Back from the brink

Ryan McGuire Gratisography

Photo: Ryan McGuire

HOW DO you “build” a forest, and why should you? It is a question at the forefront of research in Latin America and the Caribbean that, as someone who once joined volunteers planting trees in Naucalpan, Mexico, fascinates me.

It goes without saying that deforestation is a global problem: about 13 million hectares of trees are cut down every year as the land they grow on is converted to other uses. The rate of deforestation has accelerated so much over the last 200 years that only about a quarter of our fertile planet’s original old-growth forests which have never been logged or cleared – sometimes called ancient forest – remain.

This is a massive problem for Latin America, which has the largest area of tropical forest on the planet, its most significant abundance of biodiversity, a major proportion of its global carbon stock, and vast protected areas.

According to the World Resources Institute (WRI), cumulative, unsustainable land-use practices have resulted in the degradation of some 300m ha of the region’s forests, and about 350m ha are now classified as deforested.

In countries like Brazil, the problem of deforestation has become emblematic of a broader assault by expansive, modern economies on the natural environment. The country, which has the world’s largest area of tropical forest, has contributed 3.1m ha to the global 13m ha of forest loss every year. Other countries, such as Venezuela, may be losing up to a quarter of a million hectares annually.

Such was the zeal of Brazil’s military regimes that in the early 1970s forests were depicted as an obstacle to progress and subsidised credit was used to encourage wealthy landowners to cut them down for cattle ranching and agro-industry.

This set a precedent that has been hard to reverse: unstoppable forest destruction, rapid population growth and accelerated urbanisation all became metaphors for economic growth. In the Brazilian Amazon – the largest tropical forest in the world – deforestation peaked in 2004, when more than 27,000 ha were cut down. In São Paulo, a wealthy state accounting for a third of Brazil’s GDP that has experienced some of the worst deforestation, industry and agriculture grew in direct relation to the destruction of the environment. The SOS Atlantic Forest Foundation and INPE have calculated that forest extending along Brazil’s Atlantic coast originally covered 69% of São Paulo state – but that today only 14% of this remains.

Moreover, there is still a relationship between rates of deforestation and economic fortunes: after several years of declining deforestation in the Amazon, the trend is beginning to rise again. According to Brazil’s Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (INPE), about 8,000 ha of rainforest were destroyed from mid 2015–16, a 29% increase on the previous year and the largest rise since 2008. There seems little doubt that rising deforestation correlates with fiscal crisis and the impact of Brazil’s two-year recession on monitoring capacity.

In Brazil as elsewhere, variation in deforestation rates is related to a complex combination of economic and political factors that combine to create often perverse incentives. Just as demographic and socio-economic change linked to local migration can stimulate forest recovery, growing global demand for food as part of a commodity-led developmental agenda drives the expansion of agriculture.

Politics also plays an important role: the introduction of Brazil’s controversial 2012 forest code, for example, gave an amnesty to property owners who had deforested illegally, and the government of President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached last year, was resistant to declaring conservation areas. Some Amazonian politicians themselves also want to reduce the coverage of conservation areas, threatening to open up indigenous territories to development aggression: land grabs, illegal mining and, naturally, further deforestation.

Why are forests so important?
Forests are a vital resource governing yields, biomass content, soil quality, surface water hydrology and biodiversity, making them crucial to our way of life for very good reasons:

