Paying Brazil’s farmers to conserve is smart economics

The world is currently experiencing species extinction at an unprecedented scale. As biodiversity declines and species disappear, the roles they place in their local ecosystems will also disappear. Ecological equilibria will shift, pests will proliferate, invasive species will dominate, and in the worst cases, food security will be threatened and terrorism will increase.

One strategy that conservation biologists and wildlife managers have implemented as a way to stem this worrying trend is the creation of large protected areas, like marine sanctuaries or national parks. While vitally important, sanctuaries and protected areas only accomplish part of the job. “People will benefit more widely from the ecological functions they perform if species occur throughout the biome, not just inside protected areas,” writes Imperial College London researcher Cristina Banks-Leite in this week’s issue of Science.

Together with her colleagues, Banks-Leite argue that “ecological set-asides” are an important supplement to biodiversity conservation. The basic idea is that tracts of privately owned land would be set aside for conservation purposes. In exchange, governments would pay landowners not to use that land for other functions, like agriculture. They use Brazil as a case study.

In Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, the median yearly profit per hectare is 467 US Dollars, which is more than the minimum wage in Brazil. To increase landowner participation in conservation programs, governments or NGOs pay landowners something roughly equivalent to what they would earn by farming, but most such initiatives are too local to result in broad conservation-related consequences. What if Brazil instituted a “payment for ecological services” (PES) program throughout the entire Atlantic Forest – all 143 million hectares (1.43 million square kilometers), home to some 130 million people?

The first thing they had to do was determine what the goal of such a program would be. After assessing the populations of 43 mammal species, 140 bird species, and 29 amphibian species from throughout the forest, they found that wildlife communities require about 30% forest cover to maintain a level of biodiversity similar to what’s found in protected landscapes.

The green-headed tanager is one of the most colorful birds found in the forests of southeastern Brazil. Photo by Sandro Von Matter, used with permission.

The green-headed tanager is one of the most colorful birds found in the forests of southeastern Brazil. Photo by Sandro Von Matter, used with permission.

In order to reach that goal, it would cost the Brazilian government 198 million US Dollars each year. That sounds like a hefty sum until you put it into perspective. That investment is equivalent to just 0.0092% of the nation’s annual GDP. Once the forests begin to recover, it would reduce to 0.0026% of annual GDP. That’s $9 spent on conservation for every $100,000 earned. Put another way, over the first three years of the large-scale PES initiative, the Brazilian government would spend just 6.5% of what they spend in a single year on agricultural subsidies.

It’s not a cure-all. A 30% target would not save the most threatened of species from extinction, the researchers warn, but it would increase biodiversity and the ecological functions that species provide to levels similar to what’s observed inside protected areas.

It seems like an obvious solution. The costs for the government are low, those who will lose agricultural land will directly benefit from the PES, air and soil quality will improve, and there will be an increase in the forest’s ability to store carbon. In addition, the Atlantic Forest ecosystem itself, and the species within it, is one of the most charismatic in the world. Ethically managed, that could be leveraged to provide tourism-related revenue.

“Only rarely are the trade-offs between ecological gains and economic costs this simple,” says Banks-Leite. – Jason G. Goldman | 29 August 2014

Source: Cristina Banks-Leite et al. (2014). Using ecological thresholds to evaluate the costs and benefits of set-asides in a biodiversity hotspot. Science 345(6200), 1041-1045.

Header image: The Tate’s woolly mouse opossum is mostly endemic to the Atlantic Forest and would benefit from the proposed initiative. Photo by Thomas Püttker, used with permission.