Max Planck research protects the Amazon rainforest

Extensive inventory forms basis for legislation governing when trees in the Brazilian rainforests can be logged

December 15, 2010

The forestry industry in a highly sensitive part of the Amazon rainforest has just become more sustainable thanks to the work of a team of researchers, including scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry. They produced an inventory of extensive forest areas, regularly flooded by the Amazon and Solimões rivers, and calculated the rates of growth and reproduction of individual species of trees. The Brazilian state of Amazonas has taken these findings as the basis for its new logging legislation for the floodplain forests.

The state of Amazonas, Brazil has recently passed an amendment to deliver more sustainable logging in the floodplain forests. The amendment governs how often a species may be logged, how many trees may be taken and the necessary tree circumference. The forested areas along the Amazon and Solimões rivers, which specialists refer to as the Várzea forests, extend up to 100 kilometres inland from each side of both rivers and cover a total of around 300,000 square kilometres , an area virtually the size of Germany. Since the Várzea forests are regularly flooded, they form a unique ecosystem, but it is at serious risk from intensive logging.

The amendment is based on studies conducted by the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz and the National Institute of Amazonian Research (INPA). Researchers from both institutions spent more than ten years studying the growth and population dynamics of the species of tree found in the floodplain forests.

"We produced an inventory of the Várzea forests. In other words, the species of trees, their numbers and ages," said Florian Wittmann, one of the two Max Planck researchers involved. Together with his colleagues, Jochen Schöngart from Mainz, and Maria T. F. Piedade from the Brazilian partner INPA, he discovered that the existing logging regulations were not protecting some species, including many precious woods. "Even though the trees in the floodplain forest grow faster than those in dry areas, the rate at which they have been removed in the past is too high for many species to survive," added Wittmann.

The old legislation allowed five trees, with a diameter of 50 centimeters or more, to be removed every 25 years per hectare, regardless of species. Many species of tree, however, only reproduce when they are older and thicker so these would have been removed at too high a rate. At some point in time this would have meant that these species would have disappeared from the floodplain forests.

Based on their findings, the scientists are now proposing different diameters and removal rates for trees for specific species and ecosystems. For example, the diameter for one species has been increased to 100 centimeters. "We are very proud that our fundamental research is being directly applied to better protect the floodplain forest and that our group of researchers is even mentioned explicitly in the legislation," says Wittmann.

The scientist is most confident that the new legislation will also be respected. "The state of Amazonas is imposing stringent monitoring," says Wittmann. "There is also a good incentive for the timber industry to observe the strict rules because otherwise they won't be given an environmental certificate and so won't be able to sell their timber." It's not just Brazilian but also international timber companies which operate in the floodplain forests.

The Várzea forests
The Várzea covers those areas along the banks of the Amazon and Solimões rivers which are regularly flooded as the water level changes throughout the seasons. They are then covered with what is known as whitewater, which contains high nutrient levels. At the heart of the Amazon River, these spread inland from the river for 50 kilometres while near the estuary, the figure is closer to 200 kilometres. In total the Várzea includes around five percent of Brazil's Amazon rainforest. The nutrient-rich Várzea soils, where fresh sediments are being deposited all the time from regular flooding, are home to characteristic vegetation, known as the floodplain forests. Most of the inhabitants of the Várzea live on fishing, logging and small-scale agriculture.

The Max Planck Institute for Chemistry
Around 230 people work at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, researching the earth and its environment at various levels from nanoparticles to planets and from ecosystem dynamics to global climate change. There are three departments studying the earth system in field studies, under lab conditions and with the aid of computer-assisted modelling. The institute is helping develop our understanding of the earth's natural resources and providing the solutions for sustainable use of our planet and environmental protection. The institute's International Research School and E-learning program are active contributions to scientific education.

The Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia
The National Institute of Amazonian Research (Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas da Amazônia or INPA) is an official education and research body in Manaus, Brazil. It was founded in 1952 with the goal of gaining knowledge of the Brazilian Amazon area. Most of its research focuses on important issues in ecology, molecular ecology, zoology, botany, tropical agriculture and tropical fish farming. The institute is also home to a collection of vertebrates, invertebrates and vascular plants from the Amazon rainforest.

Major German/Brazilian collaborative projects
Since 1968 the Max Planck Society has run a tropics field station in Manaus. Since 2007 previous work into environmental physiology, succession, biodiversity, productivity and sustainability has been linked to research focusing on the exchange of trace gases of importance to the climate between the biosphere and atmosphere and the production and function of aerosols in the climate. The latest projects include planning a measurement tower, around 320 m in height (Amazonian Tall Tower Observatory, ATTO). The decision to build this was passed by the Brazilian Minister for Science and Technology and the German Federal Minister of Education and Research, Annette Schavan, in March 2009 as a German/Brazilian joint venture. Work is currently underway on the infrastructure required to get started on construction. The tower should be completed by 2012.

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