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Greener than we thought

The country has consumed 30% of its natural vegetation, most of it in the last 50 years

LALO DE ALMEIDA/SAMBA PHOTOSugarcane: Plantations cover vast Mata Atlântica and Cerrado areasLALO DE ALMEIDA/SAMBA PHOTO

In the last two months, while everyone was looking at the Amazon Region and the President of the Republic was questioning data on the rise of deforestation in the North Region, according to Inpe, Brazil’s National Space Research Institute, the web page of the ME – Ministry of the Environment on the Internet included a document showing how much  deforestation had taken place in the country as a result of human activities and what has remained of the native vegetation. The deforested area of the Amazon Rain Forest equals 21% of the land that was turned into pastures, plantations and cities in Brazil. According to the document, a map of the vegetation canopy of Brazil’s biomass, man has already deforested 2.5 million sq. km since the early days of European colonization, which equals 30% of the country or 4.5 times the area of France, one of Europe’s largest countries.

Based on satellite images taken in 2002, the document is the latest and broadest study of the country’s native vegetation. It can be useful for a number of reasons. First, because it allows one to know exactly how each of the main ecosystems (Amazon Region, Mata Atlântica Rain Forest, Cerrado (savanna), Pantanal (swamplands), Pampas (grassy plains) and Caatinga (scrub savanna)) still has enough vegetation to maintain the rainfall, soil quality and climate that human or animal life requires.

Second, the identification of how much of each ecosystem still exists should help Brazil comply with its international commitments, undertaken in the last few years, such as the Biologic Diversity Convention, which establishes that by 2010 at least 10% of each ecological region in the world actually  be  conserved. “One can only achieve this goal when one is familiar with the region with each kind of vegetation,” says agronomist Maria Cecília Wey de Brito, ME secretary of Biodiversity and Forests. Besides supervising the monitoring of the most threatened natural regions in the country and the establishment of conservation units, this survey, if it is repeated in the future, might show the impact of deforesting on carbon gas emissions, linked to the planet’s rising temperature. The data currently available is based on emissions measured in the mid-1990s.

The Ministry’s survey reflects five centuries of development history, shaped by the desires and possibilities of government authorities, businessmen and ordinary citizens. It represents what historian Caio Prado Júnior referred to as the sense of the geopolitical evolution of a people in his classic book Formação do Brasil (The Shaping of Brazil) that should be used as the basis for discussion and planning for what we want for Brazil going forward.

“The colonization of Brazil adopted a predatory development pattern, which still prevails today to some extent, based on the use of fire and on the misguided belief that natural resources are eternal,” says environmental historian José Augusto Pádua, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro and visiting researcher at England’s Oxford University. “In the Amazon Region, we are witnessing the tragic repetition of this archaic form of expanding frontiers. The predominance of the slash and burn technique was justified in the past, as it was the most efficient way, back then, to increase soil productivity for a short period. Today, this technique is not justified,” explains Pádua.

Of course, it is not only parts of the Amazon Rain Forest that have disappeared, as a result of fires and electric chainsaws. By gathering information on the entire country, the Ministry’s survey also shows even more significant losses in other ecosystems, albeit at a different pace. The Mata Atlântica Rain Forest, the first ecosystem to feel the weight of the axes, is also the most seriously devastated. 751 thousand sq. kilometers of this ecosystem have already been laid to waste, or 30% of what has been deforested so far in Brazil. Initially exploited selectively, as only the brazilwood was of interest at that time, this rain forest, which covered a narrow strip of the coast from the State of Rio Grande do Norte to the State of Rio Grande do Sul, was slowly replaced – first, by sugar plantations and later by Brazil’s largest cities – and almost disappeared. The remaining original vegetation is found on mountainous terrain with difficult access, such as the slopes of the Serra do Mar mountain range on the Southeast and South coast, or in conservation units.

“The Mata Atlântica Rain Forest example, possibly the most impressive case of devastation in modern history, must be discussed in order for Brazilian society to decide whether it wants other ecosystems to suffer the same fate,” says Pádua. As a result of last century’s technological advances, man’s capacity to interfere  with the environment has increased greatly.

LALO DE ALMEIDA/SAMBA PHOTOCATTLE: Originally introduced into the Caatinga and the Pampas, it is now raised all over the countryLALO DE ALMEIDA/SAMBA PHOTO

Central Brazil
The landscape’s transformation was much faster in the Cerrado region, Brazil’s second biggest ecosystem after the Amazon Region. In 40 years, the Cerrado lost 800 thousand sq. km of its native vegetation, ranging from fields to impenetrable forests. The construction of the capital, Brasília, in the late 1950s, drove the populating of Brazil’s Central Region, prioritized by the federal government at the time. Researchers from Embrapa (the Brazilian Crop and Livestock Farming Research Company), developed seeds capable of withstanding the drier climate and techniques that reduced soil acidity, transforming the Cerrado, previously unsuitable for farming, into one of the country’s most productive areas. Today, besides large cattle ranches, the Cerrado accounts for more than half of the country’s production of corn, soy and beans.

