They outlived the dinosaurs, but Brazil’s araucaria trees might not survive humans

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  • The araucaria tree of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest could go extinct within the next 50 years due to permissive state policies allowing them to be cleared.
  • While the species is listed as critically endangered, and there’s a ban on illegal logging of araucaria, the state governments of Paraná and Santa Catarina states still allow them to be felled in the thousands for public works projects.
  • Araucaria forests today occupy just 2% of their historic range, scattered in fragments of forests measuring just 3,600 km2 (1,400 mi2).
  • The species has been around for more than 200 million years, surviving the mass extinction that wiped out the dinosaurs, but could meet its own doom thanks to human-driven climate change.

Brazil’s iconic araucaria trees, whose tufted branches also give them the name candelabra tree, are being pushed toward extinction as government agencies continue to ignore or even abet in their logging, experts say.

The araucaria (Araucaria angustifolia) is a species native to the cooler and higher-elevation regions of southern Brazil. It can grow to a height of nearly 50 meters (164 feet), and has a distinctive canopy that makes it look like a giant living candelabra. Though it’s been around for some 200 million years, it faces extinction at human hands within the next five decades as its habitat in the ever-dwindling Atlantic Forest continues to be destroyed.

The National Environment Council (Conama) banned the logging of endangered tree species, including araucaria, in 2001. By then, however, araucaria forests had disappeared from 98% of their historic range; once covering 182,000 square kilometers (70,300 square miles), they’re now confined to scattered patches of forest totaling just 3,600 km2 (1,400 mi2).

The map on the left shows the historical range of the araucaria, in dark green, and the Atlantic Forest, in light green. The map on the right shows the extent of both today. Image courtesy of SOS Mata Atlântica.

The ban hasn’t stopped the illegal logging. Fines issued by environmental law enforcement agencies between 2018 and 2021 amounted to 102 million reais ($21.4 million) for the deforestation of 255 km2 (98 mi2) of Atlantic Forest. Illegally logged araucaria is commonly found during seizures, according to the Public Prosecutor’s Office of Paraná state, which coordinates national efforts to protect the species.

But legal logging is also a major threat, says Fernando Guedes Pinto, director of knowledge at SOS Mata Atlântica, an NGO that has been mapping the vanishing remains of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil since 1989.

“Since states still do not report the deforestation that they authorize, there is mounting evidence that the vast majority of this logging is illegal,” Guedes Pinto says.

States in which previously well-conserved araucaria forests have virtually disappeared have not carried out surveys of the species in 20 years, and still allow permits for public works projects that run through araucaria groves. In Paraná and Santa Catarina states, the construction of a total of 1,500 km (930 mi) of power lines led to thousands of the trees — 4,000 in Paraná alone — being felled. Other endangered species, such as cedar, juçara, imbuia, fern and cinnamon trees, have also been affected. Civil society organizations have turned to the courts to challenge this kind of authorized clearing.

“Technical criteria are flawed and there are no alternative locations for the works,” says João de Deus Medeiros, a professor at the Federal University of Santa Catarina (UFSC). “Environmental agencies are complicit and they license what is most comfortable for entrepreneurs. Seeking better alternative paths would reduce social and environmental impacts.”

In Almirante Tamandaré, a municipality next to Curitiba, the Paraná state capital, the state government allowed more than 600 trees to be chopped down, including 172 araucaria trees, for a private residential subdivision. Cases like these abound throughout southern Brazil, according to the Society for Wildlife Research and Environmental Education.

The organization’s director, Clóvis Borges, says it has become customary for courts to authorize works of “public utility” that clear araucaria forests. He adds that mitigating this logging by providing resources for protected areas or planting seedlings doesn’t compensate for the destruction of these consolidated, biodiversity-rich environments.

“Undiscerning licenses are often granted and validated by economic interests,” says Borges, who holds a master’s degree in zoology from the Federal University of Paraná. “In times of water and climate crises, eliminating what remains of araucaria forests risks our future quality of life and survival. Protecting them is also in the public interest.”

Federal and state projects that call for cutting through araucaria forests and that had been shelved or blocked by courts in the past decade are now being revived. A state law in Paraná downgraded the protection of the species to “sustainable management.” The new Forest Code of Santa Catarina, approved in January, permits the logging of araucaria and other trees facing extinction.

