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Forest restoration, not just halting deforestation, vital to Amazon

  • The Brazilian state of Maranhão has lost more than three-quarters of its original forest cover and the remaining old-growth forest is severely threatened, with the “Amazon forest [in the state’s west] on the edge of collapse,” say researchers. This threat heightens the importance of conserving secondary forest in the state.
  • But new zoning of Legal Amazonia in Maranhão’s west passed in May will reduce the amount of standing forest farmers must preserve, which could lead to largescale legal deforestation of secondary forests and reward previous illegal deforestation.
  • The State Forest Policy currently being debated for passage by the Maranhão parliament could implement safeguards to protect secondary forests (though likely won’t). Without those safeguards, warn researchers, these forests that provide important ecological services and economic benefits could further disappear.
  • Scientists say that agroforestry and forest restoration should be prioritized by the Brazilian national and state governments in order to generate sustainable livelihoods and protect secondary forests, aiding in climate change mitigation, water and soil conservation, and providing sustainable livelihoods.
Agribusiness is one of the main drivers of forest loss in the state of Maranhão. Here, a lone tree stands on a patch of deforested land in the the Amazon. Image by Raymony Tayllon.

As the world’s remaining old-growth forests are isolated in protected areas, or increasingly found only in remote places, secondary forests — forests that regrow in deforested or degraded areas — are becoming a crucial player in the fight to mitigate climate change and restore ecosystem services.

But these secondary forests are often not seen as worth saving, nor are they offered the same protections as old-growth, with resulting negative consequences for carbon sequestration, water cycling, biodiversity conservation, and human use and subsistence.

A recently published viewpoint paper by researchers from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE) and the University of Maranhão published in the Land Use Policy journal draws attention to the critical environmental role these forests play and the threats they face in the Brazilian state of Maranhão.

Map showing the Legal Amazonia portion of Maranhão state and the current status of its forests. Graphic by Celso H. L. Silva Junior. Sources: INPE and MapBiomas.

Amazon secondary forest in need of protection

Maranhão state is located in the transition zone between the Amazon biome and the Cerrado biome (the country’s tropical savanna). The state’s western section is also included within the boundaries of Legal Amazonia, a national government designation that encompasses all or part of nine Brazilian states. Maranhão’s remaining Amazon forests, which hold high amounts of biodiversity and show massive potential for forest restoration and agroforestry, are increasingly under threat from agribusiness expansion and illegal logging.

Using satellite data from INPE, the researchers found that 76% of the original old-growth Amazon tree cover in the state has been lost, while most of the remaining old-growth forest is found in protected areas or Indigenous territories.

As a result, secondary forests there are now crucial for providing many of the ecological services required for climate change mitigation, water and soil conservation, and sustainable livelihoods. But between 2014 and 2018 in Maranhão, 8,294 square kilometers (3,202 square miles) of secondary forests were cleared.

Now, new policies being introduced on the state and federal levels could increase that loss.

“There is no policy yet to promote forest restoration in Maranhão. Actually, the opposite [is true, due to] the Legal Reserve reduction recently approved [which] will lead to largescale secondary forest loss,” said Danielle Celentano, paper co-author and senior manager of forest landscape restoration with Conservation International Brazil, an NGO.

As in the rest of Legal Amazonia, farmers located in western Maranhão are subject to Brazil’s Forest Code, and must conserve 80% of the standing forest on their land. In places like Maranhão, most of those Legal Reserves contain secondary forests, including important communal forests such as babassu stands. However, the new zoning policy approved by the Maranhão State Parliament in May reduces the official Legal Reserve size from 80% to 50% of a property, if the land is not old-growth forest — freeing up 30% of those secondary forests for potential deforestation and potentially rewarding previous illegal logging.

Patchwork of forested Legal Reserves, pasture, and soy farms in the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

The authors argue that if conservation is the goal, then the legislature is taking a step in the wrong direction. Instead of passing a bill that encourages more deforestation, the state should incentivize forest restoration and reforestation, the researchers say — steps vital for maintaining important ecological services, and also for climate change carbon sequestration accounting.

