top of page

The Emperor's Forest

D. Pedro II had strange habits. He spoke on a strange machine called the telephone, studied astronomy and botany and collected photographs, a newly invented novelty. But perhaps its greatest eccentricity was the reconstruction of the Tijuca forest. An epic madness that resulted in what is today the largest urban ecological reserve in the world.

The city of Rio de Janeiro today celebrates the privilege of involving the largest urban forest in the world, which hides, mimicked in virgin forest, the secret of having been all made by man. The Taunay forest celebrated in texts from 1885, to the disbelief of our computerized and immediate minds, it is not the same forest that enchanted Darwin in 1832.

Traveling through the history of this forest is to dive into an epic adventure and come across a bold and pioneering reforestation project carried out over 30 years, made possible by the visionary and entrepreneurial personality of D. Pedro II.

Main character in our history, our emperor, takes the boldness to return the forest to the Tijuca ridge. As Rubem Fonseca describes us in O Selvagem da Ópera, in these years, the emperor was a strong figure; "With a Napoleonic posture, somewhat fat, calculating eyes, sensual mouth, straight hair, combed to the side, a thin mustache and dark beards, which did not even cover the entire face". His hobby was studying astronomy and botany, and as soon as the photography was created in 1839, he plunged into the eccentric habit of collecting them, leaving an important documentary collection of 25,000 photos from different parts of the world, including Brazil.

A friend of Vitor Hugo, with whom he corresponded, on his trips to Europe he met with famous personalities, such as Pasteur, Máxime du Camp - with whom he remembered Flaubert -, Gladstone, former English Prime Minister, talked to Nietzsche about Wagner, and in Italy, exchanged ideas with Cesari Cantù, author of Sttoria Universale. Cultivating patronage, he sponsored Carlos Gomes' trip to Italy. He was also an arbiter of important international issues, such as Alabama, between the United States and England. Speaking eight languages, he got to know Palestine and Egypt, where he acquired the extremely rare teenage mummy that now rests at the Quinta da Boa Vista Museum. He was the first head of state to buy a phone when everyone thought this Graham Bell invention was very strange. It is from his time, the installation of the first submarine telegraph cable in America, and our rail network has become the second in the world in his administration. The challenge of making a forest is part of this tuned-in life, capturing the signs of modernity of his time.

At the beginning of the last century, the heights of Tijuca attracted European nobles who sought an escape from the tropical heat of 40°C in the mild climate of the massif. There they had a safe distance from the colonial unhealthiness, surrounding themselves with the exuberant Atlantic Forest.

The “Sintra Portuguesa” as it was called, housed Nicolay Taunay - who settled next to the cascade that took his name -, the Baroness of Roham, Count Gestas and Count of Secy Montbéliard, expatriate Bonapartists. Wearing their warm red coats, they strolled, practiced horseback riding and hunted in European fashion. Women paraded their hats, parasols and long puffed dresses, and everyone made money from planting Bourbon coffee.

Thus, the Brazilian coffee cycle began in Tijuca. The excellent conditions of climate and soil made it possible for the harvest to be made three times a year, quickly transforming the forest into a devastated area for coffee planting. The rudimentary and predatory farming increased the limits of destruction, always looking for the rich soils that fed the forest. The valleys of the Cachoeira and Maracanã rivers were soon occupied, and the city's water supply began to show signs of agony. By this time, Tijuca already housed in its properties the elite of the imperial society, which, going to join the first noble adventurers, gave sophisticated airs to the “Altos”.

In 1843 a plague condemned the coffee plantations of the massif; it was the warning signal for this same elite to create a recycling project for this devastated area. A process of expropriation of land began with the water sources to make the project viable. The key figure in the government's decision to recover the massif's vegetation was Luís Pedreira do Couto Ferraz, the viscount of Bom Retiro; advisor and friend of D. Pedro II. He was the great creator and supporter of the reforestation program. Resident of the Altos, he followed the devastation in his “Sitio da Solidão”, whose headquarters was later occupied by the Equestrian Society. In parallel to this project, Ferraz participated in the design of the plan to facilitate access to these massifs by cars on rails, which would be the first in Latin America.

