Pushpine and restoring the Mata Atlantica

A proposal for carbon offsets in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest.

The death toll in the Rio favelas from floods and mudslides – now at least 205 – would have been much greater but for an extraordinary achievement a century ago of six anonymous slaves under the generally undistinguished Brazilian Empire:

From the sixteenth to the nineteenth centuries, tropical forest in Rio de Janeiro was gradually substituted by sugarcane, coffee plantations, and pastureland. Intense land use and deforestation caused problems in the city’s water supply. Mainly for this reason, Manuel Gomes Archer was hired at the end of the nineteenth century by Emperor D. Pedro II to start a flora restoration project. From 1862 to 1874, Archer and a few slaves planted about 72,000 seedlings of native and exotic tree species, e.g., palms, bamboos, cedro rosa, jacaranda, sapucaia, jaqueira, and eucaliptus. Seedling sources were located in the Paineiras Forest, Archer’s farm in Guaratiba, and in the Botanical Garden of Rio de Janeiro. …. The result was an environment conducive to natural forest regeneration. This was because heterogeneous and predominantly native species of trees were used in this project, unlike the procedure usually followed in forest plantation at that time.

(Here, edited to remove learned apparatus).

The steep hillsides round which the bairros of the city flow are now the Tijuca National Park, one of the largest urban forests in the world. More than half the flood deaths occurred in the twin city of Niteroi across the bay, which is  much smaller and flatter but doesn´t include any of the park – I infer that well-established forest offers better protection than scrub.

This photo of mine was taken in the park. After 130 years, this second-growth forest is visually close to virgin Mata Atlantica, here (also by me) in the Serra dos Argãos. The biodiversity is fairly close; 49 mammals against 44 in the virgin Iguazu National Park.

When the Portuguese arrived, the Mata Atlantica covered most of southern Brazil.  It´s now 5-7% of its former greatness. (No finger-pointing: compare the Great Plains grasslands of the USA, or the Wildwood that covered England before the Bronze Age).

(via Brazilian blogger Wilson Weschenfelder.)

It would be a mistake to think of the cleared bits as treeless. A Google Earth snapshot near Natividade in upcountry Rio de Janeiro state:

Side view in the area (my photo):

The surviving tree cover, now protected, forms islands on hilltops, whose sides are pasture for a few skinny dairy cows. The stocking rate, to my amateur but Jersey-bred eye, is very low. Hill livestock raising is usually uneconomic without subsidies so there should be potential here for reafforestation at low net cost: replanting the steeper slopes and watercourses, and joining up hilltop islands with corridors for biodiversity. The Brazilian forest law appears to require a 20% set-aside in the region; at first sight, the tree cover around Natividade could be doubled without much damage to the dairy farming economic base of the area.

If you and I are going to help pay for this, through voluntary offsets or global cap-and-trade, what sort of forestry should we look for? At present the debate is polarized. Deep greens want to restore the virgin forest, like Major Archer.  Fine, but this will never happen on a scale to make a gigatonne dent in atmospheric carbon. Virgin Atlantic forest, unlike the Amazon one, seems to have very little direct economic value in the way of palm-hearts, fruit, nuts, and good timber. There´s already enough left for ecotourism. The thriving commercial forestry industry in southern Brazil is at the other extreme, creating ugly monoculture blocks of fast-growing eucalyptus hybrids. Typical dire visual results in this pdf. Plainly this style is also hopeless for wildife, short of importing koala bears. I can´t judge the allegation that it´s also bad for water management. As it´s highly mechanised, job creation will also be low.

What seems to be missing is a model of mixed-use, semi-commercial forestry, as in France. Here is the Brotonne forest in Normandy (credit ONF):

[Update Note how the beeches are all the same diameter and height. They were all planted and thinned at the same time, and will be cut for timber after a few decades more. This is a managed forest, and has been for centuries- not second-growth but eighth-growth, if it started in 1200 CE and the beeches are cut at 100 years.]  The mixed-use model has been sustained in post-Revolutionary France by a powerful rural hunting lobby – French gun ownership is all about mowing down wildlife, not criminals. Left to themselves, the ONF technocrats would probably focus on trees as wood factories.

But from a pure carbon point of view, wouldn´t they and the Brazilian forestry companies be right? Perhaps we should follow Bentham, and paraphrase:

Quantity of carbon being equal, pushpine is as good as parkland.

