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In search of the lost green: how to reconcile forest conservation, restoration and economic development

Project proposes to investigate the ecological restoration of anthropized forests in scientific, economic and public policy dimensions in order to strengthen ecosystem service provision, biodiversity conservation and restoration.

Other than conservation units, which certainly represent the main refuges of biodiversity in the country, what we know of forests is dispersed in forest fragments within the highly anthropized landscapes of private rural properties. Given their value these fragments are important for biodiversity conservation, but especially for providing ecosystem services. Finding a balance between environmental preservation and the use of agricultural soil in these landscapes is a significant challenge. This gave rise to the Thematic Project Ecological restoration of riparian forests, native forest of economic production and of degraded forest fragments (in APP and RL) based on restoration ecology of reference ecosystems in order to scientifically test the precepts of the New Brazilian Forest Code coordinated by  Dr. Ricardo Ribeiro Rodrigues (Lab. Ecology and Forest Restoration/Department of Biological Sciences) from the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture, University of São Paulo  (ESALQ/USP).


More than just a dispute between agricultural production and environmental protection, the project seeks to prove that it is possible to create conditions that reconcile environmental (conservation and restoration) and agricultural (production and economic development) issues on rural properties in Brazil. “Subsidies are needed to scientifically sustain forest restoration on rural properties. We need to integrate these measures with the agricultural area, in terms of impacts and ecosystem services, make these actions economically feasible, implement public policies for the sector as well as prepare and review legal instruments regarding the issue. It is a clear proposal for environmental and agricultural planning in a rural environment” adds Rodrigues.

The project can be considered an offspring of previous projects conducted at the Laboratory of Ecology and Forest Restoration (LERF) of ESALQ/USP. It is important to emphasize the expertise acquired in two earlier projects within the BIOTA Program.  The Permanent Plots Project (Projeto Parcelas Permanentes) entitled Diversity, dynamics and conservation in São Paulo State Forests: 40ha of permanent parcels carried out between 2001 and 2007, that studied 40ha of different forests of the State of Sao Paulo – Restinga Forest, Atlantic Rainforest, Semideciduos Forest and Cerradão. These Permanent Plots, all within conservation units, are considered reference ecosystems that today support the restoration methodologies used by the group.  Another reference project was approved in 2010 by the National Research Council (CNPq) to address restoration, and made it possible to structure and implement long-term experiments, and create and maintain the network of researchers and agricultural companies that are involved in the current project.

To further investigate this issue, the first step was to list the challenges involved. The first is the need to increase scientific knowledge regarding the role of forest fragments in biodiversity conservation. Although many of these fragments have lost part of their functionality, they remain important vectors of biodiversity conservation, provided they are duly protected, managed and enriched by specific functional groups. The second challenge is to increase the number of experiments involving long-term restoration methodologies to assess the effectiveness of restoration usually used in anthropized landscapes, in terms of ecological sustainability and economic viability, and as an integrating element of rural landscapes and possible ecosystem services. “The lack of long-term ecological restoration experiments, with all their ramifications (ecological, social and economic), does not allow scientific validation of current recommendations regarding restoration and legal instruments”, states Rodrigues. The third challenge is to generate more knowledge on ecological restoration, along with the possibility of economic exploration, as preconized in the new Forest Code and its predecessor of 1965. “Our current data, applied to business plans, demonstrate that ecological restoration for economic purposes, where the final aim is to restore ecosystem services, carried out with sustainable economic exploitation of wood and non-wood products over the course of the process, is an excellent business. This is particularly true for areas with less agricultural potential, where income of economic restoration is often higher than non-productive cattle raising typical in these situations, and restoration additionally brings environmental benefits and services” states Brancalion.

We hope to generate data and information to help promote legal and economic incentives for rural properties that are committed to this activity. The fourth challenge consists of generating more knowledge on Restoration Ecology in order to enhance restoration methodologies for each degraded situation, thus improving decisions made by environmental projects. Finally, the fifth challenge arises from the need to create reliable protocols based on scientific knowledge to monitor areas undergoing ecological restoration, considering the technical, scientific and operational viability of indicators and their respective reference values, such as the establishment of intermediate goals and adaptive management measures during the restoration process.