  • Water and soil erosion Much of the world’s freshwater comes from land with forests, which filter it and hence keep it clean. In turn, by absorbing water and retaining it in their roots, forests store this precious resource in vast quantities and this helps to prevent soil erosion. Where there is deforestation, there are usually water supply problems. In São Paulo state, for example, deforestation from the expansion of cattle grazing and water-intensive industrial and agricultural production has aggravated severe shortages.
  • Biodiversity Forests shelter and feed animals, and are crucial nurseries for their young, meaning that changes in forest cover inevitably directly affect biodiversity. Latin America is the world’s most biodiverse region – although it represents just 16% of the Earth’s land surface, it hosts 27% of its mammals, 42% of reptiles, 43% of birds and 34% of flowering plants. In 2004 the IUCN (World Conservation Union) Red List of species threatened with extinction noted that of the 15,589 species at risk globally, a staggering 10,823 could be found in South America – about 60% of which live in forests.
  • Carbon Forests store or “sequester” carbon, and so are vital for addressing global warming. Young tropical forests may capture about 100 tons of carbon per hectare and older forests may contain up to 300. In market terms, the value of carbon sequestered by Latin American forests has been estimated at over $3.4 trillion. The WRI says that deforestation, land-use change, and unsustainable agricultural activities are the largest drivers of climate change in this region and account for 56% of all its greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Ecosystem services Forests are a vital economic resource, contributing to livelihoods and supporting growth for hundreds of millions of people. They are especially important for the rural poor who depend on their ecosystems for renewable sources of food, wood for construction and fuel, and medicine. Forests host pollinators that underpin all agriculture, they give plants pharmacological benefits that are crucial for medicines, and the water filtration and storage services that they provide are essential for our survival. In Panama, for example, the Agua Salud project in the Panama Canal watershed that examined forest ecosystem services noted that these were essential sources of water for local people and for the canal itself and a crucial haven for biodiversity in the biological corridor linking North and South America. The WRI says agriculture and forestry exports from Latin America represent about 13% of the global trade of food, feed, and fibre.

The science of restoration
It is easy to cut down a tropical forest, but regenerating it is a slow process: fortunately, in the last 25 years research expertise has grown as fast as a bamboo shoot.

As the world began to wake up to the high price being paid for deforestation, scientific research unfolded apace. Expert knowledge to inform reforestation is especially important given that a large proportion of the world’s tropical forests are in fact, secondary forests that grow on abandoned farmland and pasture.
The scientific foundation of forest restoration is now reaching a level of sophistication whereby projects aim to achieve multiple goals: carbon storage, water management, biodiversity conservation and ecosystem services. Restoration needs to take into account different rainfall and soil types; the key role played by native trees adapted to local conditions; and the importance of species that cope well with degraded soils in diverse environments that can also yield high-value wood.

While many studies within the Latin American and the Caribbean region initially documented deforestation or forest recovery, it is only in recent years that these have been considered in terms of a complex interaction. This dynamic, interrelated nature of forestry coverage – and the complex reasons for both deforestation and reforestation – was well illustrated in a fascinating study by Aide et al published in Biotropica in 2013. This mapped change in woody vegetation and other land-cover classes between 2001–10 for each of the 16,050 municipalities in Latin America and the Caribbean and used regression analysis to determine which environmental or population variables best explained the variation. It found that woody vegetation change was dominated by deforestation, particularly in the moist forest, dry forest and savanna/shrubland biomes in South America, and tended to occur in lowland areas with low population density. The recovery of woody vegetation across extensive areas, particularly in regions too dry or steep for modern agriculture, was not related to municipality-scale population change.

Why the restoration of landscapes is gathering pace
The key motive underlying reforestation is economic sustainability: if conducted on a sufficiently large scale, it makes huge sense for regions like Latin America by offering an economically rational opportunity to slow agricultural expansion, halt biodiversity loss and maintain the provision of ecosystem services, sequester ever more carbon, and greatly improve soil and water quality – while generating new income in the rural economy.

The WRI analysed the potential economic benefits of forest restoration in Latin America and the Caribbean by monetizing the benefits that would flow from restoring 20m ha of degraded lands. It estimated that the generation of more wood forest products, non-wood forest products, agricultural outputs, ecotourism, carbon sequestration, and the lower costs of food security, could yield an estimated net present value of about $23bn over a 50-year period – an average regionwide benefit per hectare of about $1,140. Moreover, landscape restoration is likely to be the central element of efforts to reduce carbon emissions: such a programme could result in a net storage of about 1.3 gigatons (GT) of carbon (C) or 4.8 GT of CO2 over 50 years.

The growth of knowledge in this field is reflected in the proliferation of reforestation projects. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has been a key global actor promoting landscape restoration through the so-called Restoration Initiative, a programme that will unite 10 countries with up-to-date technical knowledge and innovative financing tools in support of the so-called Bonn Challenge, a global commitment to restore 150m ha of land by 2020, and the New York Declaration on Forests, which seeks to restore 350m ha by 2030.

