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.
[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.
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.
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.