Large rural properties account for 54% of the environmental deficit in the state of São Paulo
December 23, 2020
By Elton Alisson | Agência FAPESP – Although large farms account for only 3.5% of the more than 340,000 registered rural properties in the state of São Paulo, Brazil, they are responsible for 54% of the state’s environmental deficit, i.e. lost native vegetation, according to estimates by researchers who took part in a project supported by FAPESP to produce scientific input that will assist implementation of the Environmental Regularization Program over the next 20 years in compliance with Brazil’s “new forest code” (Law 12,651/2012).
Large farms are defined as agricultural properties with an area corresponding to more than 15 módulos fiscais. A módulo fiscal (“taxable unit”) is defined in a 1979 law as the minimum area required to support the farming family. It is based on the main economic activities in each region, varying from 5 hectares in the Federal District to 110 ha in the Amazon.
The study was conducted under the aegis of the FAPESP Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (BIOTA-FAPESP). Some of its findings were presented during an online meeting held last November.
“We found that the top 50% deficits in terms of permanent conservation areas in the state of São Paulo were located in large properties with more than 15 módulos fiscais,” said Kaline de Mello, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of São Paulo’s Institute of Biosciences (IB-USP) who took part in the project with a scholarship from FAPESP.
“The same is true for the deficits in terms of Legal Reserve,” Mello added, referring to the Reserva Legal requirement that a certain proportion of any rural property must be set aside with native vegetation intact.
To estimate the environmental deficits of rural properties in São Paulo according to the new forest code, the researchers plotted a detailed map of land holdings across the state using data for rural properties registered until 2019 with the state’s rural environmental registry (SICAR-SP), and data for native plant cover, types of vegetation, biomes, land uses and hydrography from several databases, such as those of IBGE, the national census and statistics bureau; Projeto RADAMBRASIL (Ministry of Mining and Energy); and the Brazilian Foundation for Sustainable Development (FBDS). INCRA, the national land reform agency, supplied data for módulos fiscais.
By cross-tabulating these datasets with the requirements and exemptions in the new forest code, they were able to estimate the permanent conservation and legal reserve deficits, as well as the native vegetation surpluses, for rural properties in the state of São Paulo. Most were located along the coast in the Atlantic Rainforest biome.
“São Paulo is the only Brazilian state that has modeled implementation of the forest code with this resolution, on the scale of individual rural properties,” Mello said.
The mapping model showed that 237,000 of the state’s 340,600 rural properties had a total permanent conservation deficit of 768,700 ha, of which 656,700 ha were Atlantic Rainforest areas and 112,000 ha were Cerrado (Brazilian savanna) areas.
About 85% of this deficit was located in large and midsize properties. Although smaller properties, corresponding to less than four módulos fiscais, are a majority among registered rural properties in the state, they accounted for only 15.5% of the total deficit.
Large properties, 98% of which exceeded 15 módulos fiscais, also accounted for most of the legal reserve deficit. A mere 1,200, or only 0.4% of all registered rural properties, had the top 50% legal reserve deficits in the state.
“The results of the project show that different strategies should be deployed to promote environmental regularization in São Paulo, in such a way as to benefit society as a whole rather than a small group of rural landowners. Small proprietors can’t be made responsible for remedying the state’s environmental deficit,” said Ricardo Ribeiro Rodrigues, a professor at the University of São Paulo’s Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ-USP) and a participant in the project.
Most of the rural properties with the largest legal reserve deficits were located in the west of the state, producing sugarcane (39%), pasture (36%), other crops (17%), silviculture (7%) and soybeans (2%).
Data by municipality can be queried via an open-access platform developed by the researchers to help local governments implement the forest code. “Any user can access the platform,” Mello said. “We’re also working on a refined model for use in implementing the forest code at the municipal level.”
Unlike deficits in permanent conservation areas, which must be fully restored, legal reserve deficits can be restored on the rural property itself or offset by surplus native vegetation and legal reserve areas on other properties corresponding to four módulos fiscais or less.
The researchers estimated at 941,000 ha the surplus native vegetation and legal reserve areas in these small rural properties that can be used to offset the legal reserve deficit of 367,400 ha via a mechanism called Cota de Reserva Ambiental (CRA), or environmental reserve quota.
In addition, 117,000 ha of pasture not suitable for farming on rural properties with legal reserve deficits could be used for restoration. “Some 32% of the total legal reserve deficit in São Paulo could be eliminated by reforesting these areas of pasture where cattle ranching doesn’t yield a good economic return and cropping isn’t worthwhile because the soil isn’t fertile enough, the terrain is hilly or rocky, and technification isn’t possible,” Mello said.
The new forest code also allows landowners to plant exotic species when restoring legal reserve areas. Permanent conservation areas on small properties can be restored by interplanting native and exotic species that are of commercial interest.
This kind of restoration, known as multifunctional, could regularize 487,000 ha, or 43% of the permanent conservation and legal reserve deficit in São Paulo (1.14 million ha), according to the researchers. It would also create income generation opportunities for farmers, as 50% of the multifunctionally restored areas could be put into production.
“There’s huge potential for environmental regularization in São Paulo without too high a cost to rural landowners, promoting environmental protection while enabling them to maintain their agricultural activity, which is extremely important for the state,” said Jean Paul Metzger, a professor at IB-USP and also a participant in the project.
The researchers developed a dynamic online tool to help landowners and farmers choose the best kind of legal reserve offset. “Political will is needed to use this huge database as a decision support tool to assure sound implementation of the new forest code in the state of São Paulo,” said Carlos Joly, a member of BIOTA-FAPESP’s steering committee.
For Gerd Sparovek, a professor at ESALQ-USP and principal investigator for the project, Brazil’s forest code is of paramount importance to its sustainable development because 54% of the native vegetation remaining is on privately owned land subject to this legislation. In the state of São Paulo the proportion is 78%.
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