There are two groups of Amerindian cultures in the Atlantic Forest: the Tupi, who live along the Brazilian coast and in the northern highlands, and the Guaraní, who live in the southern lowlands, in Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. About 134,000 Tupi and Guaraní people live in the Atlantic Forest region, including all three countries, today.
These societies have lived in the area for hundreds of years but the destruction of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil began in earnest in the 16th century, when Portuguese, Spanish and French colonial settlements were established along the Atlantic coast. Forests inland were cleared for timber, which was then traded for cattle to stock the ranches that were expanding along the major rivers. In the northeast, sugar plantations were established along the coast, leading to the near total destruction of the coastal forests.
By the early 19th century, forests in Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais and São Paulo were being cleared for timber, cattle-ranches and, most especially, coffee plantations. The rapid of growth of the population in the region led to urbanization, an increased demand for charcoal and firewood, and further forest clearing. Rapid economic development in Brazil during the “economic miracle” from 1960 to 1984 brought heavy industry to southeast Brazil, adding insult to injury with severe air and water pollution and its damaging effects on biodiversity and forests around the cities.
The southeast is today the industrial center of Brazil, home to approximately 70 percent of Brazil's 176 million people and enormous sprawling cities such as São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Belo Horizonte. Brazil is one of the largest wood pulp producers in the world, with much of the country's industrial forestry operations located in the states of Bahia, Minas Gerais and Espírito Santo in the heart of the Atlantic Forest Hotspot. Plantations are typically monospecific stands of eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.). Although recent legislation has restricted the clearing of the remaining primary forests for plantations, enforcement is difficult and logging is still an insidious and pervasive activity, gradually destroying the remaining fragments of the forests that once covered the entire region.
The narrow strip of coastal forest in northeastern Brazil has all but gone – only about three percent remains. The best-preserved areas of forest in Brazil survive on the steep slopes of the coastal Serra do Mar mountains in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Paraná.
Argentina's Misiones province has a greater proportion of its original forest cover remaining (about 45 percent or 10,000 km²). However, is too is rapidly being degraded and fragmented, which has placed the region's biodiversity at risk. Principle activities there include the intensification and expansion of agriculture, including the cultivation of yerba maté (Ilex paraguariensis) and tobacco; logging; clearing for plantation forestry by large pulp and paper operations; and the proliferation of small farms due to the influx of landless peasants from other regions of Argentina, besides Brazil and Paraguay.
Although 13 percent (11,618 km²) of Paraguay's original forest cover still exists, the forests have been intensively clear-cut in recent years. It is being deforested to make way for agricultural development and rural settlements, and its remaining forest patches are highly fragmented.
The end result is that destruction and degradation of the Atlantic Forest over the last 50 years has been at least as severe as that of the previous three centuries. Only about eight percent remains of the unbroken tropical and subtropical forests which formerly covered more than 1,233,875 km².