FAPESP - Restoring Neotropical dry ecosystems - is plant functional composition the key to success?

Lead Research Organisation: University of Exeter
Department Name: Geography


Despite their global importance and poor protection, TDFS have been studied far less than other tropical forest ecosystems, particularly TDFS areas undergoing restoration. We aim to address this recently identified knowledge gap with the aim of improving the success of TDFS restoration. This project will provide the first assessment of the resilience of existing and restored TDFS to changing climate and climate extremes, through undertaking a comprehensive, community-scale assessment of traits which determine plant water-use, carbon production and nutrient-use strategies across restored TDFS sites. The information generated in this project will create a step-change in our current understanding of the function of restored and natural TDFS sites, facilitating development of state-of-the art vegetation models to improve climate prediction and the creation of new restoration policy through integrating with key stakeholders responsible for the creation and implementation of restoration strategies for Brazil. Our key aims are:
Aim 1: Evaluate ecosystem function in TDFS sites restored using different strategies.
Aim 2: Understand the pressures on TDFS from climate-change and climate extremes.
Aim 3: Improve policy and restoration strategies for the restoration of, and long-term resilience of TDFS in collaboration with the Brazilian government.

Tropical dry forests and savannas (TDFS) make up 34% of Brazil's land area and contain >50% of Brazil's plant species. More than 100 million people live in TDFS regions of Brazil and many of these people are from rural vulnerable communities who rely on essential ecosystem services TDFS provide. These services include: 1. water supply, shade and pollinators for Brazil's agricultural frontier; 2. national water security, with 43% of the surface water outside the Amazon falling in TDFS and supplying the aquifers which feed Brazil's three largest river basins; 3. a source of timber and food; 4. carbon storage for climate change mitigation; 5. areas of natural beauty, used extensively for tourism; 6. a living seed bank for >4500 woody plant species, many of which are endemic. Despite this, TDFS remain poorly protected with only 1.2% of dry forests and 7.5% of savannas in protected reserves and <10% of Brazil's dry forest and <20% of its savannahs remaining intact.
Recognising the social, economic and environmental implications of the current rates of loss of TDFS, the Brazilian government has responded by committing to restoring 120,000 km2 (an area about half the UK) of natural ecosystems by 2030, with a focus on TDFS. Brazil's Ministry for the Environment (ICMBio) and Ministry for Agriculture (EMBRAPA) have started implementing this restoration plan. However, success rates of restored TDFS areas remains very low, with high variability between areas subjected to varying restoration strategies. The reasons for low success and high variability between strategies remains unknown, hampering current ability to meet national restoration targets.
Until now, all TDFS restoration strategies have focused on re-creating the species composition observed in natural, undisturbed TDFS habitats. This focus has assumed that species diversity is synonymous with maximizing ecosystem productivity and resistance to climate variability, yet it ignores the suitability of these species to the new drier and disturbed environment they experience in degraded landscapes. The latest research from tropical rainforests broadly suggests that focusing only on species' diversity is too narrow. Instead, plant resource use strategies, and particularly hydraulic functional traits are likely to be the key to determining ecosystem-scale function and the resistance and resilience of TDFS ecosystems to current and future climate variability. To successfully protect and restore TDFS it is therefore vital that the current lack of understanding about ecosystem function and plant resource-use strategies in TDFS is addressed.

Planned Impact

1. The Brazilian Government and NGOs: Our project partners (ICMBio, EMBRAPA, ISPN, PPBio) are central to the creation of new legislation in Brazil, designed to improve TDFS restoration success. However, the creation of this new legislation, is reliant on new scientific knowledge concerning which restoration techniques will provide long-term restoration success. From the project outset we will work with these beneficiaries to create new cutting-edge science determining which plant functional compositions will promote restoration success and resilience to future climate change, whilst maintaining the key ecosystem services TDFS provide. We will actively contribute to the development of the ICMBio technical restoration guides by the end of the project, which will be used to determine the strategic direction of the long-term restoration policy. In year 4 and beyond the project's key project partners will present our findings at multiagency working groups they participate in, which are targeted at creating new state-level restoration policy.

2. Local TDFS communities: TDFS house some of the poorest communities in Brazil. Through providing new research to increase TDFS restoration success, this project will facilitate long-term (beyond the project's lifetime) food, water and fuel security for poor TDFS communities. In years 3-4 of this project the new information we generate on restoration techniques will be used to support the creation of new seed markets (see Pathways to Impact). These markets will allow rural communities to sustainably harvest and sell seed for restoration, generating an alternative source of income and promoting social and economic development. Lastly, in years 3-4 of this project, we will be able to provide wealthier rural land owners with new advice to facilitate successful TDFS restoration to meet new government legislation on restoration of private land (see Pathways to Impact), in the most cost effective way.

