Brazil’s Conservationist History

Brazil’s Conservationist History

AAs the leading producer of coffee in the world, Brazil is known for its rich ecosystems, high biodiversity, and unique microclimates.

Today, as the Amazon continues to burn, MICHAELA TOMCHEK explores Brazil’s conservationist history and how current legislation stands to benefit coffee farms and ecosystems as a whole.

However, Brazil also has a reputation for deforestation, industrialized agriculture, and harmful practices putting its high biodiversity at risk. These common views align with the current news of the harmful burns, where recent numbers have indicated that at least 125,000 hectares of the Amazon have been cleared in this way. A scientific report released by the Monitoring of the Andean Amazon Project also revealed that the fires occurred on agriculture-forest boundaries, and the fires occurred to clear land for agricultural purposes.

There are many culprits lurking behind the negative impacts of agriculture on the environment, but the high percentage of low-quality coffee grown in monoculture farming systems threatens the forested areas of Brazil. Yet, there are legislations, organizations, and collections of farmers in Brazil dedicated to not only increasing the quality of coffee, but also working to understand how to coexist with surrounding ecosystems and help restore biodiversity.  Policies such as the Brazilian Forest Code and other proposed concepts such as agroforestry and the Land Sparing Land Sharing (LSLS) debate have begun to facilitate change within Brazilian farms.

Early Steps

The Brazilian Forest Code was first enacted in 1934 to improve regulation of forest management within the agricultural sector of Brazil. Initially, the Forest Code was aimed more towards regulating logging rather than protecting forests and environmental benefits. Today, however, this piece of legislation is one of the most important steps towards efficient and sustainable land use in Brazil and combating climate change. The 1990s led to a decade of debate and revolt amongst rural producers regarding the more refined enforcement of the Code. This led to the creation of a new Forest Code in 2012 to work with both the farmers and the goals of preserving valuable ecosystems, introducing two land protection methods: Legal Reserves and Areas of Permanent Protection [1].  Under Article III Section III, the definition of a Legal Reserve required landowners to set aside certain areas of their rural property as native vegetation reserves comprising roughly 20% of their land with the goal of creating sustainable use of resources and restoration of ecological processes and biodiversity. Under this legislation, coffee farms in Brazil were thus required – by law – to have a Legal Reserve within their farm.

Fazenda Passeio; example of Legal Reserves within coffee farm. Photo by Michaela Tomchek.

With the passage of the new Forest Code came the creation of the Rural Environmental Registry, which provided georeferenced data on Legal Reserves and Areas of Permanent Protection within private land.  Every property must be registered within this new Code, and it integrates environmental information of each rural property to ensure effective management and planning within rural areas [2]. The new Forest Code is attempting to heal the country’s wounds from deforestation caused by agriculture, and it is important to understand that farmers and consumers have the power to take advantage of this new Code to initiate real changes in Brazil.

But the Forest Code brings with it debate, specifically among conservationists, regarding the best approach to land conservation around agriculture – this is known as the Land Sparing Land Sharing framework [3]. Although they sound significantly similar, the opposite ends of the spectrum are just that: “Land sparing” is the act of protecting areas of wilderness while also producing high-yielding crops. “Land sharing,” on the other hand, protects areas of wilderness within a low-yielding, wildlife-friendly, larger agricultural plot [4]. Both enhance and promote biodiversity within a given area while also acting as a solution to habitat loss caused by agricultural intensification.

Ideas surrounding both concepts were proposed during the Green Revolution in the 1960s, a movement that sought to improve food production in under-developed countries by introducing concepts such as genetically modified crops and synthetic fertilizers and pesticides [5]. The full impact of the Green Revolution is not known, but the LSLS framework established during the period led conservationists to begin working towards species conservation while also maintaining food security through various agroecological methods by incorporating native vegetation into farms and setting aside native wilderness areas. After 60 years, it is still quite difficult to assess how LSLS impacts both conservation and food security without the necessary data. The answer to maintaining both food security and biodiversity has been attempted to be resolved by the LSLS debate, but the concepts lack infrastructure and require temporal and spatial data to understand its impact. Policies such as the Brazilian Forest Code must be enacted within countries to see this change and the impact of LSLS.

