Life on the rocks in Brazil’s campo rupestre

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When I was a child, my family would drive three hours from our home in Belo Horizonte to visit my grandfather’s ranch near the town of Santana dos Montes. On the way, we would cross the Espinhaco mountain range, which runs north to south in the central-eastern portion of Brazil.

Espinhaco means “spine” in Portuguese, and the name could not be more apt. The range spans 1,200km (750 miles), its bony peaks reach as high as 2km, and the thriving, humid Atlantic Forest drops away to the east, foggy and dense with evergreens, ferns, mosses and bromeliads, the air bursting with the strange songs of birds you never see. On the west side of the mountains, the arid, savannah-like Cerrado stretches flat and exposed, with golden grasslands and small, twisted trees.

But it was the place in between those two dramatically different ecosystems that captivated me as a child. The rupestrian grassland – the campo rupestre, from the Latin for “found on rocks” – is a land of dramatic temperature variations, strong winds, ruthless sun and nutrient-scarce, heavy metal-laden soils. There are islands of forest in the mountains, as well as patches of flat savanna and shrubland. But most of the Espinhaco is covered in stone.

Morro do Pai Inacio, Chapada Diamantina, in the extreme north of Espinhaco Mountain Range

It was, for our family, an adventure just to arrive there, dirt roads turning muddy and sodden when it rained. Topping off in the mountain valleys, it felt as if we were entering another planet – an ancient landscape forgotten in time and recaptured on the dusty pages of stories such as JRR Tolkien’s Middle-earth. The bluish silhouettes of the surrounding peaks rise above like a fortress, and thousands of sharp boulders sprout from the ground, all pointing in the same direction as if they had been broken by someone and placed with great intention.

At first glance, those rocks appear lifeless. But on closer inspection, the landscape is full of life. Countless tiny flowers lie between the stones, roots spread like spiders’ webs across the surface, in search of water and nutrients. Behind the boulders, there are orchids, bromeliads, grasses. They grow and reproduce slowly, focusing their energy on underground root structures that provide reserves for hard times. There are shrubs such as the sharp-leafed, alien-like canela-de-ema, from the Velloziaceae family, which evolved several layers of bark separated by air, like cinnamon sticks, to protect from frequent fires. And the sempre-viva (everlasting) bush, whose leaves absorb nutrients from the carcasses and faeces of spiders’ prey and whose thousands of tiny white flowers resemble an exploding universe, a big bang in miniature.

webs of roots from the plants on the surface of the rocks of the campo rupestre
The Lutz's poison frog

The fauna, too, are audacious fighters for survival. Frogs cloaked in extreme camouflage hide in plain sight on lichen-covered rocks, hunting prey and singing for mates. Lizards with strange, elongated bodies squeeze into cavities of narrow tree trunks; some insects have special metabolic pathways that neutralise the defensive toxins of certain plants. In the region’s many cave systems, pale and blind invertebrates – spiders, beetles, and springtails, many of them new to science – search for scarce food in the darkness with long legs and antennae, and sense organs adapted to the absence of light.

Threatened bat species hang from the caves’ ceilings. Outside, colours shift throughout the year: blue, yellow, purple, red, orange, green, life exploding from the grudging soil and taking root among the rocks, resisting and cooperating all at once. Reptiles, insects, small mammals, and owls hide from the ruthless sun inside termite nests and hollow plant structures. Frantic, bright-feathered hummingbirds swoop in low and fast, seeking flowers and mates. A collared anteater excavates a termite nest in the late afternoon; a maned wolf howls in the dawn. After storms in the rainy season, backlit by the late afternoon sun, ephemeral waterfalls fall from every hillside. Life is delicate here; but life persists.

The little yellow-shouldered bat

‘A museum of biodiversity’

In the years since I first visited the Espinhaco mountains and campo rupestre as a child, I have returned often – climbing peaks, walking alone in fields, swimming in pristine rivers. The mountains have been my source of wonder, refuge and adventure. But it was as a graduate student in cave ecology at the Federal University of Minas Gerais that I came to understand the ecological uniqueness of this place. It was there that I met Fernando Silveira, a professor of plant ecology.

“I remember the first time I came to the Espinhaco 20 years ago,” he says. “This landscape was completely different from anything I’d seen. Those bizarre plants, the broken rocks, all the life forms, they were surprising, shocking, tremendously beautiful.”

