Institute at Brown for Environment and Society

Restoring Ecology and Revitalizing Society in Brazil's Atlantic Rainforest

To most ears, tropical rainforest preservation and economic development are diametrically opposed ideals; but to one team of natural and social scientists, the tensions between the two are fertile ground for innovation.

The story centers on a region of forested Brazilian coastline known as the Mata Atlântica, a 1000-mile long tropical rainforest that once teemed with spectacular biodiversity all the way from northern Brazil to Argentina.

mata atlantica
Fragments of the Atlantic rainforest remain, but much of the land today is used for agriculture. Photo: Jon Nelson

Today, only about 10% of the original forest remains, a direct consequence of more than 500 years of logging, intensive agriculture, and population growth. Many plants and animals native to the forest are now on the brink of extinction. At the same time, small farmers in the Sul da Bahia, an economically poor region that is home to some of the largest remaining Mata Atlântica forest fragments, have few options for rural socioeconomic development; many of their children are abandoning the countryside for Brazil's megacities.

In an effort to save the Mata Atlântica biome, a multi-organization network has made a commitment to restore 15 million hectares of Atlantic Forest by 2050. This network has made some progress in creating protected areas and encouraging corporate landowners to plant large tracts of forest; however, no one has developed a similarly successful program for landscapes like the Sul da Bahia that are dominated by private landholders. In order to promote landscape-wide restoration, researchers must determine what measures are most likely to engage the residents of Bahia in local restoration efforts.

To this end, a group of natural and social scientists from the Institute, together with scholars from three Brazilian institutions, have launched an ambitious and novel five-year experiment: to understand the best way of restoring biodiversity to the rainforest while simultaneously promoting the social and economic development of the region's people.

Not the Amazon

Unlike the famed Amazon, the destruction of Brazil's Mata Atlântica gets little press, yet the latter forest is by far the more imperiled. According to Daniel Piotto, a member of the research team who hails from the Federal University of the South of Bahia at Ilhéus (UFSB), "In [Mata Atlântica], most of the forest has been cut, so we're talking about 7-10% left. In the Amazon, we're talking about closer to 80-85% left."

"Atlantic forests have been disturbed for about 500 years, and the Amazon is just a brand new frontier," he continues. "The first road in the Amazon was back in the 70s, so we're talking about 50 years ago. It's a very different situation."

Thus the challenge in the Mata Atlântica is different from that in the Amazon; forest protection must go beyond preservation to restoration. Furthermore, such efforts can only succeed if they have clear benefits for the people who live where the forest used to be.

drying houses for cacao
Altering an ecosystem. Drying houses for chocolate beans, or cacao. Until about 10 years ago, this landscape was covered in cacao; however, recent clearing of plantations for pastures has greatly reduced biodiversity and changed residents’ livelihoods. Photo: Stephen Porder

Institute scholars know that achieving both ecological recovery and socioeconomic prosperity will require an experiment on a scale never before undertaken in tropical restoration. Thus, the new research collaboration has two focal points: one in the social sciences, led by Associate Professor of Sociology Leah VanWey (IBES) and Rui Rocha, a social scientist at the Instituto Floresta Viva (IFV); and one in the natural sciences, led by Associate Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Stephen Porder (IBES) and aforementioned forest ecologist Daniel Piotto (UFSB).

Porder, Piotto, and colleagues will analyze the characteristics of both mature and regrowing (secondary) forests in order to determine the ecological consequences of various kinds of past land use. The results of their analysis will enable them to prescribe methods of forest restoration that are likely to be most successful.

Meanwhile, VanWey, Rocha, and fellow social scientists will work with 3000 households in Sul da Bahia to understand how they use their lands and how they earn their livelihoods. This information will ultimately help the researchers determine the economic incentives that are likely to both encourage forest restoration and produce the best societal outcomes.

Ultimately, these households will have the chance to participate in a payment program if they agree to restore forest on their lands. Unlike policies or subsidies that seek to prevent deforestation, those that encourage reforestation create landscapes that will pay farmers back in timber or forest credits in the future. The goal is to learn how different types of payments, and different restoration approaches, determine how much forest grows back. It's a restoration experiment on an unprecedented scale.

"A Small Laboratory"

The researchers' belief in the positive impact they can have on the region's environmental and societal welfare is clear; however, their focus on the Mata Atlântica is also quite calculated.

Lovinia Reynolds '17 and IBES postdoc Justin Becknell engage in an agroforestry experiment.
Critical thinking. Lovinia Reynolds '17 and IBES postdoc Justin Becknell engage in an agroforestry experiment in which native trees are interspersed with cacao to provide habitat for wildlife and income for people. Photo: Stephen Porder

"Sul da Bahia is a place where we still have the last big fragment of the Atlantic forest, mixed with other forestry systems like small holders and forest plantations - very ‘friendly' land use compared to monocultures of sugarcane or coffee," explains Piotto. "So in that sense it's a very strategic region, thinking about restoration."

If successful, the researchers believe that their efforts will have implications for regions far beyond the Mata Atlântica. Rocha calls the Sul da Bahia "a small laboratory," a reflection of the team's hope that its work in this region will prove applicable to other weakened ecosystems and communities along the length of the Atlantic rainforest and beyond.

Suggests Rocha, "[our research] might apply in the Amazon and in Africa and Indonesia and the other regions where they have similar tropical conditions."

Extending their work to such faraway ecosystems will require training a new generation of natural and social scientists. Accordingly, the IBES-Brazil collaboration also includes a large educational component. Funding for the project, the result of an anonymous gift to Brown University, also supports two postdoctoral researchers and three Ph.D. students at Brown, at least four Brown undergraduates, three Brazilian M.S. students, and six Brazilian undergraduates.

This diversity in levels of expertise, Piotto explains, "is the heart of the project."

"[The students and postdocs] will be trained to design and to study things that are not just ecology or socioeconomics," he continues. "They will have a kind of multidisciplinary view of the problems."

Institute researchers know that this ‘multidisciplinary view' is essential to addressing the persistent dilemmas that lie at the intersection of environment and society. Mata Atlântica is an especially vulnerable example of such a multifaceted problem. Indeed, the precarious situation in Bahia is due to centuries of dissonance between the requirements of the region's people and the needs of their environment.

Porder, VanWey, and the rest of the team know that neither the environment nor society can be rebuilt without establishing a sustainable sense of balance between the two. Combining social and ecological data with valuable insight from residents of the Sul da Bahia, the researchers hope to guide the Mata Atlântica into a new era of mutualism. If successful, their project will set the stage for the unprecedented restoration of a tropical biome, transforming it into a global model of ecological diversity and social prosperity.

The team also includes Jorge Chiapetti, Professor at Universidade Estadual de Santa Cruz (UESC).