Espirito Santo, Brazil, saves the Atlantic Rainforest to ensure clean water for all

May 3, 2013


Aerial view of a settlement in the middle of the Atlantic rainforest

Handout/Caio Krohling

  • Two watersheds supply most of the water consumed in Espírito Santo’s largest cities.
  • Pollution caused by unsustainable land use lead to an increase in water treatment costs.
  • To lower costs and conserve natural resources, the state government now rewards ranchers who maintain forest covers and prevent water pollution.

Freshwater goes a long way from the rural highlands of Espírito Santo to homes and businesses in Vitória metropolitan area -- which concentrates more than 50% of the southeastern state population.

But over the last years, an increasingly high amount of sediments and pesticides flowed down as well, causing water treatment costs to rise.

“This is an important effect of harmful land-use patterns in the mountain farms,” explains Gunars Platais, an environmental specialist at the World Bank. Fortunately these practices can be changed, at a much lower cost than an upgrade of the water treatment system.

How? By rewarding farmers who engage in environmentally friendly practices, such as:

  • Preserving/recovering the Atlantic Forest areas in their lands. Espírito Santo is located within the rainforest, which is one of the world’s hottest biodiversity hotspots. However, due to deforestation, only 11% of forest cover is left in the state -- and most of it is in fragments, which threatens the survival of several species.
  • Maintaining forest cover along river edges and keeping livestock away form the watersheds of Jucu and Santa Maria da Vitória. Poorly managed cattle causes not only water contamination by cow dung and urine, it may also accelerate erosion (which increases sediment yield).
  • Decreasing the amount of pesticides applied to their crops or investing in organic agriculture.

All of these measures reduce river pollution, but there’s more. “If we manage to curb sediment yield by 0.5%, the state government will be able to save at least BRL1,000,000 (US$ 500,000) in water treatment”, says forest engineer Marcos Sossai.

Sossai and Platais, with other specialists from the World Bank and the government of Espírito Santo, carry out a project that pays ranchers an annual, variable amount – which enables them to invest in sustainable activities.

When land owners join the initiative, technicians measure the area, carry out an environmental assessment, and establish specific goals (and payments) for each of the farmers.

“With the money they can buy seedlings, build fences that keep the livestock from destroying the native trees, things like that,” Sossai explains.

" I believe many of my neighbors will take an interest because 45% of our village is still covered by the Atlantic Rainforest "

César Krohling

Coffee farmer from Marechal Floriano.

Long-term commitment

The initiative also encourages them to keep up with the good practices down the line. If the targets are not accomplished, ranchers must return the money to the state government.

However demanding it might look like, the initiative has already attracted around 90 small farmers. Another 210 are expected to opt-in as the project evolves. 

“I believe many of my neighbors will take an interest because 45% of our village is still covered by the Atlantic Rainforest,” says coffee farmer César Krohling, from Marechal Floriano.

Around 100 of Krohling’s 217-acre ranch are located in a rainforest area that his German great grandfather started preserving 133 years ago.

This endeavor is now rewarded with an annual payment of BRL7,000 (US$3,500) a year. Additionally, the farmer is committed to recovering another acre of rainforest land, and will get BRL2,000 (US$1,000) for the task, to be accomplished three years from now.  

“It’s not much, but at least more people are putting a value on our natural resources,” says Krohling.

Global innovation

The work that is currently being carried out in Espírito Santo follows a model globally known as Payment for Environmental (or Ecosystem) Services (PES). It states that rainforests, for example, “deliver” environmental services such as providing clean water, sequestering greenhouse gas emissions and offering habitat for countless species.

“While the forests give such benefits, the PES system also acknowledges those who keep the ‘services’ running properly,” Sossai explains. One of the main challenges, however, is keeping the model attractive as years pass.

“That’s why it is important to offer both short-term and long-term payments, as well as technical assistance to ensure farmers increase their productivity and incomes without harming the environment,” Platais adds.

Together with Minas Gerais and São Paulo, also in southeast Brazil, Espírito Santo is among the few states that have experimented with this system so far. Around the world, the model has been implemented in Costa Rica and Nicaragua, among many other countries, both with good results.