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Fundamental Science: Our Earth Has… Endangered Trees


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A fruit tree with long green leaves, whose branches resemble a bird’s tail. Not much more can be said about Pouteria stenophylla, native to the Brazilian Atlantic Forest: it has been extinct due to habitat loss since at least 1998, according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) endangered species list. Of the plant, which once grew in our land, in the Serra do Órgãos in Rio de Janeiro, only a few withered and faded leaves remain, kept in exile, in foreign botanical collections.

Just like the Pouteria stenophylla, that not even a popular name in Portuguese had, six other species once found in Brazil are now extinct. And many others are following the same path, according to a global survey presented at the end of June at the World Biodiversity Forum in Switzerland.

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According to the study, coordinated by the International Association of Botanical Gardens for Conservation (BGCI), a third of the planet’s 60,000 tree species are endangered, most of which are in the Central American rainforest region. and from the South. And Brazil, which tops the list of countries with the most variety, with 8,847 species, is also first on the podium of those with the most endangered species. Two in ten (1,788) are at risk, mainly from deforestation for agriculture, logging and forest fires. To top it off, almost half of these species are endemic, that is, they are only found here.

Among the endangered species are the green araçá (Psidium araucanum), an Atlantic Forest fruit tree at risk due to environmental degradation; the yellowwood of the Amazon (Euxylophora paraensis), overexploited for its wood; and faveiro-de wilson (Dimorphandra wilsonii), unique to the transition region from the Cerrado to the Atlantic Forest, and endangered by the advance of agriculture.

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Trees provide many “ecosystem services”, explains botanist Malin Rivers, who coordinated the survey, based on literature and databases collected by more than 500 international researchers. “In addition to promoting well-being for humans, trees absorb carbon, prevent soil erosion and flooding, and regulate temperature and air quality,” says Rivers. In addition, they are home and food for many animals. When a species goes extinct, the entire biodiversity of the ecosystem is harmed.

However, endangered trees have not been the focus of conservation and reforestation initiatives around the world, according to the most recent data presented in Switzerland. Globally, 85% of non-threatened species are in conservation areas – national parks and reserves – compared to just 56% of species at risk of disappearing.

The same goes for scientific collections, such as botanical gardens and seed banks, which safeguard only 21% of endangered species against 45% of those that are safe. In Brazil, only 73 endangered trees – 5% of the species at risk – are protected in seed banks and botanical gardens, new data in the report reveal. Foreign collections house 109 endangered Brazilian species – more than we have here.

Researchers fear the lack of endangered trees in the collections could jeopardize restoration and conservation programs to preserve species on the brink of extinction. “It’s a shame,” says Rivers. “Endangered species in collections are like an insurance policy. We need them to establish propagation protocols, by seeds or seedlings, to scale up tree planting programs.”

Instead of using native and endangered trees, many reforestation and planting initiatives adopt the logic of “any tree at least cost,” explains Galena Woodhouse, forest governance expert at the BGCI. But this approach has negative impacts on the local flora and fauna. “We’ve seen an increase in well-meaning planting initiatives to reduce global warming,” she notes. “But by planting non-native trees, we harm biodiversity, accelerate species extinction and, in some cases, even increase carbon emissions.”

To prevent this from continuing, the researcher is leading a project that has been developing a global biodiversity standard, an analysis methodology and international certification for tree planting initiatives. The idea is that this process is used to give a “quality seal” to reforestation actions that take into account and preserve local biodiversity. Among the certification criteria are the use of native species instead of exotic ones, the constant assessment of the impact of planting on biodiversity and the involvement of local communities.

The methodology began to be tested this year in partnership with botanical gardens in Brazil, Peru, Kenya, Madagascar and India. Here, the Araribá Botanical Garden, in the region of Campinas, is at the forefront, which already promotes the preservation of endangered native trees such as pau-brasil. (Paubrasilia echinata), rose cedar (cedella fissilis) and ipê-felpudo (Tuberculous zeyheria). The institution will spend the next five years evaluating restoration areas and making adjustments to the methodology according to local reality.

“Everyone wants to be green and reforest to sequester carbon, but in Brazil, even sugarcane and mahogany monoculture for commercial use take advantage of this to sell carbon credits, not necessarily promoting biodiversity”, warns agroecological producer Guaraci Diniz , from the Araribá Botanical Garden. “More than planting trees without knowing what you are planting, you need to plant the right tree in the right place and show the importance of this to the local community.”

If you want to know more about the tree species present in Brazil or any other country in the world, it is worth trying the recently launched Global Tree Portal. On the website it is possible to check the distribution and threat status of different species, search for information on each country and also check the conservation actions at a global level.


Sofia Moutinho is a journalist. This text was produced with a travel grant from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network’s Biodiversity Media Initiative to the World Biodiversity Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

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