The Cerrado is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world

WWF and Exeter alumni join forces to protect natural habitat

A consortium of Exeter alumni have joined the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) and the University of Exeter, in setting up a new PhD project to protect the Cerrado ecosystem in Brazil.

The Cerrado is a vast tropical ecosystem in Brazil 1.3 million square miles in size, equivalent to the size of England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain combined. It is one of the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, with more than 10,000 plant species of which 30% grow nowhere else. The area supplies up to 43% of Brazil’s surface water and some of South America's most important rivers - the Amazon, Paraná-Paraguai and São Francisco - begin here.

However, although the Cerrado biome covers more than 20% of Brazil, is not nearly as recognised as the Amazon. Widespread deforestation and conversion of natural habitat to create cattle pasture and soy fields has destroyed more than half of the Cerrado’s native vegetation in recent decades.

This new PhD research, part of the Global Systems Institute, will develop a new generation of tools to facilitate large-scale restoration of the Cerrado biome, including techniques to predict the optimal vegetation needed to restore key areas. This new information will contribute to the creation of an application to help land-owners identify the most optimal species to plant in order to promote long-term climate-smart restoration.

Part of the work will also involve training local communities in order to give them the skills to collect, store and sell seeds that are most viable for long-term restoration in the context of climate change, providing a sustainable source of income.

Professor Toby Pennington, Professor of Tropical Plant Diversity and Biogeography at the University of Exeter, said: “The plant species diversity of the Cerrado is equal to that of the Amazon rain forest. In addition, if the Cerrado is lost, the whole world will feel the effects in terms of climate, and its unique biodiversity cannot be replaced. This research will be vital for the restoration and rehabilitation of the environment - it will help ensure food and water security, increase carbon sequestration, support the supply of pollinators vital for agriculture, and enhance economic prosperity in some of the world’s poorest communities.”

Associate Professor and NERC Research Fellow, Lucy Rowland, said: “Brazil has recognised the need to restore this important area and has committed to restore up to 5 million hectares by 2030. However, less than 3% of the Cerrado is protected by law and currently no guidance exists on how to effectively restore vegetation in a manner that promotes long-term sustainability. We must develop robust scientific data about the vegetation in this region so that we can undertake effective restoration and this is particularly important as any vegetation restored now will likely be facing a different climate environment by the time the ecosystem matures.”

Bel Lyon, Latin America Regional Manager at WWF-UK said: “The Cerrado is one of the most threatened and over-exploited regions in Brazil. WWF has been working to reduce the impacts of commodities supply chains in the Cerrado and to eliminate the need for habitat conversion by promoting efficiency and productivity on land already in use. We are delighted to work with the University of Exeter on this additional research to protect and restore such a crucial environment.”

Alumni who have joined forces with the WWF in order to support this research are: Howard Appleby (Economics and Statistics, 1980), Kit Beazley (Economics, 1985) and Clare Beazley, Sue Scott-Gatty (Engineering, 1980) and James Scott-Gatty (Economics and Statistics, 1980), Nick Fisher (Zoology 1982), and one further anonymous donor.

To apply for the PhD, please visit the website.

Date: 19 October 2020

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