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Letting forests regrow on cattle pasture yields cheap conservation benefits

Livestock in the Amazon. Photo by Rhett A. Butler.

Letting forests regrow naturally on grazing lands in the tropics offers substantial climate and biodiversity at a low cost, reports a study published in the journal Nature Climate Change.

The research is based on field studies in Western Colombia, an area of high biodiversity. An international team looked at carbon values and biodiversity across primary forests, secondary forests, and cattle pasture. They then conducted an economic analysis to determine whether carbon payments theoretically generated by letting forests regrow could outcompete returns from cattle ranching.

The authors found that cattle ranching in the region is worth a mere $150 per hectare over the course of a 30-year time frame. The low value means that letting forests recover on their own could be a profitable decision for landowners if the carbon stored in the regrowing vegetation was compensated at a rate of $2 per ton of carbon dioxide. By comparison, the average price of carbon credits in 2013 was $7.80.

But beyond the economic argument and climate benefits, allowing forests to regenerate on deforested pasture yields significant biodiversity gains. The study found that among the two groups studied — birds and bung beetles — “communities in secondary forests closely resembled those of primary forests after 15-30 years of regeneration.”

The authors thus conclude that “cloud forest zones in the tropical Andes could offer golden opportunities for REDD+ carbon-recuperation schemes, delivering multiple environmental benefits at minimal economic cost.”

James J. Gilroy et al. Cheap carbon and biodiversity co-benefits from forest regeneration in a hotspot of endemism. Nature Climate Change. PUBLISHED ONLINE: 28 APRIL 2014 | DOI: 10.1038/NCLIMATE2200

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