While the loss of Brazil’s Amazon rainforest gets a lot of attention, a nearby ecosystem is disappearing even faster: the vast grasslands that cover much of central Brazil.
Known as the Cerrado, the savanna is home to endangered species including the giant anteater and the maned wolf. It is also coveted by agribusiness as prime land for growing soybeans and grazing cattle. Each year, roughly 10,000 square kilometers of savanna is lost—an area almost the size of Connecticut. That’s means it’s vanishing 2.5 times faster than the Amazon’s forests.
While campaigns to shield habitat from destruction often focus on publicly-owned land such as national forests, Brazilian scientists studying the Cerrado have advice: Don’t forget private land. New research there suggests that wildlife reserves on private lands could harbor as much as 25% of the threatened animal species that call the Cerrado home.
At a time when world leaders have committed to protecting 30% of the world’s land and ocean by 2030, the results illustrate that “only a combination of public and private efforts will achieve the international commitments to prevent biodiversity loss,” the University of Brasilia’s Ricardo Machado and Ludmilla Aguiar wrote in a commentary on the new research published in the April 21 issue of the journal Science.
The Cerrado serves as an intriguing laboratory for testing the role of conservation on private lands. A Brazilian law dating to the 1930s requires rural landowners to set aside between 20 and 35% of their property as reserves, with the aim of protecting water, soil and trees. The approach contrasts with voluntary land-conservation programs in places like the U.S., where rural landowners can grant conservation easements. In other cases, conservation groups such as the Nature Conservancy buy large tracts of land to protect them.
The sweeping Brazilian land set-asides, coupled with a more recent requirement to catalog the location of all these reserves, gave scientists an opportunity to gauge how important these lands might be as a home to vulnerable Cerrado-dwelling species. The scientists mapped the location of protected areas on more than 680,000 rural properties. Then they looked at how much these reserves overlapped with the ranges of 290 threatened vertebrate animals (except fish).
The results showed that around 25% of the ranges of these threatened species falls within protected lands on private property, the researchers reported in Science. That level “is higher than we expected and suggests that those areas may have a really important effect complementing the public protection,” lead author Paulo de Marco of the Universidade Federal de Goiás wrote in an email.
The findings also underscore the importance of restoring habitat on private reserve land. Despite supposedly being protected, satellite mapping revealed that some of the reserves include land degraded by activities such as cattle grazing.
By looking at where species live, the scientist were able to pinpoint the most important private reserves. It turns out a small region in the southwest, near the city of São Paulo was a restoration hotspot. The area is home to much of the 1450 square kilometers of private reserves that together overlap with at least 70 vulnerable species whose home ranges are relatively small. Restoring those private lands would cost, at most, $60 million, “which is only .02% of the exports value of the Brazilian agribusiness sector in 2021,” the scientists noted.
Overall, the researchers found that restoring 10% of the top priority reserves would meet a goal of protecting 10% of the range for 10 threatened species, while restoring 50% of the reserves would extend that benefit to 49 species.
The findings here could hold lessons for other parts of the world, where just 1.4% of private lands are under protection. But just as in other places, policymakers in Brazil will need to find ways to make land protection more alluring than agribusiness profits. In the case of the Cerrado, write Machado and Aguiar, that could mean paying landowners for the ecological benefits of protecting or restoring their land; giving special certifications for agricultural products coming from lands where owners embrace biodiversity conservation; and providing financing and advice to landowners seeking to rehabilitate their property.
While it might seem daunting to enact such changes in Brazil and elsewhere, the new reseach underscores that it could help decide the fate of species that don’t know the difference between private property and adjacent public lands. “The role of private rural properties in protecting native species in the Cerrado,” write Machado and Aquiar, “is vital.”
Marco et. al. “The value of private properties for the conservation of biodiversity in the Brazilian Cerrado.” Science. April 21, 2023.
Image: A giant anteater in the Cerrado grasslands. Hudson Pontes da Silva.