Brazil’s Atlantic Forests are naturally regenerating much faster than expected

A cost-effective solution with impressive returns
Aerial view of the Atlantic forest vegetation in Bahia, Brazil. Photo by Renato Augusto Martins

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The Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact, a multi-stakeholder restoration movement in Brazil, is on track to naturally regenerate 1.5 million hectares of once deforested land — half-a-million more than was originally pledged by the coalition under the Bonn Challenge – by 2020.

If these forests survive until 2023 without being re-cut, the pact will be well positioned to meet its ultimate goal: to naturally regenerate 15 million hectares of the Atlantic Forest by 2050.

This achievement would be the outcome of a groundswell of international restoration activism, stemming from several key initiatives, including an overall 150 million hectare target established in 2011, which was surpassed in 2017 by Bonn Challenge participants. The momentum continues as countries aim to hit the 350 million hectare target by 2030.

“The good results we have seen so far are due to the combined efforts from all actors involved, including non-governmental organizations, policymakers and landowners,” said Renato Crouzeilles, a senior manager at the International Institute for Sustainability (IIS) in Rio de Janeiro. “The decentralized structure of the pact has allowed Brazil’s Atlantic Forests to continue regenerating despite the ups and downs of changing policy regimes.”

Home to nearly three-quarters of Brazil’s population as well as a wealth of biodiversity that includes ocelots and golden lion tamarins, the Atlantic Forest biome is recognized as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve and a Brazilian Natural Heritage site, according to an article from the U.N. Environment Programme. However, it has lost nearly 80 percent of its original area due to logging and agricultural expansion, making it a prime target for restoration initiatives, reports another study from 2018.

Yet the potential for natural regeneration — the process of allowing native species to repopulate with minimal assistance — in the Atlantic Forest is huge, according to a 2020 study. By 2035, the authors of the study predict that combined natural and assisted forest regeneration could revive 21.6 million hectares of forest and reduce restoration costs by $90.6 billion compared to tree-planting initiatives alone. These actions could also sequester 2.3 GtCO2 of carbon and reduce the mean number of species at risk of extinction by 63.4.

The Atlantic Forest Pact has seized the opportunity to revitalize this landscape, which extends beyond Brazil’s borders into Argentina and Paraguay. Since its founding in 2009, it has engaged in three main activities: awareness building, forest monitoring and policy advocacy, according to an article in Nexo Journal.

“Restoration practitioners in the region have been trained to identify areas where natural regeneration may work best and to track regeneration progress to decide if, where, and how to intervene”, said Pedro Brancalion, professor at the University of São Paulo and vice-coordinator of the pact.

By using predictive models built from satellite data, the group has identified areas with the greatest potential for natural forest regeneration. These high-impact areas can then become the targets for awareness and monitoring campaigns.

Other research organizations, including the Center for International Forestry Research and World Agroforestry (CIFOR-ICRAF) have partnered with the pact on its path to restore the Atlantic Forest by generating context-specific ground data for tropical and sub-tropical regions, according to Crouzeilles. The pact and other organizations can use these in situ data to make better predictions and impact measurements about the region. The ISS has also led the production of several papers on natural forest regeneration in collaboration with CIFOR-ICRAF scientists.

   Transitional landscape between Cerrado and Atlantic Forest, Brazil. Photo by Moisés Silva Lima

Making Natural Regeneration Work for Brazilian Livelihoods

Natural regeneration is the most cost-effective restoration strategy, reports a recent policy brief from IIS, CIFOR and Conservation International (CI). Compared to tree planting, it reduces costs by more than 70 percent and requires no special training, the brief states.

For these regenerated forests to last, however, the scientists need to know why deforestation happens in the first place. How can locals and other interest groups be motivated to leave the regenerating forests intact long-term?

“We’ve been conducting interviews with landowners to discover what incentives or programs could change the minds of those who cut the trees,” said Crouzeilles. “People are slowly buying into these ideas, but there is a lot of groundwork left to do.”

The answer is likely a combination of payments for ecosystem services (PES) provided by the forests, alternative livelihood solutions and awareness campaigns, he added .

Locals who rely on cutting secondary forests for agricultural expansion, timber or other livelihood activities could earn PES in exchange for leaving the trees standing. Targeted education campaigns from civil society groups like the pact could also encourage the adoption of more sustainable practices at the community level, according to Crouzeilles.

When it comes to private actors, Crouzeilles believes there is great potential for increased buy-in on carbon credits and other programs that promote natural regeneration. As consumers around the world are becoming more environmentally conscious, there is a strong motivation for companies to show support for green initiatives. He also believes there are great opportunities for private actors to develop business models that sell carbon credits in exchange for restoring land.

“Companies are talking more about their intangible assets; they know that they need to be carbon neutral to be called “sustainable” to be in line with new laws and consumer values,” he said. “I can see new companies developing business models exclusively devoted to natural regeneration and carbon credit sales.”

Policy Support

In addition to the pact’s work with local communities and private companies, a series of policies have helped accelerate natural regeneration in the Atlantic Forest.

For example, the Atlantic Forest Law (2006) protects 100 percent of the untouched forests in the biome, making it the only forest in Brazil to be protected under federal law, reported a 2018 article from the U.N. Environment Programme. More recent regulations such as the Forest Code (2012) require land owners to maintain a certain amount of native vegetation on their property. A later policy, ProVeg (2017), further aims to regulate environmental standards on private property over an area of at least 12 million hectares.

Actions like these have been a key factor in the success of natural regeneration in the Atlantic Forest, according to Crouzeilles.

“These policies have created enabling conditions for Brazil to meet its Paris Agreement targets for land restoration,” he said. “By requiring a certain amount of natural vegetation on private lands, these policies allow natural regeneration and secondary forests to persist.”

And there are high hopes that the newly launched U.N. Decade on Ecosystem Restoration will catalyze more efforts to expand natural forest regeneration in the Atlantic Forest, and also globally. An upcoming publication from CI, IIS and CIFOR-ICRAF will quantify the potential for natural forest regeneration across all tropical and subtropical zones, according to Crouzeilles; this research will have a farther reach because of the public spotlight on ecosystem restoration.

“The U.N. makes a lot of noise,” said Crouzeilles. “They bring attention to the issue which brings us money, interest and political awareness. The rest is up to us.”

CIFOR-ICRAF’s work on natural regeneration with IIS was supported by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).


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