“Currently, policies for reducing greenhouse gas emissions are focused on reducing deforestation of old-growth forests,” explains Celso H. L. Silva Junior, co-author of the viewpoint paper. Secondary forests are not designated in the new policies. This is problematic because it fails to fully account for the country’s greenhouse gas emissions, and “deforestation of secondary forests, degradation by fires, logging, and edge effect, which proliferate in the state, lead to unaccounted atmospheric carbon emissions.”

Almost half of all the deforested area in the Amazon biome portion of Maranhão is considered to be a global forest restoration hotspot, meaning the land is scientifically best-suited for forest uses, such as forestry and agroforestry. “There is a lot of potential [here] in the bio-economy market, in the agroforestry chain, in forest restoration ecosystem services, and also in carbon markets,” explains Celentano.

Studies have shown that when it comes to curbing soil degradation and improving carbon sequestration, agroforestry systems as a form of forest restoration are a viable option that also deliver sustainable economic benefits.

“Restoration is a nature-based solution for climate change, and much more than that, it is about water and biodiversity conservation and human well-being,” says Celentano “It is not just an ecological agenda, but a human development agenda.”

The Maranhão parliament is currently debating the state’s forest policy and could pass legislation that reverses the May decision to reduce Legal Reserves (though likely won’t) offering a last chance to nix the new zoning rule and implement secondary forest safeguards.

Forests that are not old-growth, such as these seen in various stages of succession, are not afforded the same legal protections and are more vulnerable to logging and deforestation. Image by Guillaume Rousseau.

The decade of restoration

The United Nations General Assembly has proclaimed 2021–2030 as the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, a time for recognizing the vital role ecosystem restoration plays in regard to climate change, water, pollination services, and sustainable economic livelihoods.

But while Brazil’s potential for forest restoration and agroforestry is substantial, several obstacles stand in the way.

Technically speaking, most experts agree that scaling up forest restoration and agroforestry in the Latin American country is extremely feasible. “Brazil is a real powerhouse for agroforestry; there is a strong grassroots movement around agroecology… a real revolution going on in the field,” Andrew Miccolis, country coordinator for the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF) told Mongabay. “There is a demand for agroforesty not just from farmers, but also from investors.”

However, Miccolis, and several other experts interviewed point out that while the potential is present, the financial and political will, and market support remains lacking.

“Agroforestry is limited [in Brazil] because of things like licensing, minimal technical administrative capacity, or because the market is far away,” says Miccolis. “The key is tying in the project sector, value chains, and the market. Not having the right market for the right product is usually one of the main reasons for failure.”

Fábio Vaz Ribeiro de Almeida, executive coordinator at the Institute for Society, People, and Nature, an NGO that works with family farmers and traditional communities in states like Maranhão on agroforestry and other projects, agrees. He notes too that agroforestry and forest restoration projects have little policy support and almost zero funding. This is in contrast to the massive economic and political support agribusiness receives in Brazil, a well-positioned, influential industry that annually generates much of the deforestation of both primary and secondary forests.

“We always compare how much money the government spends on agribusiness issues versus what is spent on forestry, restoration and agroforestry,” says Vaz Ribeiro de Almeida “It is almost nothing.”

A significant share of Brazil´s trade balance relies on agricultural commodities, mostly annual crops with short-term credit lines such as soy and corn. So almost all of the funding going to farmers is along these annual credit lines. That would need to change if agroforestry and restoration were to become a new emphasis.

“Funding mechanisms should be attractive and accessible to farmers seeking long-term financing, if we were to scale-up forest restoration,” says Matheus Couto, the UNEP-WCMC Brazil focal-point.

Brazil Environment Minister Ricardo Salles has become the focus for much of the public outrage over the anti-environmental policies of the Jair Bolsonaro administration. Image by Gilberto Soares/MMA.

