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Science Aiding Conservation

Science is a powerful ally of the The Nature Conservancy (TNC) as the organization pursues its mission to conserve the lands and waters on which life depends, and stands firm in order to protect the planet from threats such as illegal logging, climate change, and overpopulation, among many other challenges.

We invited Leandro Baumgarten, Science Manager for TNC´s Atlantic Forest and Central Savannas program in Brazil, to talk about how research and scientific knowledge have been relevant in the search for innovative solutions that ensure that nature can continue to provide food, clean water, energy and other services we depend on for survival.

Interview: Leandro Baumgarten
By: Ayla Tiago

The Conservancy believes that all available scientific information should be used to make conservation more effective. To that end, the Science department has three main roles: designing and evaluating problems, choosing the best available scientific information to carry out the work, and evaluating results that measure the impact of actions in the field.

In recent years, the Science team has had a prominent role in several areas of the Conservancy´s work in Brazil, but especially in regard to its sustainable agriculture strategy, compliance with the Forest Code, and the development of tools such as the Rural Environmental Registry (CAR in its Portuguese acronym). Leandro Baumgarten talks about the contribution the Science team has made in this area.

TNC Brazil: What is TNC´s sustainable agriculture strategy?

LB: Our work helping rural producers comply with the Forest Code stems from our goal to conserve the greatest possible number of areas. The Forest Code is a unique conservation opportunity in terms of impact since it basically requires two things: that all properties have sensitive areas that cannot be touched - the Permanent Preservation Areas (APPs) – such as riparian forests and slopes, and have areas that supply natural vegetation, such as the Legal Reserve (RL). And that's wonderful! The problem was that compliance with the Forest Code was not taking place, and one of the main reasons we wanted to tackle the issue was so we could investigate why that was the case.

TNC Brazil: What was the Science team´s role?

LB: How was the mapping done before? We needed access to spatial information to know the size of the property and how much natural vegetation it had or should have. In the past, to get that done one had to hire a cartographer to visit the property, and that usually cost a fortune. This created a huge bottleneck in the efforts to conserve millions of acres. Imagine the cost and time required to map hundreds of thousands of farms that needed to comply with the Code? So, the first thing TNC did was create the tools necessary for this work to be done at a broad scale.

TNC Brazil: And what were these tools?

LB: We started working with remote positioning and satellite images in order to make the assessment that was previously made by the cartographer who visited each individual property. Getting it right took a bit of time since the environmental agencies demanded very precise information. Achieving that accuracy with remote positioning took long hours of our work to define standards and methodologies, and develop land use data. That information is the first step to conducting an appropriate assessment. In addition, we had to take into account something that is particular to Brazil: almost no municipality in the country has the boundaries of its rural properties charted and demarcated. Clearly mapping these boundaries is essential to determining who owns the properties were conserved areas are, thus allowing assessment of whether the owner is complying with the Code or not. And while we were developing the cartographic and land use bases, we realized that the mapping of the properties was a very big challenge, so we began to create a system, CARGEO, which is now a TNC registered trademark.

TNC Brazil: And what is CARGEO?

LB: CARGEO combines a number of geographic information tools (GIS) that can easily generate the boundaries of a property. We have people in the field collecting information and measuring points, and CARGEO consolidates all the data and correlates them to properties. That was another problem we had to solve since we needed to know who owned which property, but it was very common to have areas overlapping, making it seem as if they belonged to two people. That made it difficult to hold someone accountable for complying with the law.

TNC Brazil: So, CARGEO organizes the mapping of properties?

LB: Yes, but it does more than that! The tool does something even more interesting: it combines the property and land use maps and automatically generates an analysis of Code compliance for any given property. CARGEO shows whether a property has an APP, and in case it does, how much of its area is degraded, whether the property has a legal reserve area, and if it does not, CARGEO automatically calculates how much of the property must be set aside for it. Once we have the property map, we just hit a button and can get the reports for all properties in a municipality; if the municipality has a thousand properties, CARGEO will generate a thousand reports.

TNC Brazil: And what happens to that information?

LB: The available data is passed on to the owner and we strive for having the information accepted by the environmental agency so it can be entered into the Rural Registry of that property. CARGEO represents a big quality leap when it comes to obtaining this information. In addition to speeding up the process, CARGEO helped reduce the cost to the property owner by perhaps as much 100 times. The process is not simple and some states require that a professional from the field sign the report, but even when that is the case, costs went way down.

TNC Brazil: So back to the question of municipalities not having their properties mapped, will CARGEO facilitate that process?

LB: We started this work in Lucas do Rio Verde, in the state of Mato Grosso, and I'm quite comfortable in saying that Lucas became the first municipality in the country to have all its properties mapped. It took a few years to get it done, but the experience helped us learn to do the work fairly quickly. It took us five years to map all properties in Lucas; the municipality has nearly 890,000 acres of land, 370 property owners and 670 farms. On the other hand, we mapped nearly 50 million acres in the following five years, which shows how efficient we became. The Science team helped create this tool, which is available for free to anyone who wants to use it, be they the federal, municipal or state governments, Bureaus of the Environment, producers and even service providers. Our goal is to make things happen, it is not to make money. We want to contribute to having the Code implemented and in doing so, ensure the conservation of millions of acres in Brazil, whether they are in areas that are preserved or areas that need to be restored.

TNC Brazil: Then, one could say that CARGEO makes compliance with the Code more viable?

LB: What I can say is that without tools like CARGEO it would not be possible to do what is needed to implement the Code. I do not know if CARGEO is the only such tool in existence, but it is certainly the best. It greatly facilitates assessing compliance with the Code. Nowadays, regardless of the size of the municipality, we can map all its properties and obtain information related to compliance with the Code in four to six months.

TNC Brazil: Is this type of work unique to TNC?

LB: No, but I am sure we led the way. Now, several companies that provide this type of service are generating their own tools and expecting to earn lots of money assessing compliance with the Code. We offer this service for free, and even if there might be some costs for inputs, the methodology and use of the tool are free.

TNC Brazil: In your opinion, what is the most important aspect of this work?

LB: I think it is worth noting that the CAR is the registry and as such, it is the first step. Nevertheless, the CAR itself is not a guarantee that areas will be protected. In some states, owners learn what their obligations are when their properties are entered into the registry and they find out what they need to do in degraded areas, but that is not the case in all states. The CAR is an essential step and it has built-in conservation outcomes since when all APPs are mapped and in the system, monitoring them will be easier. One can track the status of these essential areas every year. The Conservancy wants to see the Legal Reserves established, the APPs restored, and compensation mechanisms agreed upon. That is the conservation result we want to see on the ground.

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