Nordeste

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Geography

Abstract

The northeast region of Brazil is relatively dry compared to the rest of the country, with unusually irregular rainfall patterns and associated frequent droughts. The soils there tend to be relatively fertile and so, despite crop failures sometimes occurring in drier years, the area is reasonably densely populated with about 15% of Brazil's population living there; but under what are generally impoverished conditions. This has led to extreme land-use pressures on the natural vegetation and widespread degradation of remaining lands.
As in other parts of the world with similar soils and climate, the natural vegetation of the area is a form of deciduous scrub, known locally as Caatinga. Probably because Caatinga typically lacks the complexity and grandeur of moist tropical forests, this vegetation type has been to a large extent neglected to date both in terms of conservation programmes and scientific enquiry. This neglect has serious consequences given the enormous destruction of the Caatinga, which exceeds that of the neighbouring biomes of Amazonia and the Cerrado. Because of their potential importance in future warmer and drier climates in Brazil, conservation of the plant species of the Caatinga, which are adapted to high temperatures and seasonally erratic rainfall, is vital.
Designed as an integrated research program involving both Brazilian and UK researchers 'Nordeste' will attempt to redress this neglect:
1. Through the establishment of a permanent plot network similar to that existing in moist tropical forests, allowing measurements of Caatinga canopy structure and dynamics and both their short- and long-term responses to climate change to be evaluated for the first time.
2. With the aid of new DNA barcoding measurements designed to better quantify the biodiversity of the region.
3. Through a comprehensive analysis of the biogeochemistry of natural and disturbed ecosystems to develop an understanding of how nutrient cycling processes vary in response to variations in soils and climate and human activity
4. Via a series of detailed structural, physiological measurements across the wide range of different Caatinga sub-types found in the region. These will be made both above- and below-ground and in natural and degraded ecosystems of the region. A special emphasis will be placed on measurements designed to help us understand why it is that under certain circumstances it is that very high biomass stands of Caatinga occur despite the very low rainfall.
5. Glasshouse experiments comparing water stress responses of seedlings native to moist forest, savanna and caatinga will also be undertaken in order to try and understand what specific metabolic adaptions are involved in plant adaptions to frequent and/or erratic conditions of extreme soil water deficit.
6. Via an integrated modelling program to provide new parameterisations of surface fluxes for semi-aid ecosystems in general and to provide new insights into variations in woody plant shoot: root allocation patterns in response to variation in precipitation regime.
To achieve these aims, the project has been designed as a series of six inter-related field-based workpackages, with a seventh workpackage focussed on modelling of species distributions, ecosystem fluxes and developing a mechanistic understanding of caatinga vegetation functional responses to both variations in climate and soil properties.

Designed with a view to also producing a series of well-defined products to assist both policy makers and local communities to better manage this unique resource - for example, online guides to ecologically dominant and economically useful plants, the study will serve to provide a valuable first step towards a better understanding of Caatinga vegetation and its responses to anthropogenic and land-use change pressures.

Planned Impact

Most conservation and science projects in the tropics focus on the rain forest biome, neglecting the fact that 50% of the lowland tropics is covered by dry biomes such as dry forests or savannas. These dry areas are home to 30% of the global population, and are hence massively impacted by human activity. This project focuses on the dry forests of the Caatinga region of North East Brazil, which have suffered from scientific neglect, destruction, and lack of conservation attention, with only <1% of these forests included in Brazil's National Protected Area Network. Despite this, the dry forests of the Caatinga house a high level of unique (endemic) plant species that are adapted to the region's severe and erratic droughts. These plants will be a valuable resource as climates change especially for the 15% of Brazil's population that lives in the Caatinga region who depend on these woodlands for ecosystem services and more specific needs such as firewood.
Our project will increase our understanding on how dry biomes contribute to global biogeochemical cycles and how their unique species react to environmental changes, expanding ecological and biodiversity monitoring in Brazil beyond Amazonia and into the Caatinga. The project will build a platform from which Brazil, and Latin America more generally, can monitor more effectively biodiversity and ecosystem services in dry biomes.
We aim to develop whole-system knowledge for the Caatinga to inform responsible management of this unique environment at national and regional political level in Brazil. Brazil has an obligation to monitor its biodiversity and carbon stocks under the Convention on Biological Diversity and the Aichi 2020 Biodiversity Targets, but most previous work has been focused on Amazonia. In particular, this project is relevant to achieving Strategic Goal 3 ('...safeguarding ecosystems, species and genetic diversity through direct interventions such as increasing the coverage, effectiveness and representativeness of protected areas and other area-based conservation measures...') and Strategic Goal 4 ('...safeguarding and enhancement of the benefits of biodiversity and ecosystem services to human societies') of the Aichi targets.
Our project will provide impetus and build capacity for conservation action in the Caatinga. We aim to build bridges between scientists and policy makers who can influence their protection and sustainable management at federal and state level via two policy meetings in Brasilia and Salvador. We will also build environmental science capacity in Brazil for undergraduate and postgraduate students in cutting edge methodologies in biodiversity and ecological science, and involve local communities in the collection of our biodiversity and ecological data. Our project will therefore build long-term capacity to monitor species composition, carbon stock, biogeochemical cycles, vegetation dynamics, and biodiversity loss in the Caatinga.
The project will also benefit local people in NE Brazil through delivery of user-friendly information about plant species useful for ecological restoration, crop wild relatives, minor crops, and useful plants. In the long-term, our science will provide information essentially to successful restoration of Caatinga, for example by a better understanding of the genetic diversity of its plants. Such restoration could have major regional and global ecological effects - for example it has been estimated that large scale dry forest restoration in Latin America could generate up to 8Pg of carbon storage. In the long-term, the knowledge of biome-level ecological processes gained during the project will enable the sustainable management of ecosystem services that underlie human wellbeing in Brazil and more widely.

