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 67.

    A wonderful organisation, working hard. The astronomical growth of developing nations has sadly always been at the cost of the environment. Short/medium term parity with the West (not the best economic model to follow) will fail as drought, soil erosion and acidity follow.But its human nature to want and take, and not to think. A very messy future awaits.

  • rate this

    Comment number 66.

    @57 sue

    Care to provide any supporting documentation:

    Or you think 38C was so commonplace in England that it didn't get mentioned?

    But "GLOBAL" means you'd need more than a single tree in UK

  • rate this

    Comment number 65.

    @42 Really? Greenpeace, WWF etc are all very big businesses, who's existence depend on create alarm about all things green.
    And if you had looked at my posts you would have seen this one: which is supportive of this article

    @60 Do you know where I live?

    BTW, I have never denied that climate changes

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    @58. I don't believe those figures at all, but even if they're correct I don't see a problem. People will have to move, like they have always done. Problem solved!

  • rate this

    Comment number 63.


    More relevant here, changes in atmospheric circulation dry out the Amazon rainforest, leaving you with scrub desert.
    I discussed this in posts 29, 30 and 37. Predicted consequences include a permanent drougt in the US midwest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    And my point in raising the question is, if there is some underlying cause of global warming in the Middle Ages that still exists, shouldn't we try to figure it out and deal with it? And if global warming's going to happen anyway, shouldn't we figure out how to keep the damage it causes to a minimum?

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.


    Space limitations mean shorthand comments / sometimes sloppy language for which I apologise. However I maintain that I am not confused !

    The definition of what constitutes "evidence" is in itself a matter of debate in particular determining anthropogenic climate change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    @53 spagbol99
    "Zealots (on both sides)"?

    MangoChutney over 2500 posts in 3 years

    Every single one about CC denying it.

    Then on the other side perhaps the top scientific body in the world

    Who to believe?

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Try again. Why is climate change bad? The climate is always changing and we just starve, move about and adapt as a result.
    This is the wrong enemy. Find another cause celebre folks. This one's wearing thin.

  • rate this

    Comment number 58.


    Can anyone tell me why climate change is a disaster for the human species?
    " Studies of sea level and temperatures over the past million years suggest that each 1C rise in the global mean temperature... leads to a 20-metre rise in sea level. (New Scientist,22/10/2011)
    Even the sceptics expect a 1.4C warming. That 28-metre rise puts a lot of our civilization underwater.

  • rate this

    Comment number 57.

    50:Gort2012:You should spend more time studying the Middle Ages. At one time people believed that some villages in England were abandoned due to the plague, but studies of tree rings and pollen show that the abandonment happened about a generation before the plague due to the effects of global warming. Check out the Journal of Interdisciplinary History for this and other information on the topic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.

    "Even the majority of scientists on the climate change side admit it is a question of probabilities rather than certainties and hence a theory not a proven fact"

    You're understandably confused about something being a probability and a fact simultaneously.

    The evidence of CC would constitute a fact as you would understand it - the probabilities are for predictions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    @54 John - don't worry about climate change. Worry about the blighters cutting down forests and polluting the seas - that just isn't fair and is downright out of order.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    I hold no truck with Anthropogenic Climate Change, BUT the climate is changing & we need to strive together not to let these changes have a serious adverse effect on our planet, in what really matters and that is, our diverse ecology.

    Species loss needs to be urgently addressed. It is also true that where population size is having a damaging influence we have to tackle the issue.

    Gaia matters!

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Science of atmospheric physics / oceanography etc. is incredibly complicated. I don't think we'll get a rational debate until the politicians (who use it as an excuse for tax raising powers) and the zealots (on both sides) move over.

    Even the majority of scientists on the climate change side admit it is a question of probabilities rather than certainties and hence a theory not a proven fact

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    The conversations about converting CC in terms of +2c
    was a dumbing down too far by the scientists for something politicians can understand.

    The energy released by AGW is over 100,000 Hiroshima bombs

    It leads to floods, droughts and could even trigger a snap ice age.

    It bears no relation to when the temp in one place is 2C hotter.

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    Still waiting to be told why climate change is a disaster.
    War - that's a disaster!
    Religious intolerance - disaster!
    These things are ever-present aspects of the human condition and should be tackled before we start worrying about climate change. Climate change is a hobby for the rich and feckless, who are made to feel righteous by their compassion and 'global outlook'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    @49 Sue
    While this is probably an attempt to bury #42
    "...why should we believe... "

    Well since you believe this:
    "the world has known previous times of similar increasing wamth, such as in the high and late middle ages."

    It appears you'll believe anything.

    Lybia was a green and verdant land in Roman times and is now a desert country. CO2 (different from C) is a provable cause of GW.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    18:Gort2012:Except that the world has known previous times of similar increasing wamth, such as in the high and late middle ages. If we can have this experience without the high carbon output to which this phenomenon is now attributed, and we would appear to have done so, then why should we believe that carbon is the cause now?

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    The whole story is BS, frankly people need space, we take it where we need it, get over it, I am sick fed up of all this "Global Warming" clap trap. 25yrs ago we were on the brink of an ice age if you believed the news at the time, now we are in melt down.

    Utter bunkum, we will be where we are when we get there!


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