Though most of the attention is still focused on the Amazon Region – and rightly so, as it is the biggest humid tropical forest in the world and able to influence our planet’s climate – the remnants of other ecosystems are equally important from the biodiversity point of view. “Perhaps they deserve even more attention, as they are the natural habitat of many species that have become endangered due to the extent of deforestation,” says Giselda Durigan, a researcher at the São Paulo Forestry Institute (Instituto Florestal de São Paulo). In the Cerrado, each 10 thousand sq. km may hold as many as 400 plant species, whose survival might be crucial in order to maintain the soil and climate characteristics of their native areas. The Caatinga, the only unique Brazilian ecosystem, is the native region of species that go way beyond the mandacaru plant and the xique-xique cactus. Some 900 species of trees, bushes, cactuses and bromeliads are part of the dry, drab vegetation that spreads throughout Brazil’s Northeast.

The vegetation in this region was also affected by human hands, right from the start of Brazil’s colonization. The Caatinga lost 300 thousand sq. km of its native vegetation (12% of the deforested lands in the country) to farming, goat breeding, gypsum exploitation, the steel industry and, more recently, fruit plantations on the banks of the São Francisco River. Though most of the Caatinga region is populated – 20 million people live in an area slightly bigger than Portugal and Spain combined – it is one of the few ecosystems that has witnessed the regeneration of some of its degraded areas, according to geographer Jurandyr Ross, a professor at the University of São Paulo (USP). “The natives´ farming techniques and extensive animal grazing have very little impact on the environment,” says Ross, who wrote about these transformations in his book Ecogeografia do Brasil (Eco-geography of Brazil), published in 2006.

The Ministry’s survey also showed different kinds of human impact and relationships with natural spaces. Huge farms and cattle ranches take up the land in the Central region and in the southern part of the Amazon Region, while cities overflowing with people spill over the coastal areas previously covered by the Mata Atlântica Rain Forest. In the south, smaller cities share space with small, production-intensive farms. The Pampas, which were the setting of territorial disputes between the Spaniards and the Portuguese at the beginning of Brazil’s colonial period, is one of the country’s smallest ecosystems; later, this region became home to waves of immigrants that exploited the wood from the native araucária pines trees and the natural grazing fields.

“The forests and the wetlands are the Pampas areas that suffered the most massive impact by humans,” says geographer Heinrich Hasenack, from the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, who coordinated the mapping of the Pampas. “Cattle in that region is still raised as it was 200 years ago, with no proper handling or control of the number of heads of cattle in the fields covered with natural vegetation,” adds Hasenack. This is why nowadays the Pampas, which are entirely occupied, lost 87 sq. kilometers of the original vegetation, equal to 3.5% of the devastation of Brazil’s territory, to industry, to cattle grazing and to corn, soy, grape and rice plantations that contaminate the basins of the Ibicuí and Jacuí rivers, similarly to what happens in other parts Brazil.

The Pantanal is the least devastated ecosystem. It takes up the smallest region in Brazil and is protected by the waters that periodically flood its forests and fields for several months of the year. Fed by the abundant rainfall that falls on the mouth of the Paraguay River, located in the transition lands between the Cerrado and the Amazon Region, the river acted as a natural barrier to the expansion of cities and to some three thousand cattle ranches, which were restricted to the eastern and southern edges of the area. Ever since the beginning of colonial times in the 18th century, only 17 thousand sq. km were occupied, or less than 1% of the deforested area in Brazil.

“Pantanal vegetation has been conserved because the native inhabitants, known as ‘pantaneiros,’ use the land in a sustainable way,” says João dos Santos Vila da Silva, an expert in satellite monitoring from Embrapa, who coordinated the mapping of the Pantanal. At least in this ecosystem, which extends from the south of the State of Mato Grosso and covers the entire State of Mato Grosso do Sul, the proper use of the land was not due to ecological awareness, but to practical experience. “The landowners know that if they populate the pastures with non-native species, such as braquiária grass, the following year’s floods will destroy everything,” he explains.

