid-20th century, the posseiros had extirpated the tapir (Tapirus terrestris), white-lipped peccary (Tayassu pecari), giant armadillo (Priodontes maximus), and red and green macaw (Ara chloropterus) through over-hunting (and in the case of the white-lipped peccary possibly due to disease transmitted from domestic swine).
The posseiro way of life came to an end in 1950 with the arrival of a timber mill and wealthy investors who dispossessed the posseiros and carved up the government lands to establish cacao and rubber plantations. This new wave of immigrants radically transformed the landscape, almost completely annihilating the old growth forests and reducing forest cover by more than 50% over the following two decades. A multinational corporation purchased the land on which the reserve lies in 1953 (part of their 9,000 ha property) and felled and burned the forest to plant rubber monocultures, only leaving forest on sites unsuitable for agriculture. Half of what is now the reserve was cleared and still supports a mosaic of rubber trees, wetlands, and narrow gallery forests of pioneer vegetation. The remaining forests were used as a timber reserve and the company selectively logged all of the forests for timber to build and maintain the plantation infrastructure. Pacangê (which was not part of this company’s property) passed through several owners who cleared the southern section of the forest to raise cattle, but most of the forest felled in Pacangê was cleared by the posseiros over the preceding century.
Immigrants flooded into the region to help establish the new plantations and to fell timber for the mill. With many more people now inhabiting the landscape and increased access to once remote areas, hunters harvested game with abandon and wildlife populations crashed. Between 1950 and 1980 hunters extirpated of the jaguar (Panthera onca) and the brown howler monkey (Alouatta guariba) and populations of collared peccaries (Pecari tajacu), capybaras (Hydrochoeris hydrochearis), yellow-breasted capuchin monkeys (Sapajus xanthosternos), coatis (Nasua nasua), agoutis (Dasyprocta leporina), kinkajous (Potos flavus), red-billed curassows (Crax blumenbachii) and other species fell dramatically, disappearing from most of the landscape. Only the marmoset (Callithrix penicillata) and the crab-eating fox (Cerdocyon thous) escaped persecution.
Michelin purchased the property in 1984 and continued to use the landscape much as the former company had done. Hunters continued to ravage the forests and wood thieves occasionally cut timber and jusara palm (Euterpe edulis). The environmental policies on the plantation changed in the mid-1990s under the tenure of Bertrand Vignes and Bernard Francois who over-saw the purchase of the Pacangê forest in 1999. The situation continued to improve under their successor, Lionel Barré, who organized the legalization of the reserve (2005) and the establishment of the research program (2006). Today, the forest is a strict reserve with only research, environmental education, and limited tourism permitted. Four forest guards patrol the forest and through our wildlife monitoring program we have recorded an increase of 117% in wildlife abundances and the return of the collared peccary, puma (Puma concolor), capuchin monkey, and red-billed curassow to the Vila 5, Pancada Grande, and Luis Inácio forests after decades of absence. The guards have effectively limited hunting pressure to the reserve boundary areas and have eliminated wood theft and jusara cutting.