Scientists Search for Healthy Forest on Amazon Frontier: Xingu Field Notes: PART ONE

Written by Bronson Griscom on . Posted in Learn


Today’s post is the first of a four-part series drawn from the field notebook of Bronson Griscom, Ph.D., The Nature Conservancy’s Director of Forest Carbon Science, who recently returned from a trip to the Amazon. In the northern Brazilian municipality of São Felix do Xingu, where forests are rapidly being cleared for cattle ranches, The Nature Conservancy is working with landowners, communities, businesses and governments to support sustainable economic development that protects and restores forests. In this series of posts and the video above, Griscom brings us along into the forests on the edge of ranchlands in the Xingu River basin to explain the science behind forest restoration.  

Day 1, March 11: This is Amazonia

The sun hit me like a sandbag on each shoulder. And another on the head. Five steps away from the truck and my sweat glands are spouting water like they’re sprinklers and I’m on fire. We snake our bodies through barbed wire fence and into shrubby cattle pasture.

Leading the way is Giovanne Mallmann, manager of private lands conservation for The Nature Conservancy in southern Pará, Brazil, who secured permission from landowners for us to visit these pastures and forests. Next is Rane Cortez, the Conservancy’s guru of forest conservation as a solution to climate change. Then comes Dr. Mark Ashton, from Yale University, a global expert on forest restoration. I am stumbling behind, trying not to trip as I peer at the screen of my GPS unit and re-assure everyone, “Really, we are heading in the right direction.”

Oliverio Cortez, Rane’s husband, is still standing back at the truck, filming our motley team as we make our way through waist-high African elephant grass and thorn-studded shrubs. But this is not Africa. The pickup truck is now a bright white blob behind us, like a lost cow from the herd of Indian Zebu cattle that we passed through on the way here. But this is not India.

This is Amazonia, and we are at ground zero of the latest tsunami of deforestation stretching across the tropics. It’s a process that is contributing as many greenhouse gasses as all the trains, planes, and automobiles in the world.

It’s pretty much the same thing my ancestors did to the forests of New England 200 years ago. Only, here it’s bigger, faster, and more devastating. Bigger, because Brazil holds the largest rainforest on earth, larger than New England’s temperate forests. Faster, because today’s chainsaws, bulldozers, and fossil fuels have replaced axes, oxen, and muscle. Not to mention that Brazil’s economy is booming. It’s devastating because of climate change, tropical biodiversity, and an invisible process called transpiration that affects rainfall.

Intact forests here are over 10 times more species-rich than those in New England. Walk through a rainforest and just count the different understory plants you see, and you’ll get the idea without climbing into the tree-tops where the real action is — a hidden profusion of arboreal plants, birds, insects, and mammals that boggles the mind. Just a few months ago a rare spider monkey was sighted in this area.

But there is reason for optimism. Brazil has a “Forest Code” for private lands, with much stronger rules about forest conservation than we had, or have, in America. Half or more of the forests on private lands in Amazonia must be set aside for protection. But enforcement hasn’t really happened. With poor records of property boundaries in this frontier landscape, the government has little basis for enforcing the law. So, most of the ranches here have cleared most of what should be forest reserve.

To turn this story around, The Nature Conservancy has partnered with the Brazilian government on a huge campaign to map property boundaries. Landowners benefit from defined property boundaries, but also have no excuse for breaking the law. And in recent years the government has renewed its efforts to enforce the Forest Code while helping ranchers improve ranching practices.  At the same time the Forest Code has come under political threat.  But if Brazilians will prevail in preserving and enforcing their inspirational Forest Code, we are optimistic the emerald forest will make a big comeback as ranchers let their forest reserve return to forest.

But is it that simple? Will these tropical forests grow back from pasture to their former glory?

Much depends upon the pieces left behind – the little patches of forest not cleared. Those fragments, we hope, are forgotten warehouses of flora and fauna, and natural nurseries for restoration.

That’s why we are here, to take a first look at the condition of those fragments. Do they still hold a diversity of seeds for restoration of the landscape, and renewal of the rainwater pumps so vital for Brazil’s agricultural economy and forest-based cultures?

Bronson Griscom, Ph.D., is Director of Forest Carbon Science for The Nature Conservancy. Catch up on the rest of Bronson’s Xingu Field Notes – Part Two: Scientists See Signs of Trouble at the Forest Edge and Part Three: Scientists Wonder: What Life Flourishes in a Fragment of Forest. Visit Planet Change in the next few days for Part Four of his adventures trekking through Brazil’s frontier forests.

Videography by: Oliverio Cortez

Thumbnail photo by: Oliverio Cortez (Amazon rainforests host an incredible diversity of tree species.)

Photo by: Oliverio Cortez (Cattle ranching is booming business in the frontier town of São Felix do Xingu.)


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Comments (1)

  • Adriana M. Moellmann


    Amazonia is the key of South America weather. Without this forest South America would be a desert and the world weather would be very different today. But it is not only Amazonia that must be protected. The oceans are more vital to our live then the Amazonia, since our oxygen comes from the activity of very little algae called the phitoplankton. The comsuption of cow meat also contributes to climate change, wherever you are eating meat. So if you want to preserve our planet we must avoid to eat meat and also do not use so much plastic products. There are several studies showing the toxicity os plastics like PET and others materials as aliminium and teflon. Our target must be more wide trying to do act at microscale to make an effect in large scale. And this attitude must be the most important thing that we must do in our intire life, always, everyday, eveey minute.


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