World's Largest Urban Forest Was Planted by Hand

Natural scenery of forest and mountains, Tijuca Forest National Park.

Vitor Marigo / Aurora Photos / Getty Images

From the top of Rio de Janeiro's towering mountain of Corcovado, at the feet of the iconic Christ the Redeemer statue, the high rise urban centers neatly tucked along the shoreline are dwarfed by the rugged natural skyline. On these peaks, for as far as the eye can see, grows the dense jungle of the Tijuca forest -- the largest urban forest in the world -- which gives Rio the feel of city that has managed to coexist with nature like none other on the planet. But things weren't always so harmonious. In fact, there was once a time where these hills were stripped bare, deforested to make room for plantations. The truth is, this sprawling forest was replanted by hand.For as much attention that's given to deforestation in the Amazon rainforest in the last centuries, Brazil's Atlantic forest ecosystem has fared much worse. Home to a multitude of unique species, the Atlantic forest once extended along nearly the entire Brazilian coastline, though today only small patches remain. To support Brazil's population, the majority of which live in close proximity to the ocean, these forests were largely cut down to make room for development -- and Rio's Tijuca forest was no exception.

From the time that Rio de Janeiro was established in 1565 to the mid-19th century, its numerous hillsides, once lush with tropical forests, had been cleared of vegetation for timber and fuel to help grow the burgeoning city. Eventually, nearly all of Rio's hillsides would be stripped bare forests as coffee and sugarcane plantations took their place. Between 1590 and 1797, for example, the number of cane mills jumped from six to 120 -- at the expense of the city's Atlantic rainforest.

But for all the benefits garnered from deforesting the hillsides in those early days, the destruction was a cause for concern even then. As early as 1658, residents of Rio began to rise in defense of the forests, fearing that the degraded land was impacting the city's water supply. Still, it wasn't until 1817 that the city government first issued regulations to protect the few remaining patches of forest.

After a series of droughts in the mid-19th century, it became clear that the forest needed to be revitalized to ensure a clean supply of water. So, in 1860, Emperor Pedro II issued an order to reforest the barren hills of Rio with the native plants that flourished there centuries earlier.

The massive undertaking saw hundreds of thousands of seedlings planted by hand; natural regeneration and municipal regulation helped fill in the rest. Efforts were also made to reintroduce native fauna, thought the forest's tumultuous 400 year history has yet to recover all of its natural biodiversity. Over the next few decades, the Tijuca Forest gained National Forest status, receiving with it numerous protections and expansions to its boundaries.

Today, Tijuca is the largest urban forest in the world, attracting around 2 million visitors annually. But amid the seemingly unspoiled natural setting in the middle of one of Brazil's major urban centers, it remains possible to see the hollow shells of ranch houses the young forest has yet to claim entirely.

Still, from the lofty vantage of Tijuca's Corcovado peak, the forest appears untouched. And among the pilgrims of many creeds gathering around the feet of a giant stone statue of Jesus on a lush green hillside, there exists a glimmer of hope -- that even if a forest can't be saved where deforestation persists, perhaps, in the end we can still be redeemed.