Creating space for large-scale restoration in tropical agricultural landscapes

Latawiec, A. E., B. B. Strassburg, P. H. Brancalion, R. R. Rodrigues, and T. Gardner. 2015. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 13:211–218.

By Trevor Caughlin, Publications Editor

Large-scale restoration projects carry a risk of displacing intensive land use to nearby areas. Latawiec et al. address whether spatial planning could help prevent this displacement, or “leakage,” using the Atlantic Forest of Brazil as an example. The Atlantic Forest represents a key area for human livelihood and biodiversity. The statistics are staggering: only 8-14% out of an original 150 million ha of this species-rich tropical forest remains. While the Atlantic Forest conjures up images of spectacular biodiversity, including charismatic endangered species such as golden lion tamarins, the region is also important for human livelihood. The Atlantic Forest is home to 60% of Brazil’s human population and provides key hydrological and agricultural ecosystem services. Recognizing the importance of the Atlantic Forest, the Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact has designed an ambitious restoration program, with a goal of restoring 15 million hectares of forest by 2050.

Similar to other tropical landscapes that are considered restoration priorities, a large amount of land in the Atlantic Forest is occupied by private landholders, including many smallholders using land for low-intensity cattle production. If restoring agricultural sites to forest displaces agricultural production to other ecologically-sensitive areas, large-scale restoration could have neutral or even negative consequences for biodiversity and ecosystem services. Latawiec et al. investigate whether a land-sparing approach, intensifying agricultural production in some areas to counterbalance land used for restoration in other areas, could provide a solution. Using cattle production data, including cattle carrying capacity and a global dataset on forage grass biomass growth, the Latawiec et al. found that the current stocking rate of cattle over much of the Atlantic Forest is well below carrying capacity. This result suggests that increasing cattle stocking rates in selected pasturelands could enable forest restoration while maintaining current levels of agricultural production.

Latawiec et al. illustrate the importance of spatial planning for large-scale restoration projects. While they are optimistic about a land-sparing approach, the authors also point out some of the preconditions for success: technical expertise in both agricultural production and ecological restoration, the need for restored forest to provide clear economic benefits, effective regulatory policies to protect native vegetation and strategic planning that accounts for smallholder livelihoods. Research to address these needs will require interdisciplinary expertise, bringing together disciplines from agronomy to rural sociology.

 

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