Brazil’s Atlantic Forest Faces Many Environmental Challenges

Ask Americans to name a Brazilian forest and most would say, “the Amazon.” But the Atlantic Forest – or Mata Atlântica as it is known locally – stretches from southern Brazil up along the Atlantic coast as far as Rio Grande do Norte and Piauí. This southern Atlantic coast of Brazil is home to large population centers, including mega cities Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Roughly 62% of the nation’s population lives in the Atlantic Forest biome, accounting for 80% of its GDP.

Rich in biological diversity, the Atlantic Forest is one of the world’s top four biodiversity hotspots. The forest has numerous endemic species – species that are found nowhere else – including the charismatic Golden Lion Tamarin. In addition to supporting flora and fauna, the forest has supplied key resources to Brazil’s growing economy.

Extent of the Mata Atlantica
(Source: Encyclopedia of the Earth)

But Brazil’s economic growth has also almost decimated the forest. Exploitation of the forest began in the 16th and 17th centuries, with Portuguese colonization, and continues to this day. It once covered 120 million hectares, but is now reduced to fewer than 10 million hectares. Even more problematic for animals still living in the biome is that, of the remaining forest, more than 80% is contained in forest fragments smaller than 50 hectares. Animals have a difficult time surviving in such small habitats.

This degradation has taken place despite environmental regulations that prohibit deforestation. Brazil’s Forest Code – most often in the news for its impact on the Amazon – also governs the Atlantic Forest biome. The Code previously required that property owners maintain natural forest on all riparian areas and preserve an additional 20% of their land. Controversial changes to the Code have reduced the amount of land that a landowner has to retain as natural forest, reforms seen by many as concessions to the country’s powerful farm lobby.

Obviously, if less than 10% of the original forest remains, the Code is not being strictly enforced. If it were, landowners would be forced to reforest their property to meet the minimum requirements.

By far the greatest use of land in the biome is cattle grazing, which occupies an estimated 30.5 million hectares – an area greater than the state of Nevada. The primary driver of deforestation has been the expansion of agriculture. Soy, sugarcane, coffee, bananas, cassava, and other crops have competed with the forest for land. Extraction of timber and plantations to support pulp and paper operations are other important contributors to deforestation.

While protecting the existing forest is a clear priority for Brazilian environmental officials, forest restoration has also emerged as a primary concern. The Pact for Restoration of the Atlantic Forest – or PACTO – was established to increase forest cover in the biome. PACTO is a group of nongovernmental organizations, academic institutions, private companies, and local governments committed to restoration of the Atlantic Forest.

In most cases, reforesting land used for productive agriculture provides the owner with much less financial return, making forest restoration costly. However, in the case of the Atlantic Forest, there are opportunities that would make the cost lower. Cattle grazing, as practiced in the Atlantic Forest and throughout much of Brazil, is inefficient, with an average of only 0.82 cattle per hectare. This represents a very low economic return: only $70-100 per hectare per year. Since forests provide a number of non-market benefits (water regulation, carbon sequestration, nutrient cycling, etc.) there is a strong case for restoring forests, especially on land used so unproductively.

But there are other obstacles that add to the costs. In the Northeastern United States, forests have made a significant come back without active restoration. As the Midwest and the Great Plains became the bread basket of the United States, fields became fallow and the forest has naturally returned. In the Atlantic Forest, however, natural restoration is almost impossible. Several invasive species, in particular an African grass species of the Brachiaria family, has come to dominate the biome. These species were introduced to the Atlantic Forest because they provide cattle with a fast growing food. They spread like weeds and the grass grows high and crowds out native species

Golden Lion Tamarins (Source: stvehdc)

Ecologists trying to encourage restoration are forced to actively destroy the grasses using lawn mowers and herbicides. Herbicide is often applied several times throughout the restoration process. Local tree species are grown in nurseries and then transplanted to restoration sites. While this method has proven effective, it is also expensive. Restoration costs range from $3,000 to $20,000 per hectare. Under current incentives, these costs are prohibitively high for the widespread adoption of forest restoration. Without change, restoration will likely remain restricted to small areas.

Surprisingly, a conservation law may be discouraging forest restoration. The Atlantic Forest law, enacted in 2006, restricts harvest of native timber species. It was designed to halt deforestation. Many native Atlantic Forest species, such as the Pau Brasil, are extremely valuable for their timber. Without this law, one can imagine landowners planting native species with the intent of harvesting them in the future. But the law has also slowed forest restoration. Because of the law, only exotic species can be planted for timber harvest. As a result, much of the landscape is dominated by monoculture eucalyptus plantations. In a properly managed situation, the profit from harvest would lead to partial forest restoration.

Large companies are responsible for supporting the largest areas of forest restoration. While large businesses have played a role in deforestation in the past (and continue to do so in other parts of the countries), that is no longer the case in the Atlantic Forest. Pulp and paper companies, which harvest eucalyptus, are more visible than small to medium landowners. A higher profile brings both more scrutiny from regulators enforcing the Forest Code and the financial resources to respond. Companies like Veracel and Fibria have made significant investments in restoration in order to be incompliance with the Forest Code. Veracel has committed to restoring 400 hectares per year, while the larger Fibria has committed to restoring 23,000 hectares by 2023. In these cases, environmental regulations seem to be driving positive changes.

The Atlantic Forest is in need of continued protection and increased restoration. Under business as usual, it is difficult to imagine a significant comeback for the forest. Without restoration, there are continuing threats to biodiversity and important ecosystems that support Brazilian population centers. Floods and mudslides have recently demonstrated the dramatic human consequences of environmental degradation. However, by tweaking a few laws and enforcing others better, significant progress could be made in restoring this critical ecosystem.