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 167.

    #165 firemensaction
    "Just what is it we are supposed to "sustain"? "

    Our civilization!

  • rate this

    Comment number 166.

    Change from rainforest to desert and the biomass of the trees rots and releases CO2.

    Tundra soil is peat. Warming allowing the birches to grow thaws the peat and it rots, releasing CO2 faster than the trees take up the gas; the opposite of what was expected.

    In Indiana the trees are holding water in the soil.

    Three different situations, to be considered separately.


  • rate this

    Comment number 165.

    Warming has been occurring since the last Ice Age,GW is true.
    Mandid not cause the Ice Age.
    Science estimates World was Warmer before the Ice Age(Than world is now)
    How about "Sustainability",with FACTS this time that everyone can check?
    Just what is it we are supposed to "sustain"? Forests?Plant new trees. The UN could do that it may take their mind off Syria! And they would succeed for a change

  • rate this

    Comment number 164.

    #161 Entropic man:
    "I'm more fascinated by the unknown unknowns like the surprise we got with the Birch forests in Sweden. Did you read the link in #135?"

    You complemented a report describing that arctic trees may be "exacerbating climate change" .

    Then a few hours later you say in [#156]
    "Try to encourage them to keep the trees. They really do help moderate the climate."

    LOL. You are funny.

  • rate this

    Comment number 163.

    Conferences about the earth warming.We now pay £Trillions "green" taxes.
    Politicans went for the GW spin big style. We now have pensioners unable to keep warm as millionaires are made from windmills.
    Global "Sustainability"? Save trees in Amazon? Councils cut down trees to stop conkers falling on pavement. A feel another tax coming on. But it`s OK cos its "Sustainable".Windmill anyone?

  • rate this

    Comment number 162.

    @161 No, I had a bypass, when I slipped on a watermelon and it reached into my wallet to fund climate scientology, whilst simultaneoulsy refusing to give me the data my money had funded

  • rate this

    Comment number 161.

    #160 MangoChutney

    Have you no sense of humour? I'm more fascinated by the unknown unknowns like the surprise we got with the Birch forests in Sweden.Did you read the link in #135?

    #155 MidwesternSue

    Have you met age-distribution graphs?

    A bullet , stability.(US)
    A cone, growth (Third World)
    A hot air balloon, decrease (Europe)

  • rate this

    Comment number 160.

    @158 what about the known unknowns? Noticed IPCC estimates for climate sensitivity are always downwards? They'll get it right eventually :)

    "If you want data go to a scientist"

    Do you really want to start on this one?

  • rate this

    Comment number 159.

    If #158 sounds a bit vague, remember scientists are comfortable dealing with uncertainty and have tools for handling it.

    If you want data go to a scientist.
    If you want probabilities go to a statistician.
    If you want certainty go to a politician.
    If you want Truth go to a priest.

  • rate this

    Comment number 158.


    For the 20th century warming we have increasing CO2 and physics which predicts consequent temperature increases.
    The good match between theory and observation, plus the lack of any other obvious source for the extra energy, has satisfied most of us that we understand approximately what is happening, though there is endless argument over the details.

  • rate this

    Comment number 157.


    why should I make a prediction of future events that I cannot control? I'm not a climate scientologist

    Repeat: so what is your game plan here?

  • rate this

    Comment number 156.

    #153 MidwesternSue

    Sounds a pleasant place to live,especially walking along the river. Try to encourage them to keep the trees. They really do help moderate the climate.
    Regarding the warming in the Middle Ages, we have temperature proxies like ice and treerings, showing warming in the Atlantic and its surrounding lands, but not universally.
    Why? The most honest answer would be-Dont know!

  • rate this

    Comment number 155.

    98:presterjohn:Excellent suggestion, global citizen seedling network.

    110:Desiderius Erasmus:Europe and Japan already are not producing enough children to keep their current populations when the elderly die. Russia is already losing about 750,000 in population annually. Population is increasing now only because people are living longer, not because we're having the children to replace ourselves.

  • rate this

    Comment number 154.

    92:Gort2012:My point, and that of the article I mentioned, is that there was a major warming trend in the Middle Ages similar to the one we are now experiencing. Since it seems unlikely that carbon emissions were to blame then, perhaps modern scientists are missing the true cause of the problem now.

    96:Cariboo:Perhaps deforestation was responsible? I don't know why it happened, just that it did.

  • rate this

    Comment number 153.

    87:Entropic man:Thankfully I live in Indiana not Illinois, where I'm pretty sure all of the former living governors are safe in prison. The river through my town has trees along it for most of its route. But in areas of town further away from it there is still too much cutting down of trees to make houses for my blood.

    88:Pantac:There's no reason we have to keep the lights on in town.

  • rate this

    Comment number 152.

    I think I know where that calumny about no warming in the last decade came from. 1998 was an exceptional year, much warmer than expected from the long term trend. The years around 2008 were relatively cool.
    Someone inexperienced in data analysis might think "2007 and 2008 are cooler than 1998. This must be because global warming has stopped."

  • rate this

    Comment number 151.

    @MC yes trend is upwards: Current data Apr 2012 2nd warmest & May 2012 warmest on record.

    What do you believe will happen from your current understanding of climate?
    I will make this easy for you there are only 3 possible answers:

    A) the temperature will increase beyond its current level
    B) temperature will stay the same or get cooler
    C) You are never going to go on the record with a prediction!

  • rate this

    Comment number 150.

    #148 MangoChutney

    I would be very surprised if +0.38C in 11 years of data with a variability of 0.15C were significant.

    From -0.2C in 1950 to +0.62C in 2011 is an increase of 0.82C on 50 years of data.

    With a short term variability of 0.15C, O.82C looks a much better bet for a 95% significant change.

  • rate this

    Comment number 149.

    146contdThe long term trend is +0.1C per decade.A quick check of the graph suggests an anomaly of +0.24C for 2000, near the bottom of the variability range.

    The anomal for 2011 was +0.62C.

    A change of +0.38C in 11 years, three times the long term trend, is not flat.

  • rate this

    Comment number 148.

    @146 Actually I was quoting Dr Phil Jones who in 2010 said "This trend (0.12C per decade) is positive, but not significant at the 95% significance level.", although I've just spotted he changed his mind a year later (presumably after adjusting the temperature record ;)

    Again, I will repeat, I accept the earth has warmed and the trend is still upwards.


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