A beautiful, long-lasting flower, known locally as 'sempre-viva'

The campo rupestre is among the oldest, harshest, most biodiverse and most threatened ecosystems on Earth. While the grasslands comprise less than 1% of Brazil’s land surface, they hold about 15% of the country’s plant species, with more than 5,000 plant species, many of which exist nowhere else. An average of four animal species a year were discovered there between 2005 and 2014. At least 26 new vertebrate species have been found – 11 frogs, eight lizards, four birds, two snakes and one mammal. Eleven new arthropod species were described within a single decade. The area is also home to 162 fish species, 27 of which are found only in those mountains, 12 of which are threatened with extinction. There are more than 100 frog and toad species, 28 found nowhere else.

The campo rupestre biome is more diverse per square mile than the Amazon rainforest to its north and west. It is, writes Silveira, “a museum of biodiversity”. The secret to so much life is the geology of the place. It was formed 1.8bn years ago as a shallow seabed uplifted by the collision of tectonic plates. While dramatic erosion has worn the mountains to their current height, the range has barely moved north or south in those aeons – protecting the biome from the climatic instability and extinction events that accompany such latitudinal drift. Visit a place like the Travessao, a stunning valley in the Espinhaco’s Serra do Cipo national park, and it is easy to imagine a time-lapse of the earth in action. The valley’s towering walls are deeply marked by erosion and covered with a thin layer of vegetation that sometimes falters, exposing the rocks beneath – the mountain’s bones. To the east, the waters run to the Rio Doce (sweet river) basin through the Atlantic Forest. The west side drains through the arid Cerrado into the Sao Francisco River basin. The porous rocks act like sponges, absorbing water in the rainy season and releasing it throughout the year into these two main river basins, which supply water to millions of people in more than 400 cities in south-east Brazil, along with the remarkably diverse life that is found in the campo rupestre.

Leafcutter ants

Today, however, the region’s biodiversity is under grave threat. The greatest pressure comes from mining. After 17th-century European explorers discovered gold, diamonds, iron ore, manganese, saltpetre (potassium nitrate) and other precious metals and minerals, the Espinhaco – once lightly visited by a few indigenous tribes – became a peregrination pole to anyone interested in trying their luck. The mines arrived as small white wounds in the mountains at first, gouged by individual pickaxes. Soon, they advanced like a cancer, dropping dirt and effluent into the rivers and assailing the mountains’ very bones. Villages, then whole cities, grew to support the excavations.

In the 1970s, larger mining companies arrived and built makeshift mining camps across the plateau. The companies extracted what was easy and left behind lunar craters thousands of feet long and hundreds of feet deep, filled with heavy metal-laden, unearthly coloured waters, the surrounding slopes eroding and collapsing. In 2015, a tailing dam at an abandoned mine ruptured. The avalanche of 40m cubic metres of toxic mud, laden with iron, manganese, mercury and arsenic, flowed into the Rio Doce and killed 19 people, destroying 600km of river and much of the marine life in the reef banks where it settled on the coast. Another tailing dam burst in January 2019 on the Paraopeba River, killing almost 300 people. The two collapses are among the worst environmental disasters in Brazil’s history.

A resident of Barra Longa City

But the region’s intact mines are equally calamitous for surrounding ecosystems. “Tailing dams are more famous because they kill people, but have you taken a look at an operating mine?” Silveira asks. “There are more than 50 of these open craters just in the southern portion of Espinhaco.”

Mining is not the only threat: urban expansion, agribusiness, private luxury apartments, deforestation, illegal burning, unregulated tourism, biological invasions, poaching, illegal plant trade and poor water resource management also play a role in the depletion and destruction of these delicate and distinctive ecosystems. When Silveira was in college, the road that led to the Espinhaco plateau from Belo Horizonte was still unpaved. In the early 00s, however, a convoy of trucks, tractors and ballast engines arrived, paving and widening the road. By the end of the project, an entire plant population that Silveira had studied, the endemic Baccharis concinna shrub, was gone. “It was a hard hit,” he says.

Pine and eucalyptus plantation
Tree plantation, Minas Gerais, Brazil

Scientists and conservationists in the Espinhaco, which was declared a Unesco biosphere reserve in 2015, have absorbed many such recent blows. Newly built roads extend across the plateau like spiders’ webs, fragmenting important habitats. Wineries, orchards, windfarms, eucalyptus and pine plantations have blossomed on once-pristine grasslands, displacing native vegetation; new glass-encased mansions dot the mountaintops. Poachers collect orchids and hunt deer, armadillos and tapirs in the shadows of the law. Thousands of inexperienced nature explorers visit from the cities, unschooled in the principles of minimal impact. “I venture to say the campo rupestre is the newest frontier for human expansion in Brazil,” Silveira says, looking at a luxury apartment being built on an Espinhaco mountaintop near Belo Horizonte.