In Practice Today 

It is interesting to see the LSLS debate in real-world scenarios, especially since the Legal Reserves dictated by the Brazilian Forest Code could be equated with an attempt by a country’s government to make these changes within farms. Moreover, farmers must also understand the benefits of having a Legal Reserve within their rural areas.

As noted earlier, large farms in Brazil are generally monoculture, meaning that only one crop is grown in consecutive rows. This has led to deforestation and desertification of soils [7]. With the introduction of the Brazilian Forest Code, this encouraged farmers to work to restore ecosystems that were lost due to agriculture. To restore Brazil’s high levels of biodiversity, farmers are strongly encouraged to abide by the Forest Code, protect 20% of their land as a Legal Reserve, and take advantage of the natural benefits from surrounding ecosystems. The Legal Reserves benefit not only the ecosystems within Brazil, but can have positive impacts at the farm-level as well.

With the increase in Legal Reserves, farmers also enjoyed the benefits of increased agrobiodiversity. Defined as the variety of plant species within a given ecosystem, agrobiodiversity also includes how farmers are able to utilize the biodiversity to produce and manage crops, land, biota, and water [8]. This encompasses not only the area within a given farm, but also the habitats and species within surrounding ecosystems that provide natural benefits to ensure proper ecosystem functions. High agrobiodiversity is correlated to more nutrients within the soil, higher crop yields, better water conservation, and pest predation [9]. Remarkably, these benefits can be achieved by incorporating more native vegetation within each farm. In some cases, building better agrobiodiversity – leads to higher quality yields of coffee – can also provide farmers with an opportunity to restore biodiversity.

Research has indicated that coffee quality and sustainable agricultural practices have a positive relationship [9]. Moving forward from past studies conducted by Rappole, Elder, Lister, and Dauvergne; and Hernandez-Aguilera et al., I recently conducted a case study in Brazil focusing on agrobiodiversity and the LSLS debate to understand how different trading schemes impacted a collection of farmers’ agricultural decisions. Furthermore, I sought to grasp the agricultural practices utilized within each farm (i.e., chemical usage), if and how farmers incorporate native vegetation, and if they understood the many benefits that could be utilized from the Legal Reserves.

The author, Michaela Tomchek, onsite in Brazil, conducting an interview.

My case study indicated that farmers working within a relationship-based trading model (specialty/Direct Trade) were more likely to understand agroecology and the natural benefits from the Legal Reserves on their coffee. Perhaps this implies that commodity farmers need aid with regards to understanding sustainable agricultural practices, utilizing natural benefits, and how to naturally improve the quality of their coffee [10]. This would then give more farmers access to the specialty market, and would enhance the quality of Brazilian coffee while also restoring some biodiversity within the coffee-producing region of Brazil.

Learn More

If you want to keep up-to-date and educated about what is occurring in Brazil, I recommend sourcing your information from credible organizations like Mongabay and WWF. Watching the situation progress should also help us to better understand how the Forest Code will impact the country and farmland. Additionally, researchers within various universities around the world are attempting to understand the impacts of LSLS, and will hopefully come to conclusions about resulting impacts on agriculture and ecosystem function in the near future – new research projects are being undertaken each day as academia seek to understand if the LSLS debate will solve food security and biodiversity issues. Read the latest here.

MICHAELA TOMCHEK obtained an MSc at the University of Oxford in Biodiversity and Conservation whilst studying coffee production in Brazil. She sought to understand the impact various trading schemes had on farmers’ understanding of sustainable agricultural practices and agrobiodiversity. She is currently working towards another Masters in Sustainable Agriculture focusing on coffee production. Read Michaela’s full dissertation here. 

[1] Guide to Brazil Forest Code
[2] Chiavari, J., Leme Lopes, C., 2015
[3] Ellis, 2013
[4] Kremen, 2015
[5] Rudel et al., 2009; Perfecto and Vandermeer, 2015.
[6] Kremen, 2015
[7] Vieira et al., 2015
[8] Thrupp, 2015
[9] Philpott et al., 2008
[10] Rappole et al., 2003; Elder, Lister and Dauvergne, 2014; Hernandez-Aguilera et al., 2018