There are proposals in the Brazilian Congress, supported by the agribusiness caucus and the administration of President Jair Bolsonaro, to weaken the Atlantic Forest Law in order to expand agribusiness, including into primary and araucaria forests. The idea is to fit the legislation into the Forest Code of 2012, eliminating the only federal regulation to protect a specific biome.

“Pressure is coming mainly from Paraná and Santa Catarina, the leading states in deforestation of Atlantic Forest,” Guedes Pinto says. “These attacks are unconstitutional, because the Atlantic Forest Law adds value to the Forest Code. Cutting it down would be an enormous threat to the climate, biodiversity and water sources for regions where most Brazilians live.”

Dip pen drawing of an old araucaria grove by Percy Lau, 1966. Image courtesy of the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

Around for 200 million years; gone in 50

The araucaria is listed in both Brazil and globally by the IUCN as threatened with extinction. National parks and other conservation units contain just 2.5% of the habitat considered suitable for araucaria, according to a 2019 study.

The study warns that the species — a “living fossil” that’s been around since even before the dinosaur heyday of the Jurassic — could run out of suitable habitat by 2070 as a result of climate change. A 2021 study that modeled how a warming climate would affect the araucaria’s distribution concluded that this cold-adapted species “likely will face increased extinction risk.”

“Overall, we need to save the araucaria forests that are outside of protected areas, guaranteeing genetic diversity for the repopulation of the species,” says Ricardo Brites, a biologist and forest engineer. “But these forests continue to be deforested or degraded by the selective removal of trees, which inspections and satellites don’t identify.”

The current model of commercial management of natural forests is economically unviable, experts say, and would destroy forests in their surroundings. Logging areas need open, sunny space, technical capacity, and strict oversight. Quality wood requires at least three decades of growth. “There is a market for this wood, but investments are high and long-term,” Brites says.

Both native and planted araucaria produce pine nuts, a popular food in southern Brazil, after about 12 years. But a technique developed by the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) can cut this production time in half, down to between six and eight years, while keeping the trees to a smaller size.

A cluster of araucaria trees in Campos do Jordão State Park, São Paulo state, one of the few conservation units with large expanses of these native trees. Image by Ana Taemi via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Economic incentives provided for in the Brazilian Forest Code and the Atlantic Forest Law, but not yet regulated, would provide resources for the conservation and recovery of araucaria forests on public and private lands. Permanent preservation areas and legal reserves are the portions of these respective lands where native vegetation must, by law, be maintained. But a survey by SOS Mata Atlântica shows that properties listed on the Rural Environmental registry are short of 44,700 km2 (17,300 mi2) of native vegetation.

“These are some major obstacles that continue to fuel the logic that there is more money in breaking the law, cutting down the forests, selling lumber and continuing to move forward with unsustainable production in the country,” says Medeiros from the Federal University of Santa Catarina.

In emailed responses to questions from Mongabay, the state environmental agencies in Paraná and Santa Catarina both said that illegal logging of araucaria is a violation punishable by fines, and that they work to replant the species with consideration for genetic variety. But they also said that removal of araucaria trees (planted, not native) can be permitted due to risk of trees falling on private or public structures, or for works that are in the public and social interest, such roads and power lines.

The environmental agency in Santa Catarina added that the licensing of projects “has always been participatory, after discussions with educational institutions, environmental agencies from other states, private companies and the general public.” It added that “environmental legislation allows for endangered species to be cut down, whether isolated individuals or those present in forest fragments (with proof of a lack of alternative locations and proof that the removal will not aggravate the risk of extinction in situ), and institutes the need for mitigation measures.”

 
Citations:

Wilson, O. J., Walters, R. J., Mayle, F. E., Lingner, D. V., & Vibrans, A. C. (2019). Cold spot microrefugia hold the key to survival for Brazil’s critically endangered araucaria tree. Global Change Biology25(12), 4339-4351. doi:10.1111/gcb.14755

Saraiva, D. D., Esser, L. F., Grasel, D., & Jarenkow, J. A. (2021). Distribution shifts, potential refugia, and the performance of protected areas under climate change in the araucaria moist forests ecoregion. Applied Vegetation Science24(4). doi:10.1111/avsc.12628

 
Banner image of araucaria trees in Serra da Bocaina National Park in São Paulo state. Image by Heris Luiz Cordeiro Rocha via Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).

This article was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on March 15, 2022.



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