Life, Death, and Renewal in the Campo Rupestre

In a little-known region of Brazil that calls to mind Tolkien’s Middle-earth, unique lifeforms have evolved to endure innumerable environmental challenges. Can they survive the country's latest era of deregulation?

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

Espinhaço means “spine” in Portuguese, and the name could not be more apt. The range is the second-longest in South America, spanning 750 miles. Its bony peaks reach as high as 2,000 meters (6,600 feet), 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, 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 those mountains, and patches of flat savanna and shrubland as well. But most of the Espinhaço is covered in stone.

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 medieval stories, like J.R.R. 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 to a more attentive observer—like a child, eyes trained on small things—the landscape is full of surprising life. Countless tiny flowers lie between the stones, roots spread like spiderwebs 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. You’ll find shrubs like the sharp-leafed, alien-like canelas-de-ema (family: Velloziaceae), which have evolved several layers of bark, separated by air like cinnamon sticks, to protect them from frequent fires. And the sempre-vivas (Comanthera spp.; Portuguese for “everlasting”), whose leaves absorb nutrients from the carcasses and feces of spiders’ prey and whose thousands of tiny white flowers resemble an exploding universe, a Big Bang in miniature. On windy days, they sway gently in the air, like so many ballet dancers.

The fauna there, too, are audacious fighters—evolutionary winners just to survive. 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; in some insects, special metabolic pathways neutralize 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, colors shift throughout the year: blue, yellow, purple, red, orange, and 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.

In the years sincefirst visited the Espinhaço mountains and Campo Rupestre as a child, I’ve returned often—climbing peaks, walking alone in fields, swimming in pristine rivers. The mountains have been my source of wonder, refuge, enchantment, 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 uniqueness of this place from an ecological perspective.

It was there that I first met Fernando Silveira, a professor of plant ecology who is always in the company of his hat and boots as he explores the grasslands with his students and studies the plant communities that live there. “I remember the first time I came to the Espinhaço 20 years ago,” he says. “This landscape was completely different from anything I’d ever seen before. Those bizarre plants, the broken rocks, all the life forms, they were surprising, shocking, tremendously beautiful.”

The Campo Rupestre is among the oldest, harshest, most biodiverse, and most threatened ecosystems on Earth. While the grasslands comprise less than 1 percent of Brazil’s land surface, they hold nearly 15 percent of the country’s plant species—more than 5,000 plant species are found there, many of which exist nowhere else. Animals, too: An average of four animal species per 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 a hundred frog and toad species there, 28 found nowhere else. The Campo Rupestre biome is, indeed, 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. Formed 1.8 billion years ago as a shallow seabed uplifted by the collision of tectonic plates, the Espinhaço range was once as high as Mount Everest. While dramatic erosion has worn the mountains to their current height, the range has barely moved north or south in those eons—protecting the biome from the climatic instability and extinction events that accompany such latitudinal drift. In the Campo Rupestre, geology is destiny.

Visit a place like the Travessão, a stunning valley in the Espinhaço’s Serra do Cipó National Park, and it is easy to imagine a time-lapse of the earth in action. Like an old woman’s skin marked with wrinkles and a lifetime’s scars, the valley’s towering walls are deeply marked by erosion and covered with a thin layer of vegetation that sometimes falters, exposing the rocks underneath—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 São 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 southeastern Brazil, along with the remarkably diverse life that is found in the Campo Rupestre.

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, saltpeter, and other precious metals and minerals, the Espinhaço—once lightly visited by a few indigenous tribes—became a peregrination pole to anyone interested in trying their luck at getting rich.

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-colored waters, the surrounding slopes eroding and collapsing from all sides.

In 2015, a tailing dam at one such abandoned mine ruptured. It was an old structure, barely monitored and built above dozens of villages. The avalanche of 40 million cubic meters (52 million cubic yards) of toxic mud laden with iron, manganese, mercury, and arsenic flowed into the Rio Doce and killed 19 people, destroying 600 km 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 count among the worst environmental disasters in Brazil’s history. 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 Espinhaço.”

