NERC Impact Awards 2018: Bringing Brazil's biodiversity back from the brink

28 November 2018

Brazilian early career scientist Dr Cristina Banks-Leite discovered the minimum forest cover required to maintain biodiversity in Brazil's Atlantic forest.

Dr Cristina Banks-Leite

Dr Cristina Banks-Leite

Dr Banks-Leite of Imperial College London has devoted her career to saving the forests of her homeland in São Paulo, where one of the most biodiverse areas in the world, the Atlantic Forest, has suffered great losses due to deforestation for agriculture in recent years.

The research has paved the way for the restoration of a fragile forest ecosystem, safeguarding the biodiversity of the region and providing vital water security for the farmers and residents of Brazil's most populous state.

In 2017, her 30% threshold was employed as the official target for restoration in the Atlantic Forest by the Brazilian government, as she showed that this could be achieved at a cost of just 0·01% of Brazilian gross domestic product.

The funds would be spent on Payment for Ecosystem Services (PES) - a scheme which compensates farmers in key areas to restore or protect forested areas - helping both to alleviate poverty and support the environment.

Dr Banks-Leite is now looking to apply her methods to other key biodiversity hotspots around the world to develop forest cover thresholds suited to each unique biome.

Read more about Dr Banks-Leite's research in our Planet Earth article Saving Brazil's forests on a shoestring.

Dr Banks-Leite said:

The planet is going through an unprecedented rate of species extinction, with profound consequences to humankind. The tropics are home to 75% of all species and 40% of human population, many of whom live in poverty. So we urgently need to find ways to combine biodiversity conservation with human welfare.

We found that by maintaining 30% of forest cover within farmland in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil, we can preserve biodiversity and ecosystem integrity. Importantly, setting aside land for nature in priority areas would incur a loss of only 0·61% of the agricultural gross domestic product in the region, but has the potential to alleviate poverty if set asides are associated to Payment for Ecosystem Services schemes.

It is a very positive message that we do not need to make compromises between ecological gains and economic costs.

Dr Simon Kerley, Head of Terrestrial Ecosystems at NERC, said:

Brazil is the most biodiversity country in the world. Research like this is critical if we're to tackle the high rates of extinction being seen globally today. The work of Dr Banks-Leite is important because it not only protects the uniquely rich biodiversity of Brazil, but also because it offers a viable solution to a problem that urgently needs addressing.

Renato Crouzeilles, Associate in the International Institute for Sustainability, said:

We have supported the Brazilian environmental ministry to identify priority areas for restoration in the Atlantic Forest. And the study of Cristina Banks-Leite and colleagues has helped us to develop key restoration scenarios. They found that landscapes with less than 30% of forest cover have a higher chance of loss of biodiversity integrity, and such threshold was used to develop a minimum target for restoration.

Dr Banks-Leite's research has been shortlisted for the early career category of the 2018 NERC Impact Awards, which recognises the impact that an early career scientist has already had in environmental science. Winners will be announced at a ceremony at the Natural History Museum on 3 December 2018.

Further information

Ione Bingley
Press and Communications Officer
01793 411616
07864 972302


1. NERC is the UK's main agency for funding and managing research, training and knowledge exchange in the environmental sciences. Our work covers the full range of atmospheric, Earth, biological, terrestrial and aquatic science, from the deep oceans to the upper atmosphere and from the poles to the equator. We coordinate some of the world's most exciting research projects, tackling major issues such as climate change, environmental influences on human health, the genetic make-up of life on Earth, and much more. NERC is part of UK Research & Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by a grant-in-aid from the UK government.

2. Imperial College London is one of the world's leading universities. The college's 17,000 students and 8,000 staff are expanding the frontiers of knowledge in science, medicine, engineering and business, and translating their discoveries into benefits for our society. Imperial is the UK's most international university, according to Times Higher Education, with academic ties to more than 150 countries. Reuters named the college as the UK's most innovative university because of its exceptional entrepreneurial culture and ties to industry.