3. Reserve managers: Managing TDFS reserves is challenging due to the multiple threats these areas face and the low success rates of restoration. Throughout the whole project lifecycle, from inception to closure, we will provide and disseminate new techniques on how to improve restoration success, working directly with reserve managers through collaborators in ICMBio, EMBRAPA, PPBio and ISPN. This will allow reserve managers to update their restoration practices, improving the long-term success and survival of TDFS reserves. Furthermore beyond the lifetime of this project we envisage the changes in restoration policy this project could generate leading to larger areas of TDFS being successfully restored and converted into reserves.

3. Global climate modellers and the IPCC: TDFS regions are a key driver of uncertainty in modelled global climate variability. CoI-Sitch is an author on the previous and future IPCC reports and CoI-Sitch and PI-Rowland closely collaborate with multiple IPCC authors, including Profs Collins, Friedlingstein, Cox, Betts and Dr. Jones. We can therefore communicate our work directly with scientists, with the potential to influence climate change policy at the highest level. Consequently beyond the lifetime of this project, we envisage our model developments in JULES facilitating our new TDFS specific PFTs to be used within global climate simulations by the IPCC, facilitating new, more appropriate climate change policy for TDFS.

4. The wider public: We will disseminate our work to a global audience via blogs, YouTube videos and a social media (e.g. ISPN website which receives >1 million hits per year), throughout the project. Public interest will ensure new TDFS restoration policy is given more consideration by policy makers. Furthermore an increase in the area of restored TDFS will feedback to provide long-term benefits to global populations for example maintenance of an important global biodiversity hot spot and long-term climate change mitigation


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Lewis K (2023) Identifying hotspots for ecosystem restoration across heterogeneous tropical savannah-dominated regions. in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

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Lewis K (2023) Identifying hotspots for ecosystem restoration across heterogeneous tropical savannah-dominated regions. in Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences

Description We have initial, pilot data showing that the trees within the Cerrado are extremely sensitive to which area and soils they are ale to be restored in. Further field data is showing that the traits of trees, especially the hydraulic traits are highly soil specific, suggesting restoration requires specific tailoring of species to soils. Furthermore we are showing that the success of restoration of native plants on degraded pastures is highly tied to the species previously grown in the pastures. Fast growing ruderal species and exotic grasses are very likely leaving soul legacies that significantly disadvantage the growth of slow-growing native plants. This suggests active restoration of soils is required to regain native plant diversity.

A diversity experiment we have run within the Cerrado has shown that many of the key species planted for high density for restoration are actually facilitating exotic invasion and driving restoration failure. In addition another study within this project has shown that a majority of the Cerrado restoration projects are failing and a large shift is needed in restoration science to understand plant soil interactions to improve success.

A paper where we show that the rate of restoration is too slow for Brazil to met it's targets and that it also must invest more in restoring the dry biomes has just been accepted into STOLEN, demonstrating the huge carbon offsetting potential which exists if native Cerrado vegetation is prioritized for restoration.

In addition to the above we have also undertaken studies to understand the diversity and function of native Cerrado ecosystems. This is vital missing information in ecology, which often hampers restoration and conservation science. We have been demonstrating that the breadth of soil conditions and plant functionality in the Cerrado is much larger than previously thought.
Exploitation Route The paper we are producing on the restoration potential within Brazil for climate mitigation will be a very relevant to policy makers, as it clearly shows the focus on single biomes, such as the rainforest, is insufficient to meet their climate goals. Rapid restoration across all biomes in Brazil is needed for Brazil to meet climate mitigation targets, meaning rapid policy change is needed.

Also see impact section, we have had both industrial interest and interest form the Brazilian government in taking our research forward into other grant and into changing practice.
Sectors Environment

Description We have had various impact outcomes from this grant: 1) Our research has been used to change the species being put into the restoration mixes in the central goias region of Brazil, after results (currently under reveiw), showing that a species planted in very high densities were facilitating exotic invasion and restoration failure. The integrations of ICIMBio BRazil (equivalent to national park/environment agency) were collaborators on our work and we have been working with them and the seed collection networks to change the species diversity of the restoration projects in the regino. 2) our calculations of restoration potential within the Cerrado biome were picked up by Shell who have provided follow up funding to enhance the potential for restoration as a Nature based solution within the Cerrado (see follow up funding section).
Sector Agriculture, Food and Drink,Environment
Impact Types Economic,Policy & public services

