Farmer Dercílio Pupin arrived in the municipality of Piracaia, São Paulo state, in 2013, with a vision of growing organic food. Unfortunately, his newly acquired, four-hectare plot was dry, with compacted soil and little vegetation.
One of the state’s worst ever water crises started that year. By 2014, the capacity of the five water reservoirs of the Cantareira system, which supply 8.8 million people in the surrounding area, shrank to almost zero.
The deterioration of the region’s natural environment preceded this crisis. Mapping of the region at the time by the Institute for Ecological Research (IPÊ) revealed 21,000 hectares of riverbanks without vegetation – areas that, by law, should have been protected – and 100,000 hectares of degraded pastures.
What is soil degradation?
Soil classed as degraded has lost its healthy characteristics, thereby limiting its ability to provide beneficial services to its ecosystem, such as retaining nutrients and water. Soil degradation can be caused by human exploitation.
Those degraded pastures included Pupin’s. He tells Diálogo Chino that the former owner grazed more than 300 cattle “in a disorganised way”, including near springs.
Today, however, Pupin has seen improvements in the health of his plot after taking part in restoration programmes, launched amid a national effort to recover millions of hectares of degraded land across Brazil – a drive that has gathered pace under a new president, and presented opportunities and challenges for government and growers alike.
New era for land restoration
To give his land a new lease of life, Pupin joined a restoration programme run by the city council, and another by IPÊ called Semeando Água (Sowing Water). Pupin can already see improvements: “The year we arrived here, it was all clearings, there was hardly a tree… In the [newly restored] agroforestry areas, there are already places where the forest is a little more advanced; there is better infiltration [of water] into the soil.”
Agroforestry is the practice of incorporating trees into agriculture. This can be carried out in various ways, such as planting trees in and around pastures, or farming within a forest. Trees naturally sequester carbon and improve soil health and biodiversity, so agroforestry provides a sustainable alternative to simply clearing forests for agriculture.
“The idea is to turn the area around the Cantareira into a centre for agroecological production,” says Alexandre Uezu, a Semeando Água coordinator.
Semeando Água is one of many independent initiatives across Brazil that contribute to the National Plan for Native Vegetation Recovery (Planaveg), published by the government in 2017. The targets of the plan include to “restore, reforest and induce the natural regeneration” of 12 million hectares of forest land and to create 5 million hectares of “integrated farming systems” that combine croplands, pastures and forests, both by 2030.
According to mapping by the Observatory of Restoration and Reforestation, Brazil has so far added 9.35 million hectares of mostly single-crop tree plantations, but only 79,100 hectares of land has been classified as restored.
Moreover, the size of the problem is much bigger than Brazil’s targets suggest: according to the environmental monitoring network MapBiomas, the country has 95.5 million hectares of degraded pastures, equivalent to the area of Venezuela. “A large part of the deforested area in the country is for livestock, and these pastures are degraded,” explains Ane Alencar, a researcher at the network.
Through current and upcoming national policies and state-funded financial stimulus programmes, Brazil is now seeking to boost its land restoration efforts.
The reuse of Brazil’s degraded pastures is one of the main environmental goals of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In his inauguration speech in January, Lula mentioned the subject, while in April, he claimed that investments in the restoration of degraded pastures can “double [agricultural] productivity, without disrupting Indigenous populations and forests”.
A global challenge
According to the UN’s Global Land Outlook 2 report, published in 2022, humanity has “already transformed more than 70% of the Earth’s land area from its natural state, causing unparalleled environmental degradation and contributing significantly to global warming.” In 2018, land degradation and its consequences for water and food security were estimated to affect the lives of 3.2 billion people. The degradation of Earth’s soils is interlinked with other environmental crises, too. Alencar says fires, logging and landscape fragmentation are the main vectors of soil degradation in humid forests such as the Amazon, while in savannas like the Cerrado, grain monocultures and extensive livestock farming are predominantly to blame. More frequent severe droughts and increasingly strong windstorms, driven by climate change, then exacerbate soil degradation, she adds.
In recent years, this global problem has provoked a global response. The 2021 New York Declaration on Forests saw more than 200 actors – including national and sub-national governments, Indigenous peoples, and companies – commit to restoring 350 million hectares of degraded land by 2030. This was followed by an agreement at the 2022 UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15), in which nearly every country in the world pledged to restore 30% of all terrestrial and marine ecosystems within this decade.
On a trip to Beijing in April, Marina Silva, Brazil’s environment and climate change minister, said that the country “can learn from the Chinese experience” of recovering degraded areas.
Silva was likely referring to China’s national Grain for Green programme, which aims to regenerate soil damaged by agriculture and livestock. Since its creation in 1999, the programme has restored more than 30 million hectares of forests, fields, mountain vegetation and wetlands.
