Project assesses the impact of human occupation in tropical forests | AGÊNCIA FAPESP

More than 40 Brazilian and British researchers are collaborating in a task force to study areas modified by man in the Atlantic Forest and the Amazon (photo: Wikipedia)

Project assesses the impact of human occupation in tropical forests

June 18, 2014

By Karina Toledo

Agência FAPESP – Understanding how man’s increasing occupation of the tropical forest could impact biodiversity, ecosystem services and local and global climates is the main objective of the thematic project “ECOFOR: Biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in degraded and recovering Amazonian and Atlantic Forests,” which brings together more than 40 Brazilian and British researchers.

The study is being conducted under the scope of the collaborative research project “Human Modified Tropical Forests,” launched in 2012 by FAPESP and the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), one of the Research Councils of the United Kingdom (RCUK).

The team, composed of 16 senior researchers, six post-docs, 12 collaborators and nine students, met for the first time from March 26-29 in the city of São Luiz do Paraitinga, in Vale do Paraíba (SP).

“During this first meeting, we determined the details of the study protocols. The idea is that all the data need to be generated using the same methodology so that they can be integrated into a model that illustrates the impact of fragmentation on biodiversity and ecosystem services. It was what really kick-started the project,” explained Carlos Alfredo Joly, professor at the University of Campinas (Unicamp) and coordinator of the Research Program on Biodiversity Characterization, Conservation, Restoration and Sustainable Use (Biota-FAPESP).

According to Joly, all data will be collected in Brazil. The Brazilian team will focus primarily on the Atlantic Forest regions situated in the Serra do Mar and Serra da Mantiqueira, whereas the British team will focus on the Amazon Rainforest. The analysis and interpretation of data, however, will be conducted jointly both in Brazil and in the United Kingdom.

“The idea is to significantly expand participation by Brazilian students in the research in order to broaden the range of options for master’s theses and doctoral dissertations and increase the possibility of conducting internships in the United Kingdom,” he said.

According to Jos Barlow, researcher at Lancaster University (United Kingdom) and project coordinator together with Joly, several British students are also planning to do post-docs at São Paulo institutions.

“Post-doc fellows from the United Kingdom will need to spend quite a lot of time in Brazil, where all the data will be collected. Otherwise, they will focus their work on analyzing the remote sensing and geographic information system (GIS) data. And, of course, the findings will be published jointly, with leadership coming from both countries,” he said.


The work of investigating the Amazon Rainforest and Atlantic Forest will run in parallel to another project that the NERC has been funding since 2009 in Borneo, Malaysia. There, the objective is to study and compare areas of primary forest (well-conserved), areas with selective timber exploitation, and regions that have undergone extensive fragmentation.

“As far as possible, the data generated here in Brazil are expected to be comparable to those generated in Malaysia. In order to ensure this integration, we’ve established a committee to bring researchers from the two projects together,” Joly explained.

“We’re not going to be following the exact same project outline as the study in Malaysia because conditions are different here. But the two projects aim to study how changes in land use, which includes timber exploitation, burning and habitat fragmentation, alter the functioning of the tropical forest, especially with regard to the cycling of organic matter and nutrients. We also want to assess how these changes are related to biophysical processes, biodiversity and climate,” explained Simone Aparecida Vieira, researcher at the Environmental Studies and Research Center (Nepam) at Unicamp.

According to Vieira, the Brazilian team has adopted the Serra do Mar State Park as a type of research “control area”, and data collected there under the thematic project Biota Functional Gradient will be compared to information from the fragments and the secondary forests in the area that stretches from São Luiz do Paraitinga to the city of Extrema, in the state of Minas Gerais.

“We have a huge area to study in the Amazon. One focus is the region of Paragominas, which has a history of timber exploitation. It also includes Santarém, where agriculture, mainly soybeans, is enjoying progress,” Vieira explained.

The researchers will carry out forest inventories and collect data such as the quantity of biomass that lives on top of the soil, density of the timber, diameter and height of the trees, quantity of leaf litter (layer formed by dead organic matter in different stages of decomposition) and diversity of plant and animal species.

“One of our objectives is to investigate the carbon stock in these areas and how it is altered as a result of the various uses. Then, we will relate these data to the change in terms of species diversity that occurs in these areas, working primarily with a survey of tree and bird species,” Vieira explained.

Data collection is expected to take place over the next four years. According to Vieira, they are establishing a structure that can be maintained after the project is completed if there is new funding. “It would be ideal to monitor the processes of change over the long term in order to understand how, in fact, these areas are behaving in the face of pressures from humans and from climate change,” she said.

Joly agrees. “The project will establish a systematic monitoring network in areas that range from intact forests to highly fragmented forests and forests altered by man. This will allow us to analyze the correlations between biodiversity and ecosystem functioning, both on the local as well as regional and global scales, once the data from the Atlantic Forest, the Amazon Rainforest and Malaysia have been integrated,” he said.

Joly went on to say that the results obtained will also allow the refinement of public policies to promote the payment of environmental services, such as those for protecting hydric resources and carbon stock.

Among the institutions involved in the research are Lancaster University, University of Oxford, University of Leeds, Imperial College London, University of Edinburgh, Unicamp, the University of São Paulo (USP), Campinas Institute of Agronomy (IAC), the Emílio Goeldi Museum of Pará, the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), the University of Taubaté and the Forest Foundation of the São Paulo Department of the Environment.



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