Reports launched by the Brazilian Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services estimates that forest restoration on this scale would sequester 1.39 million tons of CO2 and increase biodiversity conservation by 200% without adverse impacts on agriculture (photo: Leticia Garcia)
Published on 05/12/2021
Elton Alisson | Agência FAPESP – In the last 30 years, Brazil has lost 71 million hectares of native vegetation to deforestation and fire, among other factors, according to the Brazilian Annual Land Use and Land Cover Mapping Project (MapBiomas). The area lost is larger than the sum of federal public lands in the Legal Amazon. Plots are often cleared without environmental or agricultural planning, and many are eventually abandoned or poorly utilized. Many areas also undergo erosion and become inadequate for food production or any other economic activity.
Forest restoration can mitigate a part of this loss. A national plan (Proveg) calls for strategic measures to restore 12 million hectares of native vegetation throughout Brazil by 2030. If implemented, the measures will sequester 1.39 million metric tons of atmospheric carbon dioxide, connect fragments of the natural landscape, and increase biodiversity conservation by 200%.
These are the key findings highlighted in the summary for policymakers of the thematic report Restauração de Paisagens e Ecossistemas (“Restoration of Landscapes and Ecosystems”), released on August 23, 2019, at the Rio de Janeiro Botanic Gardens Research Institute’s Museum of the Environment (IPJBRJ/MMA).
The report resulted from a partnership between the Brazilian Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (BPBES) and Instituto Internacional de Sustentabilidade (ISS), a Rio-based organization. The report was written by 45 researchers affiliated with 25 institutions in Brazil. BPBES is supported by the FAPESP Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration & Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP).
“The summary shows that environmental management [ecological conservation and restoration] and agricultural production are interdependent and can go hand in hand without losses for either side. On the contrary, this approach yields only direct benefits, such as a supply of crop pollinators, soil and water conservation, and above all the possibility of environmental certification for producers, all of which adds value,” Ricardo Ribeiro Rodrigues, one of the authors of the report, told Agência FAPESP. Rodrigues is a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ-USP).
The report identifies substantial opportunities for Brazil to boost vegetation restoration to generate more socioeconomic and environmental benefits, minimize competition between forests and croplands, and mitigate the adverse effects of climate change.
The opportunities cannot be implemented, however, if there is a reversal of environmental policies related to combat illegal logging, conserve biodiversity and incentivize large-scale restoration of native vegetation, according to the report.
Ending the “legal reserve” obligation to leave a large percentage of native vegetation intact, reducing opportunities to convert fines into conservation or restoration services, and ending citizen-government collaboration committees would irreparably damage such efforts, the report emphasizes.
The report also argues that if Brazil relinquishes the leadership role it has taken in international environmental negotiations, then it will miss opportunities and lose markets for its agricultural produce. Sustainable production is increasingly important to developed-country consumers, who are already starting to boycott goods from deforested areas.
“It shouldn’t be hard for Brazil to export its produce everywhere in the world. All it needs to do is make sure agricultural practices are sustainable and carried out in environments with high levels of natural diversity, an advantage available to no other country,” Rodrigues said.
According to the report, Brazil needs to sustainably intensify livestock production to increase productivity and free less productive croplands to be in compliance with environmental laws and targets.
By doubling the average annual beef yield from 4.4 arrobas per hectare to 9.0 arrobas per hectare (1 arroba = 15 kg), it would be feasible not only to achieve the national goal of rehabilitating 12 million hectares of native vegetation by 2030 but also to end illegal logging and make 30 million hectares of land available for farming.
“Cattle ranches currently occupy three-quarters of Brazil’s arable land and their productivity is very low on average,” Rodrigues said. “The right agricultural policy would be to focus on increasing the technical quality of our livestock farming, increase yields, and thereby freeing at least 32 million hectares of pasture for growing other crops while maintaining herd size.”
An increase in pasture productivity of this magnitude in the next 30 years would be sufficient to enable Brazil to meet its international commitments regarding climate change mitigation and protect its own environment and ecosystem services. The feasibility of such a nationwide change can be demonstrated by progress on the ground in certain regions, according to the report.
