From The Madeira Island Web Site

The "Laurissilva" - A Unesco world heritage site!
By Jorge Barbosa
Jun 6, 2008 - 7:29:56 PM

The Laurissilva forest with the leaves of the valuable hard wood "Vinhatico" tree in the foreground. (Photo courtesy of the Regional Secretary of Economy)

The " Laurissilva" or forest of lauraceas madeirense  is a protected area towards the higher altitudes of Madeira Island and extends as a thick spine across much of the island's lateral centre.

In 1996 the regional government of Madeira included the forest on a nationally compiled list of several important natural and ecological sites of Portugal that may qualify for World Heritage Site status. The list was prepared to nominate the important natural heritage reserves evident all over Portugal to be evaluated and looked over by the committee for UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

In February of 1999 the National Commission for UNESCO World Heritage Sites visited the island and studied the Laurissilva first hand. They compiled the final report needed for the candidature of the forest to UNESCO as a World Heritage Nature Site.

Unesco "World Heritage" logo
In Paris five months later the report led to the recommendation of the forest to World Heritage Site status by the United Nations Committee for World Heritage Sites. The success of this recommendation and the classification of the Laurissilva as a World Heritage Site was on the  04th December 1999 in Morocco - the locale for the last meeting of the UNESCO authority on this matter.

The Laurissilva is steeped in history and pristine nature unaffected by the development of the modern world

Visitors to the Nature Park witness some of the "wildest nature" available anywhere
The importance of the Laurissilva WHS status.

According to several authorities the classification of the "Laurissilva" as a World Heritage Site is of great importance to Madeira and Portugal. Bazenga Marques, the Regional Secretary for Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, affirmed that once the Laurissilva acquires World Heritage Site status financial aid in the form of nature conservation funds would be made available more easily to the local authorities to further promote, protect and preserve the treasured forest. The government representative went on further to mention that this programme will help incentivise more the local population to the importance of furthering nature conservation.

The Laurissilva forest covers large areas of the island of Madeira. (Source: "Conheca o Parque Natural da Madeira")
Who controls or administers the area of the Laurissilva?

The Laurissilva is an area controlled by the government authority known as the "Parque Natural da Madeira" or "Madeira Nature Park". It is competently administered by Henrique Costa Neves (also the co-author of the book "Conheça o Parque Natural da Madeira"- translated as "Getting to Know the Madeira Nature Park").

How many years was this tree witness to splendid isolation in a remote part of the island? A splendid example of the jewels of the Laurissilva. (Photo - Tourism Department)
The Laurissilva qualification as a World Heritage Site

According to the director of the Parque Natural da Madeira (Nature Park of Madeira) the Laurissilva qualifies for two of any single four criteria needed to elevate the nature reserve to World Heritage Status.
Henrique Costa Neves elaborated on the two criteria that qualifies the Laurissilva:

First, as a nature site whose importance is that it exemplifies the ecological and biological processes underway in the development of a unique ecosystem and community of fauna and flora

Secondly, being a nature reserve conserving fauna and flora that are subject to extinction in its own natural environment and whose preservation helps maintain the ideal goal of maximum global or universal biodiversity, not only for future conservation and protection, but also for scientific research

The Laurissilva forest with a typical gnarled branch of tree that easliy calls to mind our imagination of what Europe may have looked like 10,000 years ago and beyond.. (Photo courtesy of Henry Veldhoen)
The Laurissilva from a scientific perspective, and how Madeira was "made" along the geological time scale.

The Laurissilva is a geological and natural relic from the Tertiary period on the world geological time scale. That means that the forest grew during the period of geological history when the planet was still forming itself. From the Paleocene epoch through to the pliocene epoch. The Laurissilva as we know it today has been very little tainted across the two epochs of the quaternary period (the current geological period we are living in). That is, until the arrival of man in the late 15th century:
Quaternary (current) Period
Epoch Millions
      of years
Geological events Sea life Land life
Holocene 0.01 to    today Glaciers    recede. Sea level rises. Climate becomes more equable. As now Forests    flourish again. Humans acquire agriculture and technology.
Pleistocene 2.0 - 0.01 Widespread    glaciers melt periodically causing seas to rise and fall. As now Many plant    forms perish. Small mammals abundant. Primitive humans established.
Tertiary    Period 
Epoch Millions
      of years
Geological events Sea life Land life
Pliocene 5.1 - 2.0 Continents    and oceans adopting their present form. Present climatic distribution    established. Ice caps develop. Giant    sharks extinct. Many fish varieties. Some plants    and mammals die out. Primates flourish..
Miocene 24.6 - 5.1 Seas recede    further. European and Asian land masses join. Heavy rain causes massive    erosion. Red Sea opens. Bony fish    common. Giant sharks. Grasses    widespread. Grazing mammals become common.
Oligocene 38.0 - 24.6 Seas    recede. Extensive movements of Earth's crust produce new mountains (e.g.    Alpine-Himalayan chain). Crabs,    mussels, and snails evolve. Forests    diminish. Grasses appear. Pachyderms, canines, and felines develop.
Eocene 54.9 - 38.0 Mountain    formation continues. Glaciers common in high mountain ranges. Greenland    separates. Australia separates. Whales    adapt to sea. Large tropical    jungles. Primitive forms of modern mammals established.
Paleocene 65.0 - 54.9 Widespread    subsidence of land. Seas advance again. Considerable volcanic activity.    Europe and Madeira emerges. Many    reptiles become extinct. Flowering plants    established. Dinosaurs become extinct.

It was at the beginning of the Holocene epoch, about 10 000 years ago, that the Laurissilva forests disappeared from the European mainland and Mediterranean basin. The last glacier across Europe helped decrease the average temperatures across the continent where much of the forests flourished - helping slowly extinguish the lush and subtropical environment existing about that time. Remnants of those forests that have survived are the Laurissilva persisting on the Macaronesian islands of the Azores, the Canary Islands, and Madeira - the Atlantic ocean weather amenable to the humid friendly forests.

A levada running through parts of the Laurissilva
The size of and extent of the Laurissilva.

The Laurissilva lies between 300m and 1300 metres of altitude on the island of Madeira. The forest extends across 22,100 hectares of land. Roughly 16% of the island's surface, making the Madeira Laurissilva one of the largest forests of its kind in the world. On the Canary Islands, for example, the Laurissilva forests occupy only about 6,000 hectares, which is still much more than the leftover Laurissilva forest found on the Azores islands of São Miguel and Terceira - where the precious land has fallen prey to overgrazing and over-farming.

A valuable resource

The most important feature of the Madeira Laurissilva, according to the Nature Reserve Director, Henriques Costa Neves, is not only the extensive wealth of biodiversity of the forest, but also its exceptionally high level of endemic species preservation from its distant past. For example, the remarkable and high quality hard wood trees available, some of them achieving heights of 40 metres abound, including the valuable Til, Vinhático, Barbosano, Aderno, Pau Branco and Folhado trees. Some of these trees can also be found on the Canary Islands, but another 66 known species of plants are entirely endemic to Madeira, including the Uveira da Serra and Urze species (brush plants).
The " Godiera da Madeira", or in Latin the " Goodyera Macrophylla" - an orchid, is an example of one of the rare and endemic flowers species found almost exclusively in the Laurissilva.

Rare fauna

More than 500 endemic fauna invertebrate species also form part of the Laurissilva, including many molluscs, insects and spiders. Some of the more well known endemic vertebrates include the Long Toed Wood Pigeon, or "Pombo Trocaz", two rare species of bats and some other less so endemic vertebrates that share habitats with both Madeira and/or the Canary Islands.

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