Agro-ecology in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil – Part 1

by Michael Wironen

Smallholder farmers in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil face challenges providing for their families while also meeting the requirements of Brazil’s Forest Code. Participants in an Agro-ecology Atelier organized by the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics are working as part of a broader effort to identify solutions to protect and restore the Atlantic Forest. Gund Graduate Fellow and E4A PhD student Michael Wironen, as well as a dozen of his colleagues, will be traveling to Santa Catarina state in Brazil in late February as part of this Atelier. This is the first entry in a series documenting the trip.

I will be traveling to the Atlantic Forest of Brazil as part of a cohort of University of Vermont students for a 10-day applied field course. As part of this course, we will partner with students and researchers at two Brazilian institutions, the Universidade Federal de Santa Catarina and the Universidade de Sao Paulo, to explore different conservation and agro-ecology models that can be applied in Santa Catarina state. Santa Catarina is known as the agro-ecology capital of Brazil. There is a rich history in the state of combining small-scale crop production, management-intensive grazing, and agro-forestry to balance the competing goals of preserving ecosystem services with making a financial profit from agriculture. The Gund Atelier will contribute to a long-term search for “win-win” solutions that can help restore the Atlantic Forest, preserve its rich biodiversity, and sustain rural livelihoods.

Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

Brazil’s Atlantic Forest region spans an area of approximately 1.5 million km2 along the Atlantic coast and is home to two thirds of the Brazilian population. Although it receives less international attention and covers a much smaller geographical area, the Atlantic Forest has habitat and biological diversity that is comparable to the Amazon. Unfortunately, the extent of deforestation exceeds that of the Amazon. More than 85% of the original forest area is now in urban or agricultural use. Only 160,000 km2 of forested area remains, much of it highly fragmented. The ecosystem is in danger of collapsing, taking with it a global hotspot for biodiversity and many of the ecosystem services that millions of Brazilians currently depend upon.

The Challenge for Smallholders

In response to the tremendous deforestation pressure, the Brazilian government has enacted several laws designed to protect the Atlantic Forest. Under current forestry law, areas within 30 meters of small rivers, 50 meters of springs, and on slopes over 45 degrees must remain in forest cover. An additional 20% of rural land must be set aside as a legal reserve.

These national policies, while environmentally progressive, pose a compliance challenge to smallholders. Contrary to other agricultural regions in Brazil such as Mato Grosso, the Atlantic Forest region is dominated by smallholders. For example, in the state of Santa Catarina, the majority of farms comprise four or fewer productive units (i.e., less than 56 hectares). Complying with the regulations would make it difficult or impossible for smallholders to earn a living. Although the policy often goes unenforced, farmers live with the knowledge that they could be fined at any time for noncompliance.

Payment for Ecosystem Services – A Solution?

Smallholders face tremendous economic pressure to maximize the agricultural goods generated by their land. However, the contribution of their land to society is often much more than the value of crops for which they are paid. If smallholders comply with the forest code, their land will generate ecosystem services for which, in a traditional market, no payment is received. Ecosystem services are those benefits that people derive from the environment, including water treatment, air purification, flood mitigation, etc.—they are myriad, and often inextricable. In many cases, ecosystem services benefit a broader community than the one immediately adjacent to the land generating the services; for example, carbon sequestration provides climate change mitigation benefits to the global community. Flood regulation benefits communities downstream.

Payments for ecosystem services occur when a government or other entity compensates landowners (through monetary compensation or other resource exchange) for providing specific ecosystem services, helping offset the opportunity costs of leaving land out of production. In this project, we will explore different payment for ecosystem service models to assess which is best suited to the realities of Santa Catarina and its smallholder farmers. In the Atlantic Forest, payment for ecosystem services may be a means of helping smallholders meet their conservation obligations while still supporting their families.

Thanks to Caitlin Morgan for help preparing this blog post.


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