Thus, the project was organized into five modules to encompass all the aforementioned challenges. Module 1 aims to test forest fragment restoration practices in rural properties, with management and enrichment methods, in order to strengthen their role in biodiversity conservation and generate ecosystem services in the Atlantic Forest. In the Amazon Forest, the possibility of these fragments also generating forest products is being tested. Module 2 centers on testing gallery forest restoration methodologies, considering the different gallery forest width in terms of fulfilling their ecological functions. This is needed to meet the current demand for scientific support for changes in the Forest Code, as well as testing low-cost ecologically effective restoration methodologies, since all owners will be obliged to restore their gallery forests and Legal Reserves.

Module 3 encompasses restoration methodologies for Legal Reserves and low-potential agricultural areas on rural properties, with economic purposes, using these restored forests for wood and non-wood production, but guaranteeing economic and ecological sustainability, in addition to providing ecosystem services. According to Rodrigues “restoration may be an alternative for occupying agricultural soils in low-potential areas, such as substituting pasture in sloping areas to restore them with native species through restoration to enable sustainable exploitation of wood and fruit trees, as well as medicinal, ornamental and melliferous plants, etc. However, economic viability studies and business plans are also needed.” Module 4 focuses on repeated assessments of vegetation in permanent plots allocated to reference ecosystems in Atlantic Rainforest, Cerrado and Amazon domains, for both forest dynamics and altered fragments. The goal is to acquire the knowledge needed about forest dynamics, in order to scientifically sustain plant diversity conservation and restoration measures. Finally, module 5 aims at testing assessment methodologies and monitoring areas undergoing ecological restoration to define effective indicators of ecological (flora and fauna) and economic sustainability, and reference values, in addition to producing viable monitoring protocols for ecological restoration of the Atlantic Forest biome.

With these data in hand we hope to widen the discussion regarding public policies for conservation and restoration of the remaining biodiversity (including the New Forest Code) with quality information. In this respect, some of the expected results of the project are: recommendations for efficient techniques to manage and restore remaining fragments on rural properties, strengthening the role of these fragments in conserving biodiversity and providing ecosystem services, and for the Amazon, enriching the remaining degraded fragments for sustainable production of wood and fruit trees, that is, transforming the legal reserve already exploited on Amazonian properties, into an environment of sustainable production of native species; scientific support  for recommendations of ecological restoration methods in situations of severe degradation in anthropized landscapes; determination of the most adequate width of the Area of Permanent Preservation (gallery forest strip) to restore ecological processes, create suitable niches to regenerate native species and minimize biological invasions and the edge effect; establishment of economic restoration models for the sustainable exploitation of native species in restored forests in degraded landscapes, with the support of business plans, among others.

Organization of the project

To achieve these ambitious goals, a large and diversified research team was assembled from 11 universities and research institutions in Brazil and abroad, in addition to 17 companies, many of which are linked to the sugarcane ethanol and silviculture sectors. These include the Forest Institute (Instituto Florestal – SMA), São Paulo Agribusiness Technology Agency (Agência Paulista de Tecnologia dos Agronegócios – SAA), UFSCAR/Araras, UNESP/Rio Claro, UFPE, UFRRJ, UFMS, UNAM (México), University of Connecticut, Centre D’Ecologie Fonctionelle and Evolutive(França), Centre for Social and Economic Research on the Global Environment,  Bioflora, the Brazilian power plants Usina Batatais, Usina Moema, Usina Cerradinho, Usina Lins, Usina COSAN, Usina Ester, Usina São Manoel, Usina São João and Usina Vale do Rosário, Guariroba Farm (Fazenda Guariroba), Radar, Fibria, SOS Mata Atlântica (SOS Atlantic Forest), FIBRIA, the Odebrecht Foundation, Suzano, and the Vale do Rio Doce Reserve, among others.

Bringing all these groups and data together is also an important point in developing a project of this size. Each of these five modules has a coordinator and subcoordinators. Cross-sectional topics, such as statistics, genetics, and taxonomy are managed by thematic coordinators in all the modules. In addition, an internal symposium is held every year, attended by five visiting researchers from abroad, initially linked to the project as scientific advisors. These include some of the leading scientists in the field such as Dr. Robin Chazdon, Karen Holl, Eliana Ceccon, and James Aronson, as well as a number of Brazilians, including Felipe Melo, Marcelo Tabarelli, Bernardo Strassburg and others, all of whom advise, assess and suggest general guidelines for the project and its respective subprojects. The organization and integration of data is based on previous projects, with plans for occasional future improvements, such as a remote entry database and others.


By Paula Drummond de Castro