The Rio Claro Water and Forest producer project emerged in 2009, intending to improve the quality and quantity of water through restoration. The municipality of Rio Claro is located in the Brazilian Atlantic Forest, a tropical forest with an intense history of deforestation for coffee plantations, sugar cane, agricultural expansion and the growth of cities. Currently, the forest is highly fragmented, and estimates indicate that its current vegetation cover is 12-28% of its total area. Forest restoration is a strategy inspired and supported by nature to recover degraded areas and ensure the supply of food, raw materials, and water, among other benefits to the population. The study region is part of the Guandu river basin, one of the most important in Brazil, as it supplies drinking water to around 12 million people who live in the city and metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro. Through the project, landowners who restore and conserve their forests receive payments to provide water in quantity and quality to residents of the metropolitan region. The project's properties are frequently monitored, and ecological, social and economic data are collected. With financial return, other landowners in the surroundings continue to be engaged to join the project. The project is expected to expand to the entire Guandu river basin, gaining greater support from rural landowners, government and civil society to further boost forest recovery and ensure water supply. This photo story aims to disseminate knowledge about this interesting Water and Forest Producer project, so as to strengthen environmental restoration as part of the solution for sustainable water resource management. The title photo presents a view of the city of Rio de Janeiro that is supplied with water from the Guandu river basin (Photo courtesy: Matheus Cervasio).
Degraded landscape in a stretch of the Guandu river basin in 2010 (Photo courtesy: project image bank)
Rio Claro Municipality covers 83,469 ha and is home to about 17,000 people. The terrain here is hilly and the area was heavily deforested in the 19th and 20th centuries for coffee farming and charcoal for the steel industry. At present, the project region is inserted in a peri-urban context, a low-income area connected to the economy of the city of Rio de Janeiro and industrial zones, and also rural areas of small towns and villages, which have their own dynamics with the participation of the agricultural sector in the generation of jobs. The ecosystem degradation in Guandu watershed is huge, prejudicing the population, mainly the poorest part. This watershed is on Brazilian Atlantic Forest, a very degraded biome that have a big influence in the “water produce” in Rio de Janeiro state. This biome has been reduced increasingly by urban growth, compromising water resources and ecosystem relations in that area. Given its specific context, recovery of the forest is not only essential for environmental improvement but also for upgrading the socio-economic condition of the population.
Planting of seedlings in a degraded property in Rio Claro municipality (Photo courtesy: Hendrick Mansur)
The project is based on the Brazilian Forest Code and the Water Resources Policy of the State of Rio de Janeiro. The Forest Code (1965) requires landowners to maintain a part of their properties as natural vegetation cover and also to protect or reforest areas with a view to prevent soil erosion and conserve water resources. Such areas are legally known as permanently protected areas and include buffer areas around springs and rivers, hilltops, and areas with steep slopes. Increased compliance with the Forest Code in riparian areas would naturally increase forest cover, in turn resulting in improved water quality. Improving water quality in Rio Claro is important because it contains important springs that feed the Piraí River, which further feeds the Guandu River. Thus, the main action in the project was reforestation activities which could be either active (i.e., tree planting) or passive (e.g., exclusion of grazing by constructing fences and protection from fire).
A group of rural landowners showing their financial award for restoration and conservation in Rio Claro municipality (Photo courtesy: Hendrick Mansur)
The Water and Forest Producer project focused on improving the quality and quantity of water through payment to the landowners to conserve and restore their properties. This mechanism is known as PES (Payment for Ecosystem Services). The payments are a way of encouraging conservation in private areas that could influence the quality and quantity of water at Guandu watershed. The project was a partnership between the Nature Conservancy (TNC; an international NGO), Guandu Watershed Management Organization (GWMO; a local watershed management organization), the Rio de Janeiro state government, the Rio Claro city council, and a local partner. At the local level, the project has the support of the Water Management Association of the Paraíba do Sul River Basin, and the Guandu Hydrographic Basin Committee. The Guandu Hydrographic Basin committee deliberates, and the Water Management Association of the Paraíba do Sul River Basin have as their main responsibility to implement restoration measures. The Guandu Hydrographic Basin Committee and The Nature Conservancy share the project's financial responsibility.
Restoration focuses on rural properties positioned at the headwaters of the basins contributing to the Guandu watershed and local landowners could participate by agreeing to make at least 25% of their land area available for restoration. In return, they received payments for preserving existing forested area and for reforesting areas targeted by the project. Payments were based on the estimated opportunity cost of land and current forest status (e.g., whether forest early or mid/advanced stages of forest recovery).In addition, the care and technical support offered by the project raise awareness among the beneficiaries who start to have a new look at nature, adopting new habits and methods of cultivation.
Landscape restored in a stretch of the Guandu river basin in 2012 (Photo courtesy: project image bank)
Restored stretch of one of the rivers of the Guandu river basin in the municipality of Rio Claro (Photo courtesy: Hendrick Mansur)
A total of 4,400 hectares of Atlantic Forest have already been recovered or conserved by the project. Data indicate that 63 species of birds have already been mapped in the restored forest, representing a 91% increase in the diagnosis carried out in 2013. With this result, a bird observation centre was created. The project operates at the Piraí River's source, which supplies the Guandu River, which is important for supplying water to the city and metropolitan region of Rio de Janeiro. Currently, the scale of impact of the project is local. The idea is to expand the project to cover the entire Guandu watershed and guarantee water quantity and quality for the population.
This project is an example of how forest restoration, as a nature-based solution, can help solve challenges related to the water cycle. Though there were some challenges in implementing the project, the benefits are multifarious. Among the challenges were high costs related to forest restoration, lack of resources to pay technical assistance to landowners, lack of employees in the municipal environment department to assist in the engagement, lack of resources for the awarding rural landowners and delays due to project commission bureaucracy, launching of proposals and hiring. On the benefit side, in the region where the project was implemented, water quality improved, reducing the costs of treating water bodies. In addition, the project contributed to greater environmental awareness. It increased income for rural landowners. The improvements generated by the project actions benefit the properties that can receive additional incomes, such as bird watching tourism. On the whole, the project has promoted an increase in native vegetation, biodiversity and data generation to support public policies. These results highlight the importance of expanding the scale of the project to the entire course of the Guandu river basin due to its national significance in terms of water supply and potential for improving the socio-economic conditions of the population. Finally, the project results and lessons learnt offer a potential of transferability - these can be used as reference to reproduce similar actions in other areas. The results shows that all institutions and sectors of society must be involved from the beginning of the project with delimited roles. The effective dialogue between science, society and decision-makers must be carried out constantly and transparently.