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.



  • Cristian August 29, 2014 at 5:41 am

    With legal hunting we could have much more money, and conserve much more forests and species, with no public money, in a country that still don’t have enough money to education, health, security.
    This is not “my idea”, or something i am dreaming about, or a “trial test”, this is real result as in many countries around the globe, and some serious publications, including from this magazine.


  • M Kessler February 3, 2016 at 9:16 am

    Really interesting article and initiative. Some key points to tease out

    > It is titled “Conservation is Smart Economics,” and is very much viewing conservation of landscapes from an economic perspective to enhance ecological functions. While this is supported by the the government, (and while I’m not terribly familiar with Brazilian politics, I believe there is a pretty big gap in how the government actually provides for the people… there is huge income inequality in the nation) the decision seems to be economically based, pressured from the outside, and not actually for the people. Though Conservation work is often subversive, and I appreciate this aspect of it, I’m just worried here they’re undermining those who do not have a voice.
    > If you think of the 3 pillars of Sustainability, there’s Ecological, Economic and …. Social. There is no mention of the landholders perspective in this matter. While the wide-ranging “Ecosystem” is being restored or promoted, how are the people going to interact? How are they going to eat? Do they have a voice or is this being forced on them? It goes without saying that the world is more than dollars, it is also sense.
    > Though this is the “Brazilian government” who do you think is creating incentives for this initiative… My guess is the Global North, the developed countries in a post-industrial age, where they’ve already established their own infrastructure and are putting harsh limits on what the developed world can or cannot do.

    I’m fascinated by this proposal, and curious to see how it will be enacted, and more specifically how this will affect the landholders. While enhancing Ecosystem services and functionality (which cannot be understated how important that is), it pushes small farmers/landholders in a direction away from their cultural heritage (and this is also devastating). While globalization is inevitable, it’s hard to imagine that there is more value on homogenizing cultures rather than strengthening resilient local cultures. Seems to me to be hypocritical in terms of increasing diversity.

    Perspective of someone who values both conservation of both ecological landscapes and resilient food systems. This is where Agroforestry implementation is, in my opinion, a better solution.


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