Rio +20: Joining the ecological dots

Reforestation Much native forest has vanished but reforestation is creating new opportunities

The first European visitors to what are now Brazilian shores 500 years ago encountered not an impenetrable forest of jargon, as do visitors to Rio+20 today, but a physical forest of vast scale.

It's hard to credit now, in the age of Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, superhighways and cattle ranching, but the Atlantic Forest once covered more than 1m sq km (385,000 sq miles).

It governed the coast from Recife down through Uruguay and into Argentina, and stood as far inland as Paraguay.

Now, just tiny fragments remain, totalling about 4,000 sq km - struck down, as Maurizio Ruiz tells me, by coffee, charcoal and cattle.

"The coffee plantations came first, in the 1800s," he says; "and what wasn't destroyed by coffee was destroyed by the charcoal industry."

Now, as in the Amazon, cattle ranches have carved out new homes - aided in recent decades by the government, which saw forest simply as land that could be cleared and settled and used for an economic activity.

Lonely tree

Stand on the roadside outside the small town of Miguel Pereira, an hour or so north of Rio de Janeiro, and the problem is clear as the sunny day.

The far-off hills are covered in dense forest. But on the slopes immediately below us, it's a different picture.

Mauricio Ruiz Mauricio founded his tree planting organisation at the tender age of 14

Grass, fences, a few rather scrawny cattle, the fraying relics of abortive eucalyptus plantations, a rather inviting swimming pool; just the occasional lonely tree still stands.

And as the valley bottom holds a stream, this land clearance isn't entirely legal.

Under current laws, landowners have to keep 20% of their territory under tree cover. Land within 20m (65ft) of a river has to stay forested, as do mountaintops.

The clean-shaven ground here is a problem for any wildlife that might have lived in the forests that once grew here.

But ironically, it's providing a window of opportunity for an organisation that wants to plant trees - ITPA (Instituto Terra de Preservercao Ambiental), the organisation that Mauricio founded 16 years ago, at the tender age of 14.

"When I was a kid, I used to run in the field and I used to think about doing this," he says.

He wanted to reforest the denuded lands but also to provide continuing employment for people who worked as itinerant labourers or farmhands - or as tree-fellers.

Now, ITPA employs about 130 people all year round and a few more during "restoration season", September to November.

Slow-release moisture

By the side of a grassy track, 52-year-old Sebastiao - he doesn't give his surname - is planting yellow lapacho (aka ipe-roxo) saplings.

It's a simple business.

A hole is dug; some hydrogel - water plus a polymer - is put in the hole to provide slow-release moisture during the dry season. The sapling follows, and the roots are covered with soil; that's it.

"When I started, I didn't know anything about planting trees, I only knew about cutting them down, burning them," says Sebastiao.

"Then, I was working on a farm and I heard about these jobs.

  • What is the Rio summit about?
Population chatrt
  • The Rio summit will focus on efforts to reduce poverty, while protecting the environment. This task is made harder as the world's population is expected to rise steeply in the years ahead.
  • The planet's population could be 15 billion people by 2100. Wealth is also expected to rise but its effect on the environment is unclear.
  • In the past, more people, with more wealth has meant increased consumption.
  • Since the last Rio summit in 1992, the
    number of people on Earth has gone up by
  • 22%
  • Seafood consumption has gone up by
  • Meat by
  • The average person eats 43 kg of meat a year. In 1992 it was 34 kg.
  • Source: UNEP, 2011. Figures relate to 2007
  • While food consumption is rising, there are still large numbers of people who are undernourished.
  • It is one of the UN's many development goals to halve the number of people who suffer from hunger by 2015.
  • How able is the planet to meet increasing demand?
  • In 1960, a little over half the planet's land, forests and
    fisheries were needed to meet human consumption.
  • By the late 1970s, consumption was equal to one planet.
  • By the first years of this century, one-and-a-half planets
    were needed to meet consumption.

