Public Release: 

Less than $200 million would conserve precious Atlantic Forest in Brazil, say researchers

Imperial College London


IMAGE: The Tate's woolly mouse opossum (Micoureus paraguayanus) is mostly endemic to the Atlantic Forest. view more

Credit: Thomas Püttker

Brazil could conserve its valuable Atlantic Forest by investing just 0.01 per cent of its annual GDP, according to a new study.

The Atlantic Forest (Mata Atlântica) is one of the most important and threatened biodiversity hotspots in the world, containing the only living examples of nearly 10,000 species of plant and more bird species than all of Europe.

Situated along the Atlantic coast of Brazil, it once covered an area of nearly 1.5 million square kilometres. Today, the forest is home to more than 130 million people and it covers only 160,000 km2, because of deforestation.

Reporting in the journal Science, a team of international scientists have calculated that it would cost US$198 million per year to pay private owners to set aside land for reforestation.

Together with the conservation of existing tracts, this would be enough to conserve the majority of species and many of the benefits that come from the forest's ecosystem, such as pest control and pollination.

US$198m is equivalent to only 6.5 per cent of what Brazil already invests in agricultural subsidies and less than 0.01 per cent of the country's annual GDP.

There are already some schemes in Brazil to pay private land owners to set aside land to conserve the forest, preserve species and maintain healthy ecosystems, but these have been local-scale initiatives that have had little impact on maintaining and improving the conditions of the forest as a whole.

Lead researcher Dr Cristina Banks-Leite, from the Department of Life Sciences at Imperial College London, said: "The Atlantic Forest is smaller and far more degraded than the Amazon rainforest, but it is also contains a vast range of biological diversity. The forest is a crucial habitat that is home to more than half of Brazil's threatened animal species. At the moment, outside of protected areas, nearly 90 per cent of the Atlantic Forest has less than 30 per cent of forest cover remaining. This is quite simply not enough to ensure the survival of species and maintenance of a thriving ecosystem across rural areas".

"Our study shows that it would be relatively cheap to secure the future of the forest - and protect its plants, birds and other animals - by paying land owners on a large scale to set aside land for conservation. Local communities and land-owners will benefit not only from regular payments but also from the benefits that a flourishing ecosystem brings. We need to start to put such a scheme in place now, before it becomes too late."

In this new study scientists calculated how much it would cost to set aside land in priority landscapes across the whole Atlantic Forest in order to restore the minimum amount of habitat needed to conserve biodiversity and maintain ecosystem functions. Their findings reveal:

  • At least 30 per cent of native habitat needs to be preserved to maintain current levels of biodiversity
  • It would cost US$198 million per year, for the first three years, to set aside and reforest enough land to a minimum of 30 per cent forest cover.
  • This is the equivalent of 0.0092 per cent of Brazil's annual GDP, a figure that would reduce to 0.0026 per cent once active restoration costs are no longer needed.

To calculate costs the researchers first had to record what and how many species are currently living in pristine and degraded areas of the Atlantic Forest.

Over a period of nine years, a team of more than 100 researchers led by Dr. Renata Pardini, Dr. Marianna Dixo and Prof. Jean Paul Metzger from the University of São Paulo, collected data on birds, mammals and amphibians living in the forest. Using mist nets to capture birds as well as pitfall traps to capture mammals and amphibians, they painstakingly recorded information on 25,000 individuals, made up of 140 species of birds, 43 species of mammals and 29 species of amphibians.

They collected data in 79 different forest regions across 150 kilometres and estimated that to maintain a similar level of biodiversity and ecosystem functions which are found in protected areas, such as national parks, a minimum of 30 per cent of native habitat needs to be preserved.

To evaluate overall costs of maintaining minimum forest cover the scientists combined current estimates of existing forest cover with average costs paid to private land owners, and found that preserving the forest is feasible and low-cost.

Prof. Jean Paul Metzger from the University of Sao Paulo, another lead author of the study, said: "Our study shows a clear threshold of biodiversity losses with deforestation; below this threshold, not only many species disappear, but the functions they perform in the ecosystem will also decline, many of which are highly beneficial to humans. This threshold is important to identify win-win situations where both agriculture production and biodiversity conservation is optimized. Furthermore, this information can be a practical tool for planning sustainable landscapes, and should be incorporated into different land use policies, such as the Brazilian Forest Code, programs for ecosystems payments or in socio-environmental certification incentives."