The climate crisis, too, poses a grave threat. A study published in 2018 predicted that, due to a warming climate and changing land use, the campo rupestre could lose more than 80% of its habitat over the next 50 years.

Fernando Silveira, professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, examines a rare specimen of Arthrocereus glaziovii

‘A Noah’s ark of plants’

At the moment, however, only 10% of the more than 80,000 sq km (30,000 sq miles) of the biome is protected and there is tremendous pressure from mining companies, farmers, land developers, and politicians to develop the land.

There are those racing to catalogue and protect the campo rupestre’s unique and endangered ecosystems. One of them is Nilson Ferreira. Ferreira was my guide in 2016 while I was conducting my master’s research in the caves of the Vale do Rio Peixe Bravo (angry fish river valley). He is a man of powerful facial expressions and few words. Ferreira was born and raised in the Peixe Bravo region, descended, like many Brazilians, from the intermarriage of early European settlers, indigenous people and former slaves. His father worked in the mines for Vale, the company that has agreed to pay $7bn compensation for recent tailing dam collapses. During his childhood, Ferreira spent his time between the mining camps and the wilderness. “I grew up in the backwoods,” he says. He never received a proper education, but he reads the Peixe Bravo like a book – he knows each plant, animal, hidden cave and waterfall, pulling medicinal arnica and delicate, sweet-tasting cacti from the iron-laden soil, finding drinking water in rocky crevices that appear, to unschooled observers, barren and inhospitable.

In 2010, Instituto Pristino, an NGO which sponsored my master’s research, started a project to scan the region for endemic and threatened species, and hired Ferreira as a guide. He is now an important part of Pristino’s team, collecting data, setting camera traps, cataloguing endemic plants and archaeology, and helping to educate local schoolchildren about the area’s important biodiversity. Other NGOs are also working to identify, preserve and manage conservation areas, sponsor scientific research and promote sustainable wildlife and adventure tourism such as the trans-Espinhaco trail, which aims to run more than 700km (435 miles), connecting parks and conservation areas along the Espinhaco. State agencies also support local conservation units, police illegal activities such as poaching and illegal burning, and maintain endangered species protection projects, even as the far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro has sought to dismantle environmental protections across Brazil.

Silveira, for his part, has been working to restore degraded ecosystems in the campo rupestre. Unlike forest and lowland ecosystems, which may bounce back from ecological damage within decades, the campo rupestre cannot recover on its own. Life on the harsh rocks took several million years to reach maturity, and it will need a similar timeline to adapt to modern human threats. But Silveira believes that seeds – the very origins of life – can speed this process. He has begun a seed bank to preserve the biome’s genetic heritage. “We’re building the Noah’s ark of campo rupestre plants,” he says. He is working to identify the plant lineages best suited to restoring ecosystems damaged by years of mining.

A miner displays the diamonds he has taken from streams in Chapada Diamantina, Bahia State.

Silveira and his colleagues are beginning to see the first signs of recovery. Near Serra do Cipo national park, at an old mining site covered in eroded, exposed, dried-white soil, Silveira’s colleague, evolutionary ecologist Geraldo Wilson Fernandes, has been testing various combinations of plant species, soil preparation and planting techniques in the hope of bringing life back to the desiccated field.

The team began with thousands of green dots, seeds pampered like babies in greenhouses – just the right amount of water, sun, soil – then carried outside and arranged carefully in rows, symmetrically, like a work of art. After two years of monitoring, seedlings took root, palm plants extending their fussy leaves outward; shrubs flowering and breeding.

Soon, volunteer plant species appeared, colonising the shaded spaces. And then the animals arrived: insects, lizards, birds and bats – a natural reinforcement crew bringing back the crucial ecological interactions that allow life to persist in the campo rupestre. After years of research, trial and failure, a sterile field has turned green again.

Time will tell if it is possible to bring more species and ecosystems back from the brink. Hope lies now with the researchers, organisations and communities who envision a future for the campo rupestre.

They know that, against all expectations, life can sprout from rocks.

a scientist explores a partially flooded ironstone cave in Vale do Rio Peixe Bravo River, northern Minas Gerais State, Brazil

This story was originally published on bioGraphic, an online magazine powered by the California Academy of Sciences

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