Description Carbon Storage in Pasture through Ecological Restoration (CASPER)
Amount £16,500,000 (GBP)
Organisation Shell Centre 
Sector Private
Country United Kingdom
Start 06/2022 
End 06/2027
Description Facilitating large-scale restoration of Brazilian savannas
Amount £45,000 (GBP)
Organisation World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF UK) 
Sector Charity/Non Profit
Country United Kingdom
Start 01/2021 
End 07/2024
Description Resolving the current and future carbon dynamics of the dry tropics
Amount £128,847 (GBP)
Funding ID NE/T012471/1 
Organisation Natural Environment Research Council 
Sector Public
Country United Kingdom
Start 11/2020 
End 10/2024
Title Challenges and directions for open ecosystems biodiversity restoration: An overview of the techniques applied for Cerrado 
Description 1. Ecological restoration of tropical open ecosystems remains challenging for both science and practice. Over the last decade, innovative techniques have been developed, but whether they have been successful or not remains to be demonstrated. Assessing the outcomes of these initiatives is crucial to drive the following steps to improve tropical grasslands and savanna restoration. 2. Analyzing 82 data sets from the literature and primary data collection, we assessed the effectiveness of passive and active restoration techniques applied in Cerrado open ecosystems. We used plant diversity variables (species and growth forms) as indicators, considering ruderals and exotics as non-target species. Specifically, we aimed to answer: (i) How does the diversity of target species change through time in areas subject to passive restoration? (ii) Are active and passive restoration techniques effective in restoring the proportion of target species found in old-growth reference ecosystems? (iii) Have the current techniques been successful in recovering the proportions of growth forms of reference ecosystems? 3. We found that target species proportions do not increase with time, suggesting limitations of typical species to colonize degraded sites. Hence, passive restoration will promote the conservation of a limited and constant number of target species. This number will depend on the magnitude of degradation and previous land use. 4. The restoration techniques currently applied to restore the biodiversity of Cerrado open ecosystems are not reaching the reference standards, with distinct techniques driving plant communities to different sets of growth forms. Active restoration based on propagules obtained from pristine donor sites (topsoil translocation, plant material transplant, and seeding) performed better than passive restoration for most of the growth forms analyzed. 5. Synthesis and Applications: Different growth forms have different roles in determining the structure and functioning of Cerrado vegetation. A mix of techniques can better approximate plant diversity and the proportionality of target species of pristine ecosystems. Singular restoration approaches are insufficient for restoring Cerrado open ecosystem biodiversity. Mixed efforts encompassing various techniques are required instead. Furthermore, it is likely restoration success can be improved with greater investment in improving our understanding of and developing existing restoration techniques. 
Type Of Material Database/Collection of data 
Year Produced 2023 
Provided To Others? Yes  
URL http://datadryad.org/stash/dataset/doi:10.5061/dryad.05qfttf6v
Description DRYFLOR network meeting, Piura, Peru 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Study participants or study members
Results and Impact Toby Pennington and Peter Moonlight participated in an invited workshop by the DRYFLOR network in Piura, Peru. Topics discussed included finalising the publication of the forest monitoring protocol developed by the NordEste project as a paper, in collaboration with the DRYFLOR and RainFor networks. This paper was recently submitted and includes >10 NordEste authors.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
Description Invited opening seminar, V Simpósio de Ecologia e Sustentabilidade [5th symposium of ecology and sustainability], Universidade Estadual de Montes Claros: "Os trópicos secos: ciência, conservação e restauração" 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Online seminar followed by "round table" Q&A for an hour, all in Portuguese. The aim was to raise awareness of the importance of science and conservation in the dry biomes of the tropics and the challenges of restoring them.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Invited presentation, Plants, People, Planet Symposium, Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Professional Practitioners
Results and Impact Invited presentation "The dry tropics: science, conservation and restoration". This generated considerable questions and discussions, especially around the validity of planting trees in the dry tropics as a means of C sequestration. The talk is available online at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYagysOIvT8 so can potentially reach a very borad audience
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PYagysOIvT8
Description Invited seminar [online], Círculo de Investigación de Bosques Secos del Perú [Society for Investigation of Peruvian Dry Forest], Universidad Nacional Agraria La Molina, "Los trópicos secos: ciencia, conservación y restauración" (The dry tropics, science, conservation and restoration) 
Form Of Engagement Activity A talk or presentation
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Undergraduate students
Results and Impact Online seminar followed by hour long Q&A (all in Spanish). This focused on raising the profile of science and conservation in the dry tropics, and how we might restored degraded areas. The reach of the event was amazing - almost 300 attendees from across Latin America (mostly Peru and Andean countries)
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2020
Description Media intervew: Radio 5 Live and "In Short" podcast 
Form Of Engagement Activity A press release, press conference or response to a media enquiry/interview
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Media (as a channel to the public)
Results and Impact Media interview covering the potential problems in tree planting as a climate change solution, especially in dry biomes of the tropics
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2019
URL https://www.thenakedscientists.com/podcasts/short/why-planting-trees-isnt-always-good-idea