Grain for Green is voluntary, but there are incentives to join. Between 1999 and 2019, the government invested more than 442 billion RMB (US$60 billion) in the programme, providing seeds, subsidies and technical assistance to landowners, among other benefits. By 2019, the programme’s subsidies had directly benefitted more than 41 million farming households.
New investment emerges
With Lula’s return to office, environmental initiatives are once again a governmental priority. In May, the government set up the Council for Sustainable Social Economic Development, a body made up of representatives from civil society and the state. By August, the council had set up a working group on land restoration.
Brazil’s minister for institutional relations, Alexandre Padilha, says the working group’s goal is to present Lula with “concrete proposals” for recovering degraded areas by early October.
Elsewhere, a new version of the Safra Plan was launched in June. With a budget of almost 7 billion reais (US$1.4 billion), this government programme supports medium-sized and large agricultural producers in recovering degraded land.
Planaveg has also reportedly received funding: 14 million reais (US$2.8 million) from one of the world’s largest environmental funders, the Global Environment Facility. “The resources are assured,” says Rita de Cássia Mesquita, the environment ministry’s secretary for biodiversity, forests and animal rights. “We now have to discuss and move forward with the [restoration] strategies.”
Meanwhile, in November, the World Bank donated US$25 million to recover degraded pastures in Brazil. A month later, the private investment firm Paramis Capital launched a fund to transform degraded Brazilian land into productive areas.
Elsewhere, in April, Chinese commodity giant COFCO International – a signixficant player in the Brazilian grain trade – also reportedly expressed interest in financing efforts to recover degraded farmland in the country, though firm commitments have yet to be announced.
Despite the large sums of money required, Mesquita says action on land and soil degradation can bring financial returns: “Restoration has the potential to drive a local bioeconomy.”
Restoration has the potential to drive a local bioeconomyRita de Cássia Mesquita, secretary for biodiversity, forests and animal rights, Brazilian environment ministry
Research by Brazilian sustainable development organisation Instituto Escolhas also suggests that big inputs will generate even greater outputs. For example, the institute estimates that Brazil still needs 228 billion reais (US$46 billion) to hit its target of 12 million hectares of restored forests by 2030, but it also says this could create 2.5 million jobs and generate revenues of 776.5 billion reais (US$157 billion).
However, the granting of rural credit using public funding has been heavily criticised. For example, Brazil’s Forest Code 2012 was brought in to manage the conservation of native vegetation on private rural land. The law dictates that landowners who have failed to conserve this vegetation must now do so at their own expense. Yet, according to the Forest Code Observatory (OCF), which monitors the implementation of this law, these landowners are still able to obtain public rural credit.
The OCF estimates that as many as 20 million hectares of native vegetation protected by the Forest Code are yet to be restored. The OCF’s executive secretary, Roberta Del Giudice, told Diálogo Chino that there should be no granting of public credit “at least, to those who don’t comply with this law”.
Restoring environments and economies
Ten years after his arrival, Dercílio Pupin’s land now employs an agroforestry system. Piracaia is located within the Atlantic Forest, so Pupin integrated plant species native to this biome, such as jacaranda, jequitibá-rosa and tamboril trees. More economically fruitful products, such as coffee beans, have also been incorporated.
The farmer says this agroforestry system is now making a sufficient income, and that he is setting up a cooperative with other Semeando Água members to help with access to food markets.
In a decade, Semeando Água has trained 334 local producers and technicians, regenerated 100 hectares of degraded pastures, replanted 70 hectares of protected areas and created 33 hectares of sustainable farming systems, according to its team. Biological corridors have re-established themselves, benefiting endangered monkey species in the Atlantic Forest, such as the buffy-tufted marmoset and southern muriqui.
However, Pupin cautions that there is a lack of incentives to encourage small producers. For example, he receives just 283 reais (US$57) of municipal funds per year to protect 1.06 hectares of forest on his land; Brazil’s minimum wage is 1,320 reais (US$265) per month. Gustavo Brichi, a forestry engineer at the IPÊ, says the institution must expand its strategy beyond vegetation restoration, to focus on productive but sustainable models for rural properties, “without the need for abrupt interventions”.
“Today, after ten years that we’ve been here, I can see that the wheel is starting to turn,” says Pupin. “We plant the corn, the corn goes to the chicken… we add manure to the plants, the plants grow, it goes back to the chicken. There’s already a cycle closing… When payments for environmental services are advantageous, many people will join.”
Yedan Li contributed to this report.
* Kevin Damasio and photographer Lucas Ninno travelled to the Cantareira region at the invitation of the Institute for Ecological Research (IPÊ).