In the Amazon, for example, pasture productivity would need to increase to 63%-75% from the current 46% of sustainable potential within 15 years to meet all targets related to agricultural and forest production, with no illegal logging and with restoration of native vegetation so that rural properties are environmentally regulated and their ecosystem services are enhanced.
In the Atlantic Rainforest biome, this same process requires an improvement in productivity from 24% to 30%-34% of its potential, which can be completed simply by applying basic knowledge of pasture management. In the Cerrado, Brazil’s savanna biome, increasing productivity from the current 35% to 65% by 2050 would be sufficient to reconcile sustainable agricultural expansion and restoration in priority areas with zero illegal logging.
“Nothing can justify the deforestation that’s happening now in the Amazon and the Cerrado. Worse, it’s just making way for more low-yield cattle farms,” Rodrigues said.
According to the report, direct and indirect financial benefits will be obtained in the short run if productivity increases in agricultural areas and if alternative economic models are implemented in areas with less agricultural potential, such as areas where mechanized production is limited, areas occupied by native vegetation, native forest areas with sustainable economic activities, and biodiverse agroforestry systems.
Restoring native vegetation in such marginal agricultural areas is financially viable if these areas can be efficiently redeveloped for biodiverse agroforestry and used to offset legal reserve losses by rural landowners with environmental liabilities.
The report notes, for example, that in Paragominas, Pará, cattle farms with environmental challenges and low productivity were able to comply with the laws and regulations within four years, increasing beef yield fourfold and introducing sustainable uses for their legal reserves by planting native fruit trees and timber species, among other production diversification methods.
“Many other examples of sustainable livestock farming can be found in Brazil. In these cases, the best areas for pasture are used, and marginal areas have been reclassified as conservation areas for permanent protection of water, soil and biodiversity. In legal reserve areas that are currently farmed but aren’t truly suited for efficient agricultural activities, biodiverse economic forests have been planted to rehabilitate the ecosystem and increase productivity,” Rodrigues said.
For Carlos Joly, Full Professor at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and a member of the BPBES and BIOTA-FAPESP steering committees, Brazil has an opportunity to develop an internationally unmatched native vegetation recovery program in Atlantic and Amazon Rainforest areas, given the large number of species available for use in restoration projects.
“Successful large-scale restoration projects are under way in countries like China, but the number of species used is small because biodiversity there is far lower than in the Atlantic and Amazon, for example,” Joly said.
Restoration can be more functional due to the high species diversity in these two Brazilian biomes. “Besides common advantages such as improved soil stability and increased water retention with higher levels of aquifer recharge, a restoration program that involves high species diversity can include plants that serve as food sources or are important for the maintenance of pollinators such as bees,” Joly said.
The lack of seedlings could be an obstacle to large-scale restoration projects in the Amazon, according to the report, but this problem will be resolved as demand rises. “If the political will to implement large-scale restoration projects is there, the surge in demand will stimulate growth in the production of seedlings. This will happen immediately because sufficient knowledge already exists,” Joly said.
“It’s currently hard to find high seedling species diversity for restoration because of low demand. Once a restoration program is established, the whole chain will be reactivated, from seed collection and planting all the way through to care for young trees after that.”
If restoration is properly planned and implemented, it can increase biodiversity conservation by over 200%, according to the report.
In the Atlantic Rainforest biome, for example, rehabilitation of 5 million hectares classed as “legal reserve deficits” could prevent the extinction of 2,864 plant and animal species, which would be a 26% decrease in species, and sequester 1 billion metric tons of CO2 equivalent. Cost effectiveness under this scenario would be eight times greater than business as usual, leading to a 257% increase in avoided species extinction and a 105% increase in carbon sequestration, as well as a 57% cost saving.
Efficient management of natural regeneration in areas with favorable environmental and socioeconomic conditions in the Amazon could reduce the cost of implementing restoration in the next 20 years by as much as 77%.
“Modeling tools can be used to calculate the cost effectiveness of restoration with different functions, such as assuring the highest possible level of plant species diversity or of efficiency in land and labor costs,” Joly said.
“A modeling system cross-references these goals so that areas can be mapped and selected if they show the greatest potential to achieve the goals relating to low cost, high species diversity and effective restoration. This makes an increase in the scale of restoration possible.”