Most of the Brazilian population lives along the coast, a region originally occupied by the Atlantic Forest. Over the years, life in the concrete jungle has erected a wall between people and their connection with nature. Today, overexploitation of this biodiversity hotspot threatens not only flora and fauna, but also the provision of several vital ecosystem services, livelihoods and even the economy. In its defense, municipalities, the service sector and UN Environment are joining forces to strengthen governance for sustainability.
The Atlantic Forest is one of six Brazilian biomes. It contributes to sustaining the life of almost three quarters of the country’s population, by providing invaluable ecosystem services that help balance the climate, regulate the water cycle and provide food. It is also one of the areas with the highest socio-biodiversity of the world, recognized by UNESCO as a Biosphere Reserve and by the Brazilian Federal Constitution as National Heritage site. Once occupying around 15 per cent of the country's area, stretching from north to south, the Atlantic Forest has lost more than 90 per cent of its original area in recent years.
In Brazil, most state capitals were built in Atlantic Forest region. Consequently, it was the forest that most suffered during the country's various economic cycles. Since 1500, with the advent of colonization, the biome has been continuously exploited and cleared to make way for farmland and cities, driving the pau brasil—the tree that gave the country its name—to the brink of extinction.
Given its importance and high level of endangerment, the Atlantic Forest biome is the only one protected under federal law (Atlantic Forest Act, 2006), which guarantees the protection of 100 per cent of the remaining forests. In other words, landowners are not allowed to suppress native vegetation. In its Article 38, the law established the Municipal Plan for the Conservation and Recovery of the Atlantic Forest (Brazilian acronym, PMMA), which allowed municipalities to work proactively to protect, conserve and restore native vegetation by defining priority actions and areas. However, not all municipalities understand how the plan works or have the human resources capable of complying with the legislation and taking advantage of its benefits.
In order to strengthen environmental management in municipalities and promote conservation of the Atlantic Forest, UN Environment and the National Association of Municipal Environment Agencies (ANAMMA) joined efforts in late 2017 to develop the project “Strengthening Municipal Environment Councils through Municipal Plans for the Conservation and Recovery of the Atlantic Forest”.
The initiative is spreading through the 17 Brazilian states that are home to the biome to raise awareness and mobilize members of councils, local and state governments and public prosecutors, encourage participation of civil society and protect the Atlantic Forest. The project has the support of non-governmental organizations, state governments and parliamentary environmental groups, established by state legislative assemblies.
According to Rogério Menezes, President of the National Association of Municipal Environment Agencies in Brazil, one of the objectives of the project is to enhance the technical capacity of municipalities and civil society so that they can be active agents in local public policies for the Atlantic Forest. Furthermore, the Local Biodiversity Plans are aligned with the guidelines of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and with the Aichi Targets, both of which Brazil has signed.
One of the ways of building capacities and disseminating information is through online courses on the Municipal Plan for the Conservation and Recovery of the Atlantic Forest. Training has been provided since 2012 by Brazilian institutions, but in this new project, both the website and online course were revamped and updated with content geared to each state—which is essential when we remember that Brazil is a country of continental proportions, and each region has unique characteristics. Five courses were created in 2018, with more than 2,500 registered participants. The aim of the project is to reach 3,000 people, including local technical staff, council members and other local and regional agents.
“It's impressive to see how popular and well-rated this course is! I travel throughout Brazil and always meet people who took the course,” says Mário Mantovani, Public Policy Director at SOS Mata Atlântica, an entity that supports the project and fosters municipal plans for the conservation and recovery of the Atlantic Forest since 2012.
Another consequence of the initiative was the creation of the Federation of Municipal Environment Council Members, a facility for the exchange of experiences and good practices among municipal council members, particularly from civil society.
As a result, 15 municipalities are being selected to receive support for drafting their conservation and recovery plans, to establish a reference and provide incentives in several regions. To participate in the project, the municipalities must fulfill the following goals:
- the Municipal Environment Council and the Municipal Environment Fund must be regulated and operational
- the Municipal Plan for the Conservation and Recovery of the Atlantic Forest should include conservation actions in at least 20 per cent of the residual Atlantic Forest existing in the municipality
- the plan should include restoration actions in at least five per cent of the municipality
The Municipal Plan for the Conservation and Recovery of the Atlantic Forest has proven to be a key instrument for strengthening municipal environmental management, in that the Municipal Environment Council plays an essential role in the plan, not only for its approval, as specified in the Atlantic Forest Act, but also in supervising the entire design process and in monitoring its implementation.
“This project reinforces the role of UN Environment in addressing environmental challenges and leveraging the national commitment to the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals. Joining National Association of Municipal Environment Agencies in these efforts implements the UN Environment principle that says that local actions should take place in a more systematic, integrated and participatory manner,” stresses Denise Hamú, UN Environment Representative in Brazil.
In addition to contributing to the implementation of a federal law, the project also supports Brazil in meeting its international commitments, according to Mário Mantovani. “Under the Paris Agreement, Brazil committed to restoring 12 million hectares of native forests. Given the high level of degradation, the Atlantic Forest biome should be the one that most benefits from this target,” he adds.
Sustainability is high on the agenda this month, with the UN Biodiversity Conference – the 14th Conference of the Parties to the Convention on Biological Diversity – being held in Egypt, from 17 to 29 November. Bringing together experts and policymakers from around the world to build momentum for a ‘New Deal for Nature and People’, the conference aims to ensure biodiversity is a key consideration globally in sectors from energy to mining, infrastructure, manufacturing, and health.
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