Nor is mining the only threat: Urban expansion, agribusiness, private luxury condominiums, deforestation, illegal burning, unregulated tourism, biological invasions, poaching, illegal plant trade, and poor water resource management also factor into the depletion and destruction of these delicate and distinctive ecosystems. When Silveira was in college, the road that led to the Espinhaço plateau from Belo Horizonte was still unpaved. In the early 2000’s, however, an armada of trucks, tractors and ballast engines arrived, paving and widening the road. By the end of the project, an entire plant population that Silveira studied, the endemic Baccharis concinna shrub, was gone. “It was a hard hit,” he says.

Scientists and conservationists in the Espinhaço have absorbed many such recent blows. Newly built roads extend across the plateau like spiderwebs, fragmenting important habitats. Wineries, orchards, wind farms, eucalyptus and pine plantations have blossomed on once-pristine grasslands, displacing native vegetation; new glass-encased mansions dot the mountaintops. Poachers collect orchids, deer, armadillos, and tapirs in the shadows of 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 condominium being built on an Espinhaço mountaintop near Belo Horizonte.

Climate change, too, poses a grave threat. Mountaintop flora and fauna are adapted to very specific and stable climates, but as mean global temperatures rise those species have nowhere to go, and many will likely go extinct. A study published in 2018 predicted that, due to a warming climate and changing land use, the Campo Rupestre could lose more than 80 percent of its habitat over the next 50 years.

In 2005, the Espinhaço range was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve, encouraging the integrated management of public and private lands and targeting special areas for conservation. At the moment, however, only about 10 percent of the more than 80,000-square-kilometer (~30,000-square-mile) biome is protected, and there is tremendous pressure from mining companies, farmers, land developers, and local politicians to develop the land.

A number of people are pushing back against that pressure, racing to catalogue and protect the Campo Rupestre’s unique and endangered ecosystems. One of them is Nilson Ferreira, whom I met in 2016 while conducting my master’s research in the caves of the Vale do Rio Peixe Bravo (the “Angry Fish River Valley”).

Ferreira was my guide there. He is a strong, middle-aged country guy with thick hands marked by heavy labor, 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 responsible for the 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.

Ferreira 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, an NGO called Instituto Prístino—which also sponsored my master’s research—initiated a program to scan the region for endemic and threatened species and hired Ferreira as a guide. He is now an important part of Prístino’s team, collecting data in the field, setting camera traps, cataloguing endemic plants and archaeology, and helping to educate local schoolchildren about the area’s important biodiversity.

Other NGOs are also laboring to identify, preserve, and manage conservation areas, sponsor scientific research, and promote sustainable wildlife and adventure tourism like the Transespinhaço Trail, which aims to run more than 700 kilometers (435 miles), connecting parks and conservation areas along the Espinhaço. State agencies also help support local conservation units, police illegal activities such as poaching and illegal burning, and maintain endangered species protection programs, even as the far-right government of President Jair Bolsonaro has sought to dismantle environmental protections across Brazil.

Fernando 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 can’t recover on its own. Life on the harsh rocks took several million years to reach maturity, and it will need similar timelines to adapt to modern human threats. But Silveira believes that seeds—the very origins of life—can speed this process. He has begun to create a seed bank to preserve the biome’s genetic heritage—“We’re building the Noah’s Ark of Campo Rupestre plants,” he says—and is working to identify the plant lineages best suited to restoring ecosystems damaged by years of mining. “The probabilities are not in our favor,” he says. But after decades of efforts, he and his colleagues are beginning to see the first signs of recovery.

Near Serra do Cipó 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 hopes 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, colonizing the shaded spaces between. 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—something that was unthinkable only a few years ago.

Time will tell if we can bring more species and ecosystems back from the brink. My hope lies now with these tireless brave researchers, organizations, and communities who envision a future for the Campo Rupestre.

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

Augusto Gomes

Augusto Gomes

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