Study shows who “owns” Brazil’s above-ground carbon stocks
June 20, 2018
By Elton Alisson | Agência FAPESP – Brazil has 52 billion metric tons (Gt) of carbon stored above ground in native vegetation. Of this total, 67% is on public land, and 50% (26 Gt) is protected in public conservation units, including indigenous reservations.
Although the state is the main “owner” of this carbon, it is not all protected. Some of it is at risk of being converted into greenhouse gases (GHGs). Approximately 20% (10 Gt) is unprotected on 80 million hectares of public land without clear title or land-use allocation. Disputes over ownership and illegal logging threaten conservation of the native vegetation on this land and could lead to a rise in Brazil’s GHG emissions.
These are some of the key findings of a study conducted by Brazilian researchers affiliated with the University of São Paulo’s Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ-USP) in collaboration with fellow Brazilians at the Institute for Agricultural and Forest Management and Certification (IMAFLORA), as well as colleagues affiliated with Sweden’s KTH Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm and Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg.
The study is part of the Atlas of Brazilian Agriculture project conducted by IMAFLORA in partnership with ESALQ-USP’s Geolab and with FAPESP’s support. Results of the study have been published in Global Change Biology.
“We located Brazil’s above-ground carbon for the first time, both in native vegetation and in crops and pasture, in all biomes, and we also identified its owners,” Luís Fernando Guedes Pinto, a researcher at IMAFLORA and one of the authors of the study, told Agência FAPESP.
To inventory Brazil’s above-ground carbon and identify its owners or trustees, the researchers developed a georeferenced land tenure database by integrating publicly available and official databases, such as those for national and state conservation units, indigenous reservations and military land, as well as rural property and settlement databases maintained by the National Land Reform Institute (INCRA) and the Rural Environmental Register (CAR), designed to ensure compliance with the new Forest Code. All landowners and land users are required to register with the CAR.
Together, these databases cover 80% of Brazil. For the remaining 20%, the researchers performed a complementary simulation to model this portion of the national territory as if it comprised private land, estimating the number and size of rural properties on the basis of the 2006 agricultural census conducted by IBGE, the national statistics bureau. Rural properties were estimated at a municipal level, and this information was used to create simulated properties on land with unknown tenure.
“The model represents the most realistic approximation of the size, location and distribution of private landholdings, land reform settlements, and public lands throughout Brazil,” Guedes Pinto said.
Analysis of the data showed that in addition to the lack of protection for 20% of the carbon (10 Gt) stored on 80 million hectares of public land without clear title or land-use allocation, a significant proportion (3.4 Gt) is unprotected on private properties occupying 65% of Brazil’s land mass. Altogether these properties contain 30% of Brazil’s carbon (15.8 Gt).
The Forest Code protects 75% (12.4 Gt) of the carbon stored on these private properties in what the legislation terms Legal Reserves and Permanent Preservation Areas, leaving 25% (3.4 Gt) unprotected on 101 million hectares, according to the study.
“Our findings show that while Brazil has a large area of native vegetation and a large protected carbon stock, some 25%, or 13.4 Gt, is still unprotected on public and private land. It’s exposed to the risk of deforestation and could contribute to a rise in GHG emissions,” Guedes Pinto said.
Lack of protection by biome
The study presents a breakdown of carbon protection by biome, showing that the savanna-like Cerrado found in the Southeast and Center-West has the largest amount of unprotected carbon, with 1.4 Gt, or 40% of total unprotected above-ground carbon.
Next, comes the Amazon in the North, with about a third of total unprotected above-ground carbon (1 Gt), followed by the Caatinga (semiarid vegetation) in the Northeast, which also has large amounts of unprotected carbon and native vegetation.
The study also shows that the distribution of carbon stocks is highly skewed toward large landholdings. Just 2% of these occupy half of all the private land in Brazil and account for half the above-ground carbon stock on private land. At the opposite extreme, about one-third of the private land and carbon are owned by small farmers, who account for 93% of the landholders in Brazil.
In the Amazon, the researchers estimated that 7,000 large properties hold 15% (0.5 Gt) of Brazil’s total unprotected carbon, while 110,000 smallholdings account for 10% (0.34 Gt). In the Cerrado, some 30,000 large properties hold 25%, and 600,000 smallholdings hold 17%.
“The study shows that conservation of Brazil’s unprotected carbon will depend on a combination of policies including land regularization, land-use allocation, enforcement of the Forest Code, and other measures to prioritize protection of native vegetation and carbon stocks beyond the protection afforded by existing legal mechanisms,” said Gerd Sparovek, a professor at ESALQ-USP and one of the authors of the study.
“Furthermore, these policies should be designed and implemented so as to adapt them to the differing conditions in each region in terms of production, ecosystems and governance.”
The Global Change Biology article “Who owns the Brazilian carbon?” (doi: 10.1111/gcb.14011) by Flavio L. M. Freitas, Oskar Englund, Gerd Sparovek, Göran Berndes, Vinicius Guidotti, Luís F. G. Pinto and Ulla Mörtberg can be retrieved from onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/gcb.14011.
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