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Brazil: Much more flora in danger of extinction than originally thought

November 14, 2014


The Atlantic Forest is one of Brazil's most diverse ecosystems

Agencia Brasil

Of the 43,000 native plant species, more than 2,000 are at risk

Brazil, Latin America’s greenest country, faces a paradox in that much more flora is in danger of extinction than originally thought, with potentially devastating consequences for the environment and society.

A new study reveals that 2,118 species are at risk of extinction in Brazil, a number five times higher than the current official list, according to experts. “We still need to know the extinction risk of all 43,000 species of flora, but at least we have a start,” says biologist Gustavo Martinelli, coordinator of the Livro Vermelho da Flora do Brasil [Red Book of Brazilian Flora] (2013), which has just won the country’s most prestigious literary prize, the Jabuti (land turtle).

What does this situation mean for society? Martinelli responds in practical terms: “All species threatened by extinction represent an economic and social consequence,” he says. The book was an important effort to quantify Brazil’s plant wealth and the award is an unprecedented acknowledgement of scientific research in conservation. The study also describes plants and trees used to make furniture, medications, cosmetics and other industrial goods, or simply for decoration.

Extinction outpaces science

The problem, not only in Brazil but throughout the world, is that species become extinct much faster than scientists can identify and describe new species.

Experts estimate that between 10 percent and 20 percent of angiosperms (plants with flowers and fruits) remain unknown. By contrast, the rate of extinction is currently 1,000 times higher than the level recorded in the past, according to the book’s authors. Moreover, until 2012, just 14,500 global species had been included on the Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

The book, which was partly funded by the World Bank and the Global Environment Facility (GEF), includes four years of studies and analyzes 4,619 species, representing nearly 10 percent of native plants. While this does not seem to be many species, it is in fact a significant number, especially considering that extensive research has not been conducted for a very long time. The most similar existing study is Flora Brasiliensis, which was published in 1906.

" All species threatened by extinction represent an economic and social consequence "

Gustavo Martinelli

coordinator of the Red Book of Brazilian Flora

Brazil without Brazil

One species worrying experts is precisely the one that gives Brazil its name. Used by Portuguese settlers to make dyes and violins, the Brazil tree has long been threatened by the degradation of the Atlantic Forest, one of the regions with the highest biodiversity in the country.

What other activities threaten flora? Basically, unsustainable agricultural and construction (mainly infrastructure projects) practices, as well as fires caused by humans. Together, these causes represent nearly 88 percent of the threats recorded in the book. But according to Martinelli, calculating numbers and risks is only a first step.  The next step is to plan the most urgent actions to save biomes and species. To this end, a map of priority areas for the conservation of threatened flora will be published in December.

Environmental leadership

A few weeks ago, the Maués Ecological Station in the southern Amazon region became a conservation site. Following years of discussion, mining in this area – a refuge for primates and 600 bird species –can now only take place in specific areas and following federal government standards.

"Protected areas play a vital role in the preservation of flora and fauna. They are the basis of a strategy to conserve species for future generations,” says Adriana Moreira, who oversees the World Bank’s biodiversity work in Brazil.

Flora can also be preserved outside the conservation areas. Technology plays a key role in the recovery of the most affected species. For example, today it is possible to store seeds for years and cultivate some types of plants in botanical gardens until their native habitat recovers. However, these efforts require ongoing financing, which researchers in the area cannot always guarantee.

Whether in the rainforest or in the city, Brazil needs to better preserve its native species. The largest country in Latin America is one of the signers of the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Aichi Targets (2011), which calls on countries to prevent the extinction of threatened species.

Signers of the convention also agree to conserve and better administer their biodiversity. “Precisely because it has so much diversity, Brazil should play a leading role in this effort,” says Martinelli. “I hope that the study of threatened species will encourage the country to consider a more balanced development model.