Moving in the wrong direction

While Brazil had been a leader in promoting the restoration agenda leading up to 2017, since the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018, Brazil has aggressively dismantled environmental protections, seen a surge in illegal armed incursions onto Indigenous reserves, and watched as deforestation rates in the Amazon have risen dramatically. Most recently, Brazil’s Supreme Court released video footage showing Environment Minister Ricardo Salles suggesting that the coronavirus offers a good opportunity to reduce regulations in the Amazon while media attention is elsewhere.

This lack of political backing means that many conservation organizations are now looking elsewhere for support, including to corporations and international markets.

“Both the EU, and even now China, are starting campaigns to boycott commodities that create deforestation and are not in compliance with environmental safeguards. I think it is a good way to support changes in Brazil because of the issues we have,” says Vaz Ribeiro de Almeida. “Even if we can just stop deforestation and start to support agroforestry and restoration, that would be a first step.”

Agroforestry systems mimic the different layers of forests and stages of forest growth by planting various types of trees and food crops together. Here, corn is grown between trees and shrubs in the Amazon. Image by Vivian Loch.

The Mercosur trade deal, a force for good?

The $19 trillion EU-Mercosur trade deal, which will, if ever ratified, regulate trade between the European Union and countries in South America, including Brazil, could also become a significant leverage point in the fight to gain more protections and investment for forest restoration and agroforestry.

On 5 May, the Brazilian Climate Observatory (Observatório do Clima), a network of 50 civil society organizations working on climate policy, called on the EU to review its proposed trade deal with the Mercosur nations, and especially Brazil, stating that in the face of the current pandemic, “environmental safeguards within the agreement, which were already insufficient even before COVID-19, have now made the document outdated.”

Two weeks later, 40 companies — including major UK supermarket chains, Tesco, Morrisons, Asda and Marks and Spencer — wrote an open letter warning they could boycott Brazilian products if a new federal law that would legalize private occupation of public lands, was passed in Brazil. The law, they said, would encourage “further land grabbing and widespread deforestation.” Since then, seven major European investment firms warned that they will divest from Brazilian beef producers, grain traders, and government bonds if Brazil doesn’t work to significantly curb Amazon deforestation.

Elsewhere, the EU has pledged to halt global deforestation by 2020, and in its 2015 Trade For All strategy, it also commits to using trade agreements as levers to promote sustainable development and human rights. Environmental safeguards are currently under discussion for inclusion in the final EU-Mercosur agreement, but so far those safeguards largely seek only to ensure compliance with the Paris Climate Agreement and other multilateral environmental agreements. However, a new move towards mandatory due diligence of agricultural products that cause deforestation in places like Brazil could shift the playing field, making restoration and agroforestry more attractive.

Forest restoration and agroforestry are also compatible with the EU’s “Farm to Fork Strategy,” a sustainable food system plan at the heart of the European Green Deal. The strategy declares that “‘business as usual’ [is] not a viable option as it will endanger natural resources, our health, the climate, and the economy.”

Beyond its inclusion in environmental agreements, experts see forest restoration as a way to channel investments into natural capital. “What is more promising for forest restoration is that several companies and corporations are making commitments towards carbon-neutrality,” says Couto. “Some are looking into forest-based solutions as a way to achieve that, and restoring degraded ecosystems and investing in agroforestry systems is a great way to create jobs and strengthen livelihoods.“

Whether the clear message being sent by the EU, international investors and transnational companies regarding deforestation and support for forest restoration and agroforestry will be heard by the Brazilian government remains to be seen. But Celentano is hopeful.

“The important thing is that we still have time,” she says. “They [the state of Maranhão] approved the economical-ecological zoning, but the State Forest Law has yet to be approved. So we still have room to protect the secondary forest under the state forest law.”


Junior, C. H. S., Celentano, D., Rousseau, G. X., de Moura, E. G., van Deursen Varga, I., Martinez, C., & Martins, M. B. (2020). Amazon forest on the edge of collapse in the Maranhão State, Brazil. Land Use Policy, 97, 104806.

Banner Image: Patchwork of Legal Reserve forests, soy and other croplands in the Brazilian Amazon. Image by Rhett A. Butler / Mongabay.

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