    This deficit can only be met by the depletion of renewable
    resources and increased pollution.
Global resource consumption
  • Consumption isn't equal. North Americans and Europeans consume far more resources than are available solely within their borders.
Living planet index
  • As human populations increase, the number and diversity of birds
    and animals is falling.
  • Decreasing biodiversity undermines the planet's ability to sustain humanity. Its reductions typically affect the poorest the most. These issues are right at the heart of the Rio talks.
Chart showing stress on each system
  • Some argue that the planet has limits to the stress its different systems can undergo, beyond which a stable future cannot be guaranteed.
  • This graphic from the scientist and sustainability expert Johan Rockström suggests those limits have already been broken for climate change, biodiversity and the nitrogen cycle.

"Now, I adore the work - it's been a school to me. I never worked in a legal way with documents before."

The reason behind ITPA's continued existence is that for various reasons, people need trees planted.

If landowners want access to credit, subsidies and grants available for protecting watercourses, they have to stay within the forest law. ITPA can plant enough trees on their land to bring them into legality.

The law says that if a company wants to fell one hectare (2.47 acres) of forest for whatever reason, it has to plant five hectares somewhere else.

ITPA is happy to help them.

People and nature

Ecologically, the goal is to connect the dots - to join the still-forested fragments in the area north of Rio, known as the Tingua-Bocaina Biodiversity Corridor, in order to provide a piece of forest and a wildlife habitat big enough to form a meaningful ecosystem.

A patchwork of tiny fragments doesn't maintain itself as forest nearly as well as a large expense; it's more prone to drying out, for example.

A fragment may be too small to support native animals. Even if a few do live there, they can't cross to other areas, leading to inbreeding and loss of genetic diversity.

The golden lion tamarin, ITPA's executive assistant Juliana Bustamante tells me, needs a corridor about 40m wide; with that, it'll travel.

Tree planting People need trees planted for a variety of reasons, including access to credit and subsidies

Up in the hills, far away from the RioCentro convention complex where government negotiators pore over brackets square, round and curly, ITPA is acting out a central theme of the Rio+20 vision: that the interests of people and nature are not that different.

From here flows the Santa Ana river, a major water source for the teeming millions of Rio.

The authorities spend half a billion dollars each year cleaning up soil that's been washed into the water when rainwater courses down denuded slopes.

Plant the trees, secure the soil, and you save the money, while simultaneously giving people employment and securing the future for animals like the golden lion tamarin.

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) is taking an interest in ITPA because it sees the group as a living example of the green economy in action.

"IUCN along with other partners has launched a target to restore 150 million hectares [globally] by 2020," says forest and climate chanage specialist Carole Saint-Laurent.

"We've done some analysis and have discovered that if we were to restore 150 million hectares, this would generate for local communities more than $84bn (£53bn) per year in net economic benefits.

"Well, you can't be more relevant than that to the agenda at Rio+20."

Forest Code

On the road back to Rio, we stop underneath a spectacular old iron railway bridge - "the first curved iron bridge in the world," Mauricio informs me, with some pride.

But the real pride lies in the forested strip along the river that the bridge straddles.

Planted just three years ago, the forest now teems with life. Trees are at least 6m high, including one with a trunk covered in thorns and another whose crushed leaves smell just like garlic. Insects are everywhere, including several trying to burrow under my skin, and birds caw in the background.

On the hillside above, a few cattle peer down on us with cud-chewing distain.

ITPA hasn't finished, not by a long way. It's re-forested about 800 hectares so far, but the immediate ambition is 18,000.

The controversial recent revisions to the Forest Code, the national law, may yet slow the demand for planting, as they relax the constraints on landowners.

But international money may start to flow through the UN's REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation) scheme.

Future visitors to Rio will never see the Atlantic Forest in its former full glory; that's impossible.

But they way find enough to give a glimpse of what life was like here before the coffee and the charcoal and the cattle came.

Richard Black Article written by Richard Black Richard Black Former environment correspondent

Farewell and thanks for reading

This is my last entry for this page - I'm leaving the BBC to work, initially, on ocean conservation issues.

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  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    @20 but better equipped to spot BS maybe - why do you think Mann etc don;t want anything to happen in court?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Nice article, but do please get your numbers right. The total remaining area of the Atlantic rainforest is not 4000 sq km, but around 100.000 sq km, or 10% of its original size. This figure comes from the most recent (2011) report by the NGO SOS Mata Atlantica and the Brazilian space agency INPE, see also the Portuguese Wikipedia article on Mata Atlantica for a summary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    Thank you Richard for this excellent article. 385,000 sq miles of Forest will have converted a great deal of carbon dioxide into oxygen.

