- A new study shows that conserving 350 million hectares (865 million acres) of the Brazilian Amazon — 83% of the biome — would cost between $1.7 billion and $2.8 billion a year.
- That’s a fraction of the $5.3 billion that the European Union spends every year maintaining its 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of protected areas.
- Current protected areas cover 51% of the Brazilian Amazon, which experts say isn’t enough to maintain the biome’s biodiversity and must be expanded.
- While the cost for protecting the Amazon is hundreds of times cheaper, hectare for hectare, than in the EU, it’s much higher than what the Brazilian government allocates for environmental conservation.
To convert around 80% of the Brazilian Amazon into environmental conservation areas would cost Brazil just over half of what the European Union spends to maintain all of its own conservation areas. Hectare for hectare, it would work out hundreds of times cheaper.
That’s the conclusion from a study published in May in the journal Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation, which put the cost of protecting 350 million hectares (865 million acres) of the Brazilian Amazon at $1.7 billion to $2.8 billion per year. That would cover two-fifths of Brazil’s total area.
Currently, Amazonian conservation areas cover 220 million hectares (544 million acres) — 51% of the biome, or a quarter of the country. To protect the additional 130 million hectares (321 million acres) — bringing the total protected area to 83% of the Brazilian Amazon — would require an initial investment of $1 billion to $1.6 billion, the study estimates.
These figures are a steep discount from what the EU pays to maintain its own network of conservation areas, which cover an area a fraction the size of Brazil’s existing protected areas. The study says the EU spends about $5.3 billion a year to maintain just 1 million hectares (2.5 million acres) of preserved areas — about half the size of Brazil’s smallest state, Sergipe.
“In general, Brazil invests very little in conservation areas in the Amazon,” says study lead author José Maria Cardoso da Silva, a professor of biogeography at the University of Miami.
A key factor explaining the difference between the costs, according to Silva, is the distribution of the respective protected areas in the Amazon and in Europe: while the European system includes hundreds of small conservation units located amid densely populated areas, in the Amazon they consist of large swaths of forest areas with low population density.
“Studies show that costs are lower in larger conservation areas and increase when human activities grow around these areas,” Silva says.
Although small by EU standards, the estimated cost of up to $2.8 billion a year to protect 83% of the Brazilian Amazon is high when compared to the total 2022 budget for the country’s Ministry of the Environment, which is around 3.1 billion reais, or $700 million.
Calculating the cost
To arrive at their estimates for the minimum and maximum values needed to protect those 350 million hectares of forest, the researchers analyzed all existing conservation areas.
“First, we used official government sources to map all conservation units, Indigenous lands, ‘vacant’ public lands, and priority areas for conservation, as defined by the Brazilian government,” Silva says.
Then, the researchers considered the number of staff needed to manage each conservation area. They determined that areas smaller than 16,700 hectares (41,300 acres) must have at least five staff, per federal government guidelines; larger areas need at least three people for every 10,000 hectares (24,700 acres), as recommended by the scientific literature, Silva says.
To estimate the annual management cost of each conservation area, the researchers considered the average annual salaries of public company employees, obtained from the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE), and then doubled the figure.
“In annual management expenditure, we include the cost of personnel plus all other costs incurred to manage each area, such as infrastructure maintenance, transportation, etc.” Silva says.
0.03% of government spending on the environment
In Brazil, conservation units are established by federal, state or municipal governments. The federal units are managed by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio), an agency of the Ministry of the Environment, while state and municipal units are managed by their respective governments. Indigenous lands, meanwhile, are established and managed by Funai, the federal agency for Indigenous affairs.
This year, Funai’s budget is 642 million reais ($120 million), according to the Transparency Portal, a data platform administered by the Brazilian government. The budget for ICMBio, which manages 27% of the conservation units in the Amazon, is 727 million reais ($136 million). Together, the budgets of the two federal environmental agencies account for 0.03% of total government spending.
In addition to limiting funds for environmental conservation, the administration of Jair Bolsonaro is also the first since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985 not to demarcate any of the 235 Indigenous territories still awaiting official recognition.
Not enough protected areas
The study says priority areas that can be turned into conservation units include vacant public lands, owned by states and the federal government, and currently considered “no-man’s land.”
A 2020 study found that 23% of the 49.9 million hectares (123.3 acres) of vacant public land in the Brazilian Amazon are illegally registered as private properties.
The new study warns that the 220 million hectares of formally protected areas in the Amazon aren’t enough to maintain the region’s biodiversity and ecosystem services, such as climate and rainfall control, and safeguard the rights of Indigenous and traditional populations whose lands have not yet been officially recognized.
Silva says the Amazon may reach a point of no return — an irreversible cascade in which tropical rainforest will turn into dry savanna — if 20-25% of the biome is deforested.
“If that window is closed, a significant portion of the Amazon — the largest tropical forest region on the planet — will be lost quickly and irreversibly,” Silva says. “The effects of such huge loss on humanity are still being studied, but the projections are absolutely terrible.”
Silva, J. M., Barbosa, L. C., Topf, J., Vieira, I. C., & Scarano, F. R. (2022). Minimum costs to conserve 80% of the Brazilian Amazon. Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation. doi:10.1016/j.pecon.2022.03.007
Azevedo-Ramos, C., Moutinho, P., Arruda, V. L., Stabile, M. C., Alencar, A., Castro, I., & Ribeiro, J. P. (2020). Lawless land in no man’s land: The undesignated public forests in the Brazilian Amazon. Land Use Policy, 99, 104863. doi:10.1016/j.landusepol.2020.104863