It is the Atlantic forest - not the better known Amazon - that contains the greatest concentration of different trees on the planet. There are more species of birds here than in the whole of Europe.

Yet every four minutes an area the size of a football field is cut down.

Two hundred years ago it covered the entire Atlantic coastline of Brazil, a green mass that at times penetrated 300 kilometres deep into the interior.

Now there is just 7% of the original area left, dotted across 17 Brazilian states. There are desperate attempts to throw protection orders around the pockets remaining.

It's disappearing two and a half times faster than the Amazon, the worst case of deforestation in the world with the exception of Madagascar.

Lukewarm version

Since the Earth Summit in 1992 a law to protect the Atlantic Forest has been mired in the political system, dogged by the powerful interests of Brazil's large landowners.

After 11 years a lukewarm version has been approved but is still awaiting the presidential stamp. 

A football field-sized green area
disappears every four minutes

"If we lose just one more percent, that will be far more serious than if we lose another swathe of the Amazon. We've probably already lost half of the species that existed here," said Henrique Leao Teixeira Zaluar, new chief of Brazil's first national park, Itatiaia, in the state of Rio de Janeiro.

The park was created in 1937, and it now covers a vast 30,000 hectares of the Atlantic Forest. But the original idea to protect the area at the end of the 19th century was not for any forward-thinking environmental reasons.

The colonising Europeans simply wanted to have a strategy to ensure a ready supply of wood for their war ships. After that came the deforestation from sugarcane and coffee plantations.

Itatiaia is famous for its unusual escarpments through the rocky mountains formed in the Ice Age, 18 million years ago. The scene at the top is described as surreal and Dali-esque.

The 2700-metre peaks are high enough to get the occasional snowfall - virtually unheard of in Brazil. The low part is tropical forest with giant-leaved plants typical of humid ecosystems.

Greatest threat

Zaluar pulls out a series of maps that show the protected areas like Itatiaia, ringed in white, scattered across the state. He says the idea is to join-the-dots and create a seamless "corridor" of conservation. But he is aware of the size of the task.

"The greatest threat to the Atlantic Forest is the presence of humanity: the model of occupation," he explains. 

The Atlantic Forest has a unique
richness in terms of biodiversity

Inside the park can still be found descendents of the colonisers, never removed by law. Outside the protected areas, wherever there is space, people want to build and the park is all but surrounded.

It's a bureaucratic headache to knit together all the different types of federal and state conservation groups. There's a jumble of more than 200 non-governmental organisations. Half of the forest is in private hands.

A new scheme began in 2002 that pays or sponsors landowners to create private nature reserves, or RPPNs.

One of those is the renowned photographer Sebastao Salgado, who was born on a farm in the region. The actor Robin Williams has given $30,000 for Salgado to build a cinema on the farm.

Vanishing species

Almost half the species in the Atlantic Forest are not found anywhere else in the world. It has a unique richness of diversity that includes the only living examples of nearly 10,000 plants.

Of more than 200 mammals that are under risk of extinction in Brazil, 90% are here.

Itatiaia park, in Rio de Janeiro,
was created by the colonisers

Already gone, for example, is the small blue macaw, last seen around 1930. There are only 1,000 left here of the one of the world's rarest animals, the woolly spider monkey. Others have only just been discovered, like the black-faced lion tamarin in 1990.

"There are so many unknown species here. It makes you think. Until when will this forest exist like this?" asks Itatiaia's fire chief Marco Antonio Moura Botelho, who first came to the area 50 years ago as a young boy and is regarded as a walking memory bank for the biodiversity found here.

He said, "The park is a great school. When you have been here so many years you learn to know when something wrong is happening. I'm not an educated ecologist or biologist but these things you learn in the day to day."

"The onca-parda (dark leopard), for example, used to be abundant here, now there are not many left. They take off looking for other habitats and get killed on the road. They've simply run out of forest."

Spectacular

Botelho continues: "The park is really a great place to live. It is somewhere in Brazil where you can live in peace, there is no pollution. You can live a tranquil life in every aspect of the word. 

Itatiaia's fire chief Botelho came
to the area while a young boy

It attracts people. I am someone in love with this place here. There are areas in this park, above here, which is virgin forest and where I believe man has never put his feet.

"This at night is spectacular, full of stars, really beautiful, really beautiful."

Tarcilio calls himself a son of the forest, He, like his father before him and his sons after, worked all his life in the park. He has retired and works as a taxi driver in the town. He's emotional and indignant about the destruction.

"It's a crime to cut down a tree like this for just 40 centimetres of palmito, but there are many clandestine poachers who cut these trees to sell," he said pointing at one of the Palmito Jucura, a species of palm tree found only in the Atlantic Forest.

Little victories

It's an essential part of the biomass, providing fruit and seeds from ants to toucans, and cover for flora and fauna.

Park chief Zaluar is satisfied with
day-to-day victories in his work

Tarcilio added: "I was born here, I have a lot of love for it. But I don't know if my grandchildren will live to see the park as I've seen it."

The park's chief, Zaluar, says he is optimistic with the little victories he sees in his day-to-day work but is pessimistic when he thinks of the global destruction.

"The world looks with hope at Brazil. We have the biggest biodiversity in the world. It is the future of the planet. But the biodiversity is the patrimony of our people, not of the world.

The biggest diversity is in developing countries with social problems. A good strategy for people outside Brazil to help biodiversity is to help the Brazilian population, to take a little closer look at the people, " Zaluar says.