    I wonder how long it will be before we realise that tree planting is one of our top prioritise?

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    Why are you all arguing about 'climate change' when the subject of this well-rounded article is the recovery of the 'Mata Atlantica' or Atlantic Florest here in Brazil.

    Your irrelevant discussion is a good example of why world congresses and meetings like Rio+20 don't get anywhere. It's sad.

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    There is no need to worry. Man has always been a destructive force on the planet and will continue to be so. The inactivity of the worlds population to accept what clearly looks like a fact, will ultimately lead to mans own demise. A few will no doubt survive the devastation and a second chance of living in balance with a force far greater than today's Homo Sapiens will become a reality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I see that some people are still falling for that man made climate change balderdash even after the science has been disproven and the geologists and archaeologists have solid evidence of climate evolution throughout the epics of history back through and before the ice ages. Neandertal man didn't cause climate change but he was likely destroyed by it. and Washington crossed the Potomac in it

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    yes but at least they are addressing the issue and its a start, Rome was not built in a day.
    i lift my hat to the man

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    #15 Gort2012
    #16 Mango Chutney

    No point in lawsuits. Judges and lawyers are probably even less equipped to assess the science than the rest of us.

    #17 Sorry, make that "lasted some 3000 years".

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Such is the human condition, believing we can control all around us. We are now and will always be insignificant in the grand scheme of things. We do not have the power to destroy this planet, merely to render it unihabitable for our species. Climate change? So what, the planet cycles through hot and cold eras peridically anyway. We are poisoning our environment this is more important by far.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I'd be more than happy to be sued over my CC views.
    Because I'd win and force the legal recognition under common law (case law if you're in USA) that man made climate change is a fact that should be recongised by law.

    They wouldn't be able to get a superinjunction either.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    8000 years ago the Sahara desert became forest.

    It lasted some 300 years and then reverted to desert.

    I truly hope that the modern combination of logging, clearance and climate change does not trigger similar oscillations in Amazonia.

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    @15 "I want to see the lawsuit nominating anyone who actively denies CC"

    So take me to court and sue me. My defence is simple, climate always changes, therefore I am not denying climate change

    Perhaps I should take you to court for denying climate change?

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    When someone is allowed to buy logging rights for a bag of sugar

    One really has to start questioning the economics of everything being owned by someone.

    I want to see the lawsuit nominating anyone who actively denies CC or encourages logging sued for their % part in ALL future economic costs from CC.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    #2 Bluesberry
    " In 2011, less of Amazonian Rainforest was cleared than in any year since 1988."

    While the statistics are obviously better than they were before. It still represents a disasterous level of destruction and while Brazil are better than most gov's - it far short of necessary action. Slash and burn needs to be made illegal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    It's a step in the right direction, but onyl 1 small step - we need much more yet if we are going to avoid completely wrecking the global eco system us humans rely on for life.....

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.


    "Corporate greed can wreck all that is good in the world. Name and shame them!"

    I think the coffee plantation owners who started the forest clearance are long gone

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    This is the sort of legislation that we can all endorse. Local law to protect local forests, which is then turned into wealth creating business by an enterprising individual. The next step would be a little eco-tourism to further improve the forests and create local jobs.

    And no big government in sight.

    What's not to like?

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Corporate greed can wreck all that is good in the world.
    Name and shame them!

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    Brazil was claimed by Portugal in April 1500, on arrival of Portuguese fleet (under Pedro Álvares Cabral). Portuguese encountered what they perceived as "stone age natives" most of whom spoke languages of the Tupi–Guarani family, & fought among themselves.
    But will the Portuguese or any country ever see those virgin forrests - ever again. It's a legitimate question posed to humanity...

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Everything achieved in Brazilian reforestation is now in jeopardy.
    Because amnesties for illegal loggers are being allowed, restrictions placed on IBAMA by assigning some of the national environment agency's duties to individual states.
    Wonder what is behind this? Think about it: C.G. = corporate greed.


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