In December 1861, the Minister of Agriculture, Commerce and Public Roads created a decree setting out “Provisional instructions for the planting and conservation of the Paineiras and Tijuca forests” and appointed Major Manuel Gomes Archer to administer the latter. Archer was not really a major, his title would have come from the City Guard. He kept his Independência Farm in the Pedra Branca massif, as a model farm, and this must have been the reason for the invitation he received to be the manager of all reforestation. For 11 years at the helm of the forest administration, he planted 62 thousand seedlings, an average of 5.6 thousand per year. As recommended in the “Provisional Instructions”, he used native species from the Paineiras forest and his farm, among them: cedar, cinnamon, peroba, rosewood, ironwood and jequitibás. From other parts of Brazil, he received aroeiras, mangabas, imbus and camarus. He also tried the eucalyptus brought by Bom Retiro from Australia, by the side of the roads. Time would take charge of giving these trees their own life, transforming them into forests, making orchids and bromeliads perch on their branches, and calling birds and squirrels under their shade.

The planting of seedlings was concentrated in the winter months, probably due to the wear that they would suffer in the summer, and the difficulty of working in the harsh sun at this time of year. The land was initially prepared, eradicating the old coffee plantations and invasive vegetation. The pits, to receive the seedlings, were opened up to two meters deep. Planting was done in straight parallel lines between them, obeying the contour lines to avoid erosion. The seedlings were constantly kept clean from pests, and the dead seedlings were replaced. There was also a constant work of conservation of the springs and maintenance of the paths. Contrary to what many people suppose, this work was possible not only thanks to the existence of slaves. There were, yes, some “Slaves of the Nation”, as were called the blacks seized in irregular trafficking operations, already prohibited in 1850, who were part of the folklore of the forest. Archer had 17 wage workers in 1865, 19 in 1870 and 22 in 1872. In 1879, he had 33 workers. They received 1,500 reis a day under the guidance of a foreman, with a salary of 2,000 reis. Many were black, ex-slaves who had planted and harvested coffee in the massif. Anyway, the contingent of employees who made the forest is very small, and if we add to that, the precarious conditions of the time, it is almost a miracle that this project turned viable. This ungrateful job of planting seedlings with the look of a stick and the face of nothing, on steep earth-colored slopes, and digging large holes to renew the poor soil. They carried baskets with the little trees, who knows how, on an animal loin or on the shoulder itself, which turned into a shoulder tyrannized by the sun. They woke up on the hill, lived on the hill and darkened on the hill. Like persistent ants, they did a job to which they dedicated good years of their lives. The people of the city didn't understand anything. Down there, you could only see the plucked hill.They surely were finding it strange those people digging up the hill. In a pact of silence, a surprise was being prepared: they planted for future generations... In 1874, Major Archer was transferred to Quinta Imperial de Petrópolis, to carry out a similar work.

Gastão Luís Henrique de Scragnolle was then appointed to continue the job. He was a longtime connoisseur of Cascatinha, which he frequented because he was the brother-in-law of Félix Emile Taunay. Familiar with Tijuca, he moved there, in the house where today is Restaurante dos Esquilos. At that time, the planting of the trees was well advanced and the Baron endeavored to transform the forest into a public park, with the help of the French landscaper Glaziou, who, although he brought here the English taste of gardening, knew very well how to adapt it to our vegetation. It was the first time that a "tropical garden" was built here.

With the end of the empire, Luís Pedreira de Magalhães Castro, nephew of Bom Retiro and friend of Deodoro, took over the forest, continuing the improvements in the park. This was perhaps the last stage of the reconstruction.

For almost half a century, intoxicated by the winds of progress, the rulers left aside the things of the land, dazzled by the first cars that arrived in Rio. It was in 1943 that Raimundo Castro Maya was called by Mayor Henrique Dodsworth to recover the forest, now in a complete state of abandonment. Successful industrialist, son of diplomats, he was a lover of the city of Rio de Janeiro and things of nature. He managed the forest as a dear one, without remuneration, for the pleasure of seeing the park reborn at the end of the century. Two years after the work started recovering paths and monuments, adding new improvements that, if necessary, had money from his own pocket, the forest was already part of the carioca's leisure on weekends.

In the years following Castro Maya's work, Tijuca Park returned to its former state of neglect, informing everyone that, although it is "correct" today to be interested in ecology and appreciate nature, little has been done for it.

The forest is in a state of alert, a sign that in matters of preservation and conservation we have a lot to learn from the heroes of this story: the forest makers.

Corcovado 1886,

photo Marc Ferrez

Arquivo Instituto Moreira Salles

writing Isabel Duprat

published by Vogue Magazine in 1995


bottom of page