Rehabilitation of degraded areas is a solution to deforestation

30 março 2023

Producers bet on market trends and adopt models that intensify productivity without tearing down native vegetation
By Daniely Lima, from WWF-Brazil

Solutions for deforestation and productive gains for agribusiness. These are two examples of the potential that the rehabilitation of degraded areas has in Brazil. According to the MapBiomas project, most of the more than 154 million hectares of pasture that currently exist in the country could be directed to increasing agricultural productivity, that is, without the need to open up new areas of native vegetation.

In the Cerrado alone, as shown by a series of studies by the Working Group on the Rehabilitation of Degraded Areas in the Biome (GTPastagens), of which WWF-Brazil is part, there are 5.6 million hectares of degraded pastures with economic potential for intensification of beef cattle farming; 4.3 million hectares for dairy farming; and 5 million hectares for soybeans. There are also more than 10 million hectares with potential for Integrated Systems, such as the Integrated Crop-Livestock-Forest (ICLF) system and 2.5 million hectares for Agroforestry Systems (ASF).

And it is precisely in the Cerrado, in Mato Grosso do Sul, the fifth state with the largest cattle herd in the country, that we find concrete examples that it is not necessary to deforest to produce more. “We have some areas to work on. When we manage to intensify production in those areas, instead of having half or one animal unit, for example, I’ll be able to have two or three. We will produce a lot more in the same area and we won't need to open anything else, we won't have to knock down a tree and we won't have to go into the reserves", says Walter Thaler, veterinarian and rural producer.

Thaler is the son of producers, of a family that has been present in the Guariroba Basin region, in Campo Grande, since the 1990s. Their property, which carries out beef cattle farming activities, is now in the process of rehabilitation, that is, working to return and increase productivity in areas that have already been exploited. With his feet on the ground since childhood, Thaler understands the connection that producers have with nature and the importance of continuing the business of his parents, but adapting to the new trends that unite production and financial gains with nature conservation.

“I come from there, my family comes from the land and I've always had that in my blood. There's nothing I like more, nothing I know better than being in the field. And I think family succession and continuity is very important. Even more so today, as we have a lot to advance in technology, conservation and productive increases”, he points out.

The Environmental Protection area of the Guariroba Stream Springs (APA do Guariroba), where Thaler's property is located, is the main responsible for the public water supply to the capital of Mato Grosso. Therefore, in 1996, in order to protect the region, rural producers created the Association for the Recovery, Conservation and Preservation of the Guariroba Basin (ARCP), which is currently composed of 67 members, mostly beef cattle farmers and some foresters and fish farmers from the region, all with the common desire to conserve the EPA. 

Among pastures and cattle farms, there are several species of fauna and flora in the region. This is because Guariroba producers mobilized to carry out practices of rehabilitation of degraded areas and recovery of springs, among other nature conservation actions. “We started talking more with the Public Prosecutor's Office, the Environment Secretariat and the city hall to understand what needed to be done in the Basin. We even participated in the preparation of the EPA management plan”, explains the president of ARCP, Claudinei Pecois.

The Importance of Incentives

The association also supports and has part of its rural producers enrolled in the municipal Payments for Environmental Services (PSA) program, called “Living Source”, which is a financial incentive mechanism that rewards owners who preserve or restore ecosystems and provide environmental services to society, such as the conservation of biodiversity, the maintenance of water and soil quality, the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, among others.

Thaler's property is part of the program, which is supported by WWF-Brazil to encourage pasture rehabilitation and provide technical assistance in the state. For him, producers are looking for ways to avoid opening up new areas of native vegetation, but there are still challenges. “We know that we must adopt techniques for the conservation and recovery of degraded areas so that we can have satisfactory production levels. Producers try to do the right thing but often lack education or resources”, he says.

Thaler recognizes the importance of conserving the Cerrado, as he already notices the impacts of its destruction. According to him, older generations, such as his parents and grandparents, say that the dry and rainy seasons were very well determined in the past and, with that, producers could plan things better. “Today we cannot adopt the same practices because the climate has changed a lot, it is very uncertain and unstable for us”, he emphasizes.

Climate goals and deforestation

The conversion of ecosystems to make room for the production chains of livestock, soybeans and palm oil are responsible for 40% to 50% of emissions in the change of land use category for agricultural purposes, and for 9% to 12% of the total emissions from food systems, according to a study by WWF-Brazil. And conversion of native vegetation to pastures accounts for one-fifth of the total carbon footprint of livestock production. According to the same study, climate goals can only be achieved by eliminating deforestation. On the other hand, a technical note shows that agribusiness also loses with destruction, as deforestation increases the costs of the sector. 

In the Cerrado, the annual rate of deforestation in 2022 was 10,689 km² according to PRODES Cerrado, from the National Institute for Space Research (INPE). That is a record figure and represents a 25 percent increase when compared to the deforestation rate of the previous year. Cattle and soybeans production is among the main activities responsible for the deforestation in the biome. According to MapBiomas, agriculture and livestock occupied more than 40% of the Cerrado until 2021.

A different experience in the Guariroba Basin

Still in the Guariroba Basin, in another cattle-producing property, the farm manager Adriano de Jesus Melo, who has been working there for over 20 years, tells us about the before-and-after of the experience. “The farm was very degraded, it was much more difficult. It was kind of abandoned, but after the program, it became alive. Through the PSA we were able to plant and recover”, he says. 

For him, it is possible to produce and preserve nature. Melo is already able to observe the results. “The conservation of the environment is very important. If we don't preserve it, we'll have no future for our children and grandchildren. After we started preserving it, water started to rise and animals came back. It is a great pleasure to be able to be part of nature”, he highlights.

“The opening of new areas for food production is an unsustainable model in the long term”, emphasizes Laís Cunha, conservation analyst at WWF-Brazil. “The rehabilitation of degraded areas is important not only for the producer, but also for the entire region where it is inserted. When we have an unproductive area, in addition to losing natural resources of invaluable importance, we also fail to protect and generate ecosystem services that are essential for life in the territory”.
Guariroba producers mobilized to carry out practices of rehabilitation of degraded areas and recovery of springs
© Silas Ismael / WWF-Brasil
In the Cerrado there are 5.6 million hectares of degraded pastures with economic potential for intensification of beef cattle farming
© Silas Ismael / WWF-Brasil
Walter Thaler, veterinarian and rural producer, whose familie's property is now in the process of rehabilitation
© Silas Ismael / WWF-Brasil
Claudinei Pecois, president of ARCP
© Silas Ismael / WWF-Brasil