A number of prominent restoration initiatives are now under way across Latin America.
The most high-profile is Initiative 20×20, a country-led effort to bring 20m ha of land into restoration by 2020 supported by WRI, in association with the Centro Agronómico Tropical de Investigación y Enseñanza (CATIE), the Centro Internacional de Agricultura Tropical (CIAT), and the IUCN through its Restoration Initiative. Launched formally at COP20 in Lima in 2014, Initiative 20×20 supports the Bonn Challenge and New York Declaration on Forests and, according to the WRI, under it 11 countries, three Brazilian states and several regional programmes have already committed to restoring more than 27m ha of degraded land in Latin America.

Through Initiative 20×20, Mexico has pledged to restore an ambitious 8.2m ha of degraded land, by far the biggest such target in Latin America and Colombia has promised to restore 1m ha. Brazil has committed to replanting 12m ha by 2030 under the Bonn Challenge.

Inevitably, REDD+ projects are also playing a key role in the overall strategic approach to reforestation, with the enhancement of forest carbon stocks one of this global initiative’s five “eligible activities”. Mexican REDD+ initiatives build on huge experience with the community management of natural resources and the country has also put considerable effort into innovating financing for forestry sustainability. In El Salvador, where just 2% of natural forest remains, the focus of REDD+ activities has been reforestation, and in Chile the emphasis has been upon monitoring forest degradation.

Despite these encouraging initiatives, forestry experts know that restoration is a constant battle: in Latin America the rate of deforestation remains high, at about 3.4m ha per year (equivalent to about 70% Costa Rica’s land area). In Brazil, while 220,000 ha of Atlantic forest were regenerated between 1985 and 2015, nearly 2m ha were cut down.

How do you build a forest?
Yet in spite of this patchy progress, experts are taking away key insights about reforestation from Latin American experiences:

  • Trade-offs: it is necessary to make trade-offs when managing forests for ecosystem services. For example, a hectare of an introduced species may store as much carbon as a native forest over time, but may shelter less biodiversity. This means that success may reside in the mixture of species that are selected. Some secondary forests may not store as much carbon as tended plantations, but may maintain carbon stocks for longer.
  • Mixed menus: landscape restoration is about much more than replanting trees – it works best through a menu of multilateral and local activities that together yield the optimal solution. A concerted effort is needed both to replant trees, preserve existing forest and support livelihoods. One size does not fit all.
  • Monitoring: measuring success and adjusting for failure is essential, because landscape restoration is a long-term process. The Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), for example, places considerable emphasis upon scalable, adaptable “participatory monitoring” and how this can be used to disseminate lessons to practitioners and project developers, not just scientists.
  • Offsetting: forest restoration can offer governments a valuable tool to offset the damage caused by infrastructure developments elsewhere, like carbon credits. Well-planned national biodiversity offsetting rules can be used to make private- and public-sector actors compensate for the damage large projects may cause, and to engage them in wider conservation efforts.
  • Auditing: restoration projects must be audited for efficiency to avoid situations in which actors that have secured subsidies to restore degraded land and planted trees move on before it is established that this has been successful and enduring. Countries themselves also need to be audited: if they promise to plant so many millions of hectares by 2020, how will this be measured? And evidence of success must not just come from satellites and scientists, but must be gathered from the bottom up from communities themselves.

Last but not least, most observers accept that ordinary people – rural communities themselves – are essential for successful landscape restoration. Much of the deforested land in countries like Brazil is in fact private property, which means that it is crucial for governments and NGOs to engage those who control it as part of this crusade. One way of doing so is to widen the network of interested parties through initiatives such as the Aliança para a Restauração da Amazônia (Alliance for the Restoration of the Amazon) in Brazil, a coalition created under the aegis of Conservação Internacional (CI-Brasil) bringing together government bodies, NGOs, private sector stakeholders and universities.

But there are also scores of uplifting stories of individuals who have taken it upon themselves to restore degraded landscapes, such as that of Antonio Vicente in the Serra da Mantiqueira mountain range of São Paulo state who set about regenerating 31 ha of land that had been razed for cattle grazing 40 years ago, and has worked a small miracle of creation since.

Indeed, it is the communities and individual, unsung heroes of the Latin American countryside itself who can offer us most hope when it comes to repairing the damage we have caused to Mother Earth.

Gavin O’Toole is the author of Environmental Politics in Latin America and the Caribbean, and Environmental Security in Latin America