The researchers are now hoping to work with local non-governmental organisations (NGOs) and the Brazilian government to implement a set-aside scheme that would be most cost-effective and beneficial to local people.


The study was carried out as part of Imperial College London's Grand Challenges in Ecosystems and Environment Initiative, and was conducted in collaboration with the Universidade de São Paulo, University of Minnesota, Universidade Estadual Paulista and University of Toronto.

*** High-resolution photographs of 13 species of amphibian, mammal and bird from the Atlantic Forest are available to accompany this release - see notes to editors to download ***


Gail Wilson
Research Media Officer - Faculty of Natural Sciences
Tel: +44 (0)20 7594 6702
Duty press officer mobile: +44 (0)7803 886248

Notes to editors:

1. Original photos of amphibians, mammals and birds from the Atlantic Forest (under STRICT EMBARGO for 28 August at 14.00 US Eastern Time) can be downloaded using this dropbox link. Caption and credit info is below. The photographs were taken by members of the study team.

Brachycephalus crispus: Brachycephalus crispus is a recently-described species that is endemic to the Serra do Mar mountain range in the Atlantic Forest. Individuals are smaller than 2 mm. Credit: Thais H. Condez.

Brachycephalus guarani: Brachycephalus guarani is a recently-described species that is endemic to the Serra do Mar mountain range in the Atlantic Forest. Individuals are smaller than 2 mm. Credit: Thais H. Condez.

Delomys sublineatus: The Pallid Atlantic Forest Rat (Delomys sublineatus) is a terrestrial species endemic to the Atlantic Forest. Credit: Thomas Püttker Drymoreomys albimaculatus 1 and 2: the Montane forest rat (Drymoreomys albimaculatus) is a recently described species, that only occurs in the Atlantic Forest. Credit: Thomas Püttker

Gracilinanus microtarsus 1, 2 and 3: The Brazilian Gracile opossum (Gracilinanus microtarsus) is a marsupial endemic to the Atlantic Forest. Credit: Thomas Püttker

Juliomys sp: This species of Juliomys is endemic to the Atlantic Forest and its diet consists of fruits and seeds. Credit: Thomas Püttker

Marmosops incanus: The Gray slender opossum (Marmosops incanus) is a generalist species occurring in several biomes in South America. Credit: Thomas Püttker

Micoureus paraguayanus: The Tate's woolly mouse opossum (Micoureus paraguayanus) is mostly endemic to the Atlantic Forest and was found to benefit from habitat loss. Credit: Thomas Püttker

Monodelphis iheringi: The Ihering's Three-striped Opossum (Monodelphis iheringi) is endemic to the Atlantic Forest and weighs in average 11 g. Credit: Thomas Püttker

Oligoryzomys nigripes: The Black-footed Colilargo (Oligoryzomys nigripes) is a generalist species that occurs in several biomes in South America. Credit: Thomas Püttker

Oxymycterus sp: This species of Oxymycterus weights around 80g and has an omnivorous diet. Credit: Thomas Püttker

Phyllomys nigrispinus 1 and 2: The Black-spined Atlantic Tree-rat (Phyllomys nigrispinus) is endemic to the Atlantic Forest and its diet consists mostly of leaves. Credit: Thomas Püttker

Tangara seledon 1-4: The Green-headed Tanager (Tangara seledon) is one of the most colorful birds in forests of Southeastern Brazil. Credit: Sandro Von Matter

2. Banks-Leite, C. et al. "Using ecological thresholds to evaluate the costs and benefits of set asides in biodiversity hotspots" Science, August 2014.

3. About Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality. Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture.

Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve global health, tackle climate change, develop sustainable sources of energy and address security challenges.

In 2007, Imperial College London and Imperial College Healthcare NHS Trust formed the UK's first Academic Health Science Centre. This unique partnership aims to improve the quality of life of patients and populations by taking new discoveries and translating them into new therapies as quickly as possible.


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