My coinage pushpine connotes ¨whatever horrible utility tree grows fastest¨; in Britain, it is usually Sitka spruce or lodgepole pine, in Brazil, hybrid eucalyptus.

I don´t see why as prospective carbon offsetters we should simply line up with the commercial foresters. Offsetting doesn´t preclude other goals like sustainability, employment and biodiversity. Eucalyptus actually grows too fast in Brazil for optimal carbon sequestration: it´s harvested after as few as 5 years. The carbon returns to the atmosphere after a few years more years as paper, cardboard and landfill. If rich Northerners like you and me are going to be paying for reafforestation, as we should, I suggest we insist on doing it with a 25-year horizon to buy us time for new green technologies. It should not be too difficult to develop a Brazilian version of the French forestry model, with a dominant commercial species (say pine or araucaria) mixed in with other local sorts for conservation and beauty. I´d willingly pay a premium for this.

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Note: I´ve not visited the Amazon yet so this post has no relevance to the bigger problem of the deforestation that continues there, if now at a slower pace. For one thing, the Amazon is a pretty lawless frontier society, while southern Brazil has been long settled and is roughly as peaceful and honest as Europe or the USA, which is enough to be going on with.

Author: James Wimberley

James Wimberley (b. 1946, an Englishman raised in the Channel Islands. three adult children) is a former career international bureaucrat with the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. His main achievements there were the Lisbon Convention on recognition of qualifications and the Kosovo law on school education. He retired in 2006 to a little white house in Andalucia, His first wife Patricia Morris died in 2009 after a long illness. He remarried in 2011. to the former Brazilian TV actress Lu Mendonça. The cat overlords are now three. I suppose I've been invited to join real scholars on the list because my skills, acquired in a decade of technical assistance work in eastern Europe, include being able to ask faux-naïf questions like the exotic Persians and Chinese of eighteenth-century philosophical fiction. So I'm quite comfortable in the role of country-cousin blogger with a European perspective. The other specialised skill I learnt was making toasts with a moral in the course of drunken Caucasian banquets. I'm open to expenses-paid offers to retell Noah the great Armenian and Columbus, the orange, and university reform in Georgia. James Wimberley's occasional publications on the web

4 thoughts on “Pushpine and restoring the Mata Atlantica”

  1. i would htink the only real way to buy carbon reduction is to buy land with oil or coal underneath it, so as to keep anyone from digging it up.

  2. I'm probably more familiar with the forest situation in Minas Gerais than Rio de Janeiro and my wife's family has a house in the south of Bahia that is relevant to your point: eucalyptus should only be grown for quick cultivation, not for forest replenishment. Near Mucuri, Bahia where my in-laws have their house, there is a company called Bahia Sul, which has eucalyptus plantings solely for paper and extraction of the oils, but there is a significant amount of non-eucalyptus forest in the area.

    I suppose the cultivation of eucalyptus forest is better than cutting original forest and I agree that planting whatever trees that can be sustained and will not crowd out remaining indigenous species is a good thing. I have seen araucaria pines in southern Minas Gerais and northern Rio de Janeiro. I could see the beauty of planting Ipe Amarelo, Ipe vermelho and Flamboyant trees where possible.

    My father-in-law, btw has a farm in Jequitinhonha Valley with some cattle, but hasn't cleared much land for grazing. Indeed, driving to his farmhouse on the dirt road off the highway, you can see a number of them actually browsing: nibbling at mangos, guavas and leaves. Probably wouldn't work on a large farm, but might be worth trying.

  3. You are absolutely right that this should be tried more. It looks as if cows will indeed eat a variety of leaves. The wild ancestor of European cattle, the huge aurochs, was apparently a forest animal, like the few European bison that survive in the forests of eastern Poland. Other ungulates like deer and tapirs also eat leaves, and giraffes eat nothing else. So why are cows now grazed in areas where the natural vegetation is forest not grassland? Probably because it´s cheaper – if you don´t account, as we now must, for the externalities of trees.

    The question is important, since cattle ranching is by far the greatest contributor to the deforestation of the Amazon, and demand for beef is increasing worldwide with rising incomes. It would be worthwhile researching a model of cattle raising combined with more trees and leaf fodder. A nice pastoral scene with Limousin cattle under a tree here. The base of the crown of trees in pasture is always kept ruler-straight by munching cows.

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