LALO DE ALMEIDA/SAMBA PHOTOELECTRIC POWER GENERATION: Hydroelectric power plant dam floods a field of buriti palm trees in TocantinsLALO DE ALMEIDA/SAMBA PHOTO

In addition to portraying the status of Brazil’s forests and fields in 2002, the ME survey updates and details information collected from 1970 to 1985 by Radam Brasil, the biggest nationwide mapping of native vegetation, terrain and soil use. One might wonder why a document that cost the Ministry R$ 3 million and is apparently so important remained unknown for such a long time and was not widely divulged and debated. Not even Bráulio Dias, director of the Ministry’s National Biodiversity Program and coordinator of the survey, knows the answer to this question. But he acknowledges that things could have been different: “This survey was not publicized the way it should have been.”

Those who became acquainted with the survey were surprised that in some cases the deforestation rates were lower than those specified in other studies. In the Cerrado, the ME data indicates that 40% of the original area had been modified, while a study published by Conservação Internacional do Brasil (International Conservation of Brazil), an NGO, suggests that the deforested portion corresponds to 60%.

Part of this disparity is explained by the kind of methodology used in each study. The ME considered areas undergoing regeneration, or used for cattle grazing on natural pastures that had not been planted, as being covered with natural vegetation. However, experts say that many of these areas should not be seen as natural vegetation, because if they were abandoned they would not tend to regenerate and become populated by animals. “Our numbers do not indicate that the preserved areas of each ecosystem are in a good state of conservation,” says Bráulio Dias.

A similar disparity is also found concerning the remnants of the Mata Atlântica Rain Forest. The Ministry states that 71% of this vegetation has been destroyed and that some 27% has remained. The Fundação SOS Mata Atlântica (SOS Mata Atlântica Foundation), an NGO which has kept track of the ecosystem and has measured its degradation for nearly 20 years, states that only 7% has been preserved. Jean Paul Metzger, an ecologist from USP who studies the impact of the changes in the Mata Atlântica on animals and plants, compared the data of the Ministry related to São Paulo with those of SOS Mata Atlântica. He concluded that there are errors in both studies “The ME mapping overestimates the forest canopy, largely because it includes vegetation in the very early stage of regeneration of this forest category. The SOS Mata Atlântica survey underestimates the remnants of the native vegetation,” says Metzger. According to his estimates, about 10% of the forest is well preserved.

Francisco Kronka, coordinator of the São Paulo Forestry Inventory (Inventário Florestal de São Paulo) of 2003, who mapped the remnants of the state’s natural vegetation, says he is concerned about the possible overestimation of preserved areas. “This document should be the basis for a national inventory which, by using the same methodology and information from the same period, should try to match the statistics on the country’s vegetation, which differ according to each author’s accounts,” says Kronka. Environmental researchers see a pitfall in the more optimistic data. “Many people might be led to simplistic reasoning and believe that if in 500 years we deforested only 30%, then it is still possible to deforest much more until the legal limit of 80 is achieved, as established by the Brazilian Forestry Code for most of the country,” says Giselda, the researcher who conducted the Cerrado study.

“In no way these figures represent an authorization to deforest,” says geologist Edson Sano from Embrapa, who conducted the survey on the Cerrado. Bráulio Dias, the study’s general coordinator, agrees. “Some people believe that our data is weakening the intensity of the threat to the ecosystems. But we don’t want to portray a situation that is better or worse than it actually is. Every map has scale-related limitations,” he says. “Many areas that are now protected within Cerrado conservation units were used as pastures up to 20 years ago, before they were expropriated. If these areas hadn’t been considered as covered in natural vegetation, several of these protected areas wouldn’t exist.”

The 30% of the Brazilian woodlands deforested in the last 500 years helped Brazil become one of the world’s ten strongest economies, with a GNP equal to R$ 2 trillion, and still very dependent on agricultural and ranching products. The question is: to develop economically and bridge the social equality gap, will Brazil have to follow the example of more developed nations, which totally devastated their forests?

The answer will depend on choices made now. There are some who believe in a harmonious solution, in which the growth of wealth generation does not mean devastating green areas such as the Amazon Region. “We need to break the extensive use of land pattern and create intensive ways based on technology to increase productivity using a minimum amount of space,” says Pádua. One solution would be to take better advantage of the deforested lands that are under-productive. In the fertile lands of the states of São Paulo or Paraná, for example, agricultural and ranching productivity is at the limit allowed by the current state of scientific development, but in other areas one could still increase the output. Several studies have shown a big proportion of deforested and underused areas in the country. The performance of the Cerrado itself could improve. “We currently use 80 million hectares of the Cerrado to produce 120 million tonnes of grain,” says Sano. “One could double this without deforesting a single hectare of forested land.”