Publications

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Title Developed Method for Curating Long-Term Monitoring Plots in Complex Dry Forest Vegetation 
Description ForestPlots.net is a tool used to archive, curate, analyse permanent plot data. Dry forests, especially the Caatinga, present a special challenge analytically because they require tracking multstemmed individuals. Thus: (1) different stems (ramets) are not necessarily different individual trees biologically (genets); and (2) each stem (ramet) needs to be measured at multiple points of measurement to enable comparisons with wetter forests (typically measured at H=1.3m) and drier systems such as savannas (often measured at eg H=0.3m); and (3) dry forests in Brazil often have trees. shrubs, and lianas with extremely complex branching patterns and topologies. All these factors complicate field work and data management. During NORDESTE the plot ecological team led by Oliver Phillips and project colleagues at Edinburgh and Leeds together with Ana Carla Aquino as the Brazilian field leader and together with our Brazilian BIO-RED partners, have developed new protocols to capture this information in the field, and new database tools to store, curate, and analyse it at ForestPlots.net. Programming for this was provided by the ForestPlots.net developer, Dr Mark Burkitt. This provides a significant step forward in our capability to monitor dry forests over long periods. 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Year Produced 2018 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact This development is being trialled in NORDESTE currently. During 2018 it will be made available to another NERC project ("SEOSAW", led by Casey Ryan at Edinburgh) to support their databasing of African miombo forests and to the Newton-NERC project partners of the BIO-RED project to support databasing of Cerrado systems, and eventually to all ForestPlots.net users as a 'dry forest' option 
URL https://www.forestplots.net
 
Title ForestPlots.net 
Description It is ALL FOUR of the options given above (for which I had to choose one) ForestPlots.net provides a unique place for everyone who wants to measure, monitor, and understand the world's forests, and especially the tropical forests. Currently Forest Plots.net tracks more than 1,500 forest plots in 35 countries, recording the work of more than 1,000 people. ForestPlots.net aims to promote science synergies across countries and continents, and enable partners to access, analyse and manage the information from their long-term plots. ForestPlots.net aims to help forest scientists and forest people worldwide, especially in tropical countries. ForestPlots.net includes a web application with a modular design. The front end was developed using Microsoft.net framework and it interacts with a Microsoft SQL server database. The underlying database is a relational database which utilizes more than 50 tables to store plot and individual tree information. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2011 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact ForestPlots.net has supported more than 100 research outputs and research products http://www.forestplots.net/en/products http://www.forestplots.net/en/resources ForestPlots.net provides multiple database and analytical tools used by forest researchers and practitioners, especially in the UK and South America. With Newton support (BC Institutional Links and NERC Newton Fund) during 2016, 2017, and 2018 we are extending its use to partners in Amazonas (Brazil), Mato Grosso (Brazil) and to partners in Indonesia. As of 2018, Google Analytics shows there has already been increased uptake in Brazil, where the proportion of active users of ForestPlots has more than doubled from 7 to 15% of all users, and where the number of active sessions analysing Amazon forest data is now ca. 100 per month. 
URL http://www.forestplots.net/
 
Title Nordeste Forest Plot inventory records 
Description Between March 2018 and 2019, we have uploaded 24 * 0.5 ha inventory plots which form the core of the Nordeste project. These plots, with tree by tree data on identity (species), location, diameter, height, and biomass are curated now at ForestPlots.net. During the coming year together with Nordeste team members all these plots censused with RAINFOR-NORDESTE will be quality controlled, and additional plot data incorporated. We (Leeds) are doing some of this ourselves, and providing support to the FAESP funded data technician Ana Carla Aquino to ensure she has every opportunity to learn and apply these data management protocols. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2019 
Provided To Others? Yes  
Impact The data have only just been uploaded 
URL http://www.forestplots.net