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Can a major extinction event in Brazil be prevented?

last modified Mar 27, 2017 04:07 PM

Major extinction event predicted for the Brazilian Cerrado could be avoided by the right policy mix

Deforestation in the Cerrado could result in the extinction of 1,140 plant species over the next 30 years, a number eight times higher than all recorded plant extinctions worldwide since the year 1500. Timely support for the right mix of public and private policies, however, can avoid this scenario without compromising agricultural output.

The global biodiversity hotspot of the Cerrado has already lost almost half of its natural habitat, but still provides space for 4,600 species of plants that exist nowhere else on the planet. Between 2002 and 2011, deforestation rates in the region were 2.5 times higher than in the Amazon. A new study in Nature Ecology and Evolution has found that if the pace of deforestation continues, 30 years from now the Cerrado will have lost another third of its remaining habitats as a result of the expansion of soybean, sugarcane and pasturelands. This projected deforestation would also lead to the emission of 8.5 billion tonnes of CO2, two and half times the emissions avoided by Brazil due to the dramatic fall in Amazon deforestation between 2005 and 2013.

"The Brazilian Cerrado is home to an enormous collection of globally unique plant species. What we have identified is that further deforestation will lead to plant extinctions on a scale that would dwarf all recorded plant extinction to date globally. This irreversible scenario would have serious impacts for national and international goals of safeguarding the diversity of life on Earth, and of avoiding dangerous climate change. It will also impact Brazil´s water and energy security”, says Bernardo Strassburg, coordinator of the study, Executive Director of the International Institute for Sustainability and Coordinator of the Centre for Conservation and Sustainability Science at the Pontifical Catholic University of Rio de Janeiro.

A combination of public and private policies, however, could help to avoid the collapse of Cerrado biodiversity. The researchers list eight strategic policies –already under consideration, or being implemented elsewhere in Brazil - that, if properly financed and implemented, could reconcile agricultural expansion and conservation. For instance, the Soybean Moratorium - a market ban on soybean grown in newly deforested areas – is already credited with nearly eliminating direct conversion of forests to soybean in the Brazilian Amazon. If extended, as advocated by the Brazilian Minister of the Environment, this would remove a key driver of deforestation in the Cerrado. Other key policies include the expansion of public protected areas, increased conservation finance (including climate finance) and the identification of priority areas for conservation, restoration and agricultural expansion.  

“It is not necessary to reinvent the wheel, most of the necessary policies already exist and were used successfully in the Amazon in the recent past. What is needed now is to focus them on avoiding this looming extinction crisis. There is enough space to reconcile the increase in agricultural production and the conservation and restoration of critical habitats. It is not a simple task, but with a concerted effort of the stakeholders involved, both national and international, and the appropriate pressure from society so that key policies have the political and financial support needed, Brazil can turn a dismal scenario into a great success story”, says Dr. Strassburg.

The stark projections presented in the study also reveal a potential risk for the Brazilian economy, still reliant on exporting agricultural commodities. "The magnitude of the potential extinction crisis would jeopardize Brazil's international reputation as one of the leaders in green economy and sustainable development. It would also make Brazilian agribusiness responsible for one of the biggest anthropogenic tragedies for biodiversity ever recorded, precisely at a time when the main global markets are pursuing goals for excluding supply chains associated with deforestation and environmental degradation", adds Strassburg.

The key to unlocking a sustainable future for the Cerrado lies in the potential for increasing cattle stocking rates - to make space for predicted crop expansion while at the same time sparing and restoring natural habitats for the region's remarkable biodiversity. Given robust political support, disaster can be avoided.

Professor Andrew Balmford

Researchers show that it is possible to meet all forecast increases in soybean, sugarcane and livestock production within already-cleared areas while also sparing additional land for restoration of native vegetation, as required by the Brazilian Forest Code. By increasing livestock productivity in already converted areas from 35% to 61% of its sustainable potential, it would be possible to accommodate more than 15 million hectares of expansion of soy and sugarcane, and 6.4 million hectares of restoration of native vegetation.

"The key to unlocking a sustainable future for the Cerrado lies in the potential for increasing cattle stocking rates - to make space for predicted crop expansion while at the same time sparing and restoring natural habitats for the region's remarkable biodiversity. Given robust political support, disaster can be avoided", Professor Andrew Balmford, Cambridge University

‘’Increased cattle ranching productivity can be achieved through techniques that already exist, such as rotational grazing or feed supplementation. However, several obstacles, such as rural labour scarcity and financial constraints, must be overcome to assist producers in this transition” adds Dr. Agnieszka Latawiec, Executive Director of the International Institute for Sustainability and Coordinator of the Centre for Conservation and Sustainability Science of PUC-Rio.

This recovery of native vegetation plays a key role in preventing the projected biodiversity collapse: if it is carried out in priority areas for biodiversity, it could avoid up to 83% of projected extinctions. "The new National Policy for the Recovery of Native Vegetation, created by presidential decree last month, can help to promote this restoration in priority areas," says Carlos Scaramuzza, Director of Ecosystems Conservation at the Ministry of Environment and one of the authors of the article.

Nature Ecology & Evolution