Restoring biodiversity through research partnerships in the Brazilian Amazon

  • Share

Land-based ecosystems and the services they provide support 40 percent of the world's economy and 80 percent of the needs of the poor. Forests cover 30 percent of the Earth and are essential to combating climate change, protecting biodiversity and ensuring food security (especially for indigenous forest peoples). Since 1970 there has been a 52 percent reduction of wildlife populations and of the 8,300 known animal species, 8 percent are already extinct and 22 percent are at risk of extinction.  All ICMM members implement the 10 principles that underpin our Sustainable Development Framework. Principle 7 requires companies to contribute to biodiversity conservation and integrated approaches to land-use planning.

When the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) officially came into force in January 2016, the nations of the world committed to mobilise efforts to end poverty, fight inequalities and tackle climate change. Business has a significant part to play, alongside governments and civil society, in creating pathways for a greener, safer and sustainable future for us all. Metals and minerals are essential to almost all aspects of everyday life; they enable farming, healthcare, communications, construction, transport and energy and water supply. And they will arguably become more important as they help to deliver the infrastructure required for a low-carbon future. This is one of a series of case studies gathered from our members to highlight how companies are working to enhance their contribution to society and help industry to manage potential adverse impacts their activities may have on the realisation of some of the SDGs.

Norsk Hydro (‘Hydro’) has teamed up with the University of Oslo and three Brazilian research institutions to develop more effective ways to rehabilitate degraded tropical forests at its bauxite mine in the Brazilian Amazon. The Biodiversity Research Consortium Brazil-Norway (BRC) was established in 2013 to conduct biodiversity research in Paragominas Municipality in Pará State, Brazil. In addition to supporting restoration of mined areas to prior forested conditions, the programme supports Norsk Hydro’s goal of carbon neutrality.  

The need for evidence-based research

While reforestation is a common activity in many mining projects today, restoring biodiversity to a pristine state presents significant challenges. One crucial factor is having scientifically-grounded methods to assess rehabilitation efforts. This requires detailed monitoring of ecosystem conditions in the rehabilitated areas, as well as knowledge of nearby undisturbed forest to be used as a benchmark.

The initiative supports the company’s public commitment to SDG 15 (‘Life on Land’), which includes taking action to halt and reverse land degradation and halt biodiversity loss. It also supports Hydro’s commitments under the Aluminium Stewardship Initiative, of which Hydro is a founding member.

Addressing a legacy of environmental degradation

Hydro’s bauxite mine is located in what used to be an area of high biodiversity, most of which was deforested as a result of logging and cattle farming decades before the mining operations began. Today, pristine forest covers only 15 per cent of the area.

Although Hydro was not responsible for this deforestation, when it commenced operations in 2011 it decided to continue the rehabilitation work started by the mine’s former owner, Vale. The goal was to replant degraded areas and, if possible, restore the forest ecosystems and biodiversity to their original state.

The nature of bauxite mining means that with the right approach, mineral extraction may be planned and executed in a way that reduces impacts and enables rapid recovery of mined areas. This is because as soon as the overburden is removed in strip mining, it can quickly be used to fill in nearby strips of land that have already been mined. As a result, the organic soil is quickly replaced, preventing erosion and enabling reforestation.   

Restoring biodiversity through research partnerships

Hydro realised that detailed scientific evidence was needed if the company was to rehabilitate degraded forests at the mine effectively.  The Research Consortium was established with this goal in mind.

In addition to Hydro, the Consortium includes the University of Oslo, Emilio Goeldi Pará Museum, Federal University of Pará and Federal University of Amazonia. It is focused on three major research areas:

  1. Biodiversity surveys and monitoring in mining areas and surroundings
  2. Greenhouse gas fluxes and carbon footprint related to mining operations
  3. Restoration of tropical forests, including restoration of biodiversity and forest soils.

To strengthen research collaboration, the Consortium integrates graduate students into the research programme and facilitates exchange between institutions in Norway and Brazil.

The initial work of the Consortium centred on assessing the reforestation and monitoring work already started by Hydro at its mine in Paragominas. 

Applying new techniques to restore biodiversity

By the end of 2016, Hydro had rehabilitated nearly 1700 hectares (ha). One key target driving rehabilitation efforts focuses on rehabilitating the areas that are no longer needed for the safe operation of the mine. The second target is around the areas that were inherited from the mine’s previous owners.

Researchers from the Consortium have undertaken initial monitoring of plant regrowth and reoccurrence of animal life in the area. This includes setting up cameras to track passing animals such as Tapir and Jaguar, and installing platforms in the canopy to monitor tree regrowth.

Hydro hopes that the rate and quality of reforestation can be improved as the work of the Consortium starts to yield results. One promising line of research involves applying a reforestation technique first developed by Alcoa known as nucleation, which improves natural soil formation, enhances regrowth and increases biodiversity.

To support this work, the company has established a nursery with the capacity to produce up to a  thousand seedlings per year, as well as to grow epiphytes collected from the forest. The planting materials contain species with considerable genetic diversity, which is crucial to successful forest restoration.

One of the most important benefits of the nucleation technique is that it can reduce greenhouse gas emissions on degraded forest lands. Thus, in addition to Hydro’s reforestation activities, the research is also playing a significant role in supporting the company’s action against climate change under SDG 13, as well achieving its goal of becoming carbon neutral from a lifecycle perspective by 2020.

Plans going forward

Between 2017 and 2020, Hydro intends to fund 12 research projects to study and monitor a variety of ‘functional groups’ that play an important role in ecosystem functioning and integrity. These groups include pollinator organisms and herbivores, as well species that are sensitive to environmental changes, such as mammals of conservation interest. One important future focus is strengthening the link between research findings and operational practices.

Hydro’s ultimate aim in Brazil is for degraded forests to return to an original state. The Consortium hopes to extend the scope of the research in the future to cover mining in other parts of the Eastern Brazilian Amazon.

ICMM members supporting the SDGs