Amazon white sand scrubs face neglect and degradation

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Flag It, Sao Paulo

A group of scientists from the Brazilian Amazon National Research Institute (INPA), the Federal University of Amazonas (UFAM), the State University of Sao Paulo (UNESP) in Rio Claro and the Vitória Amazônica Foundation (FVA) sent in May a motion to the Environmental Council of the Amazonas State, demanding actions to protect the Amazon white sand scrubs (also called open vegetation). Among the items that most concerned the researchers is the Resolution Nº 15/2013, approved in April, that allows the implementation of agriculture, forestry and extraction projects under 10 hectares in this fragile ecosystem. Projects that cover more than 10 hectares are forbidden.

“The legal classification of the white sand scrubs as less vulnerable environments is serious, because in fact is exactly the opposite,” said Sérgio Henrique Borges, the coordinator of the scientific research project of the FVA. The focus of the environmental policies in the Amazon has been the forest, but the open vegetation, although with a smaller biodiversity, is a rich and fragile ecosystem”, he explained.

The motion is a result of the symposium “Amazon white sand scrubs: origins, biodiversity and conservation”, that took place in Manaus, in the INPA, on April 17 and 18.

The Environmental Council of the Amazonas State created a Working Group to try to implement the suggestions presented by the researchers. In a formal technical note signed by the forestry engineer Neila Cavalcante and by the fishery engineer Christina Fischer, both from the State Centre of Conservation Units (CEUC), the Department of Sustainable Development of Amazonas (SDS) informed that the “open vegetation” are “likely to be considered remarkable landscapes of great importance to biodiversity conservation” and that the motion “can be an inducer of new studies that make possible to study the change of the Resolution”.

As they are localized in headwaters’ areas, the white sand scrubs were considered wetlands by the international scientific community. It means that they are under the protection of the Ramsar Convention, an international treaty that frames national and international cooperation for the conservation and wise use of wetlands and their resources, of which Brazil is a signatory.

In the macro zoning made by the Amazonas State government and approved by the Assembly in 2010, the open vegetation also had a better framing than the one of the Resolution 15/2013. A macro zoning is the official planning of the use of a certain territory that states what can be done or not in which area. In the case of the Amazonas State’s macro zoning, the open vegetation is included in the zone of “special use” (category 3) and, inside it, considered “fragile ecosystems” (subcategory 3.4).

Unknown biodiversity

The Amazonas has the larger group of Amazon white sand scrubs, distributed mainly in the Northwest, South and Southeast of the state. But they are present also in the other Brazilian states that are part of the Amazon biome and they are characterized both by the natural open vegetation, generally with sandy soil seasonably flooded, and by the sparse forests that surrounds it.

“The white sand scrubs are islands in the middle of the forest. They sprinkle the entire Amazon region – and this island distribution has consequences to the fauna and flora. When they become accessible, as by the construction of a road, they are fast degraded – and their regeneration is still more difficult than the forest one”, alerted Borges.

A report published by O Eco in 2009 drew attention to the unknown biological richness of the white sand scrubs. In cooperation projects between UFAM, FVA, UNESP of Rio Claro and INPA, with financing from state foundations that support research in Amazonas and Sao Paulo (respectively, Fapeam and Fapesp), scientists identified 151 species of birds that are common in this ecosystem. Many of them (127) were considered “regular”, because they probably came from other environments, and 24 were considered “specialists”: species that are exclusively or almost exclusively found in the white sand scrubs.

To map only this portion of the rich avifauna of the white sand scrubs, almost 8,000 hours of fieldwork were necessary. The bird collection, done with the use of nets, happened in 30 spots distributed in four locationshighlighted in the interactive map: along the Aracá river, in the Nation Park (Parna) of Jaú and in the Sustainable Development Reserve (RDS) of Uatumã, in the North of Amazonas, and in the National Park Viruá, in Roraima.

Clicking on the spots in the map, it is possible to see the images of three specialists birds found in the research: the Rufous-crowned (Elaenia ruficeps), the dark manakin
(Xenopipo atronitens) and the Azul-napped jays (Cyanocorax helprini). It is also possible to access other pictures taken in the fieldwork that show the diversity of landscapes of the open vegetation and some threats faced by it.

Threatened ecosystem

Unlike forest, the white sand scrubs don’t have a systematic monitoring of their conservation. The lack of data about their total area or the percentage already destroyed is partially due to the nature of remote sensing itself: in the satellite images, the open vegetation may seem deforestation. “I once saw a natural open vegetation of 1000hectares within the National Park of Jaú, be considered deforestation by the federal government, based on satellite images”, told Borges.

This lack of data becomes really worrying when one knows that the white sand scrubs are being over exploited to extract sand for civil constructions. It is happening nearby Manaus, Manacapuru and Novo Airão, cities of Amazonas, as well as along the BR-174 road.

In the South and Southeast of the Amazonas, the pressure over the white sand scrubs comes mainly from landowners, farmers and squatters. “It is tempting to do the first plantation in open vegetation, because you don’t have to cut big trees, so the effort is smaller. But if the person is an experienced farmer, he or she will notice that the soil is not good for agriculture”, saidBorges.

Besides human action, the white sand scrubs face also the threat of natural fires. In 1997, for instance, a fire destroyed 241 hectares of the natural open vegetation of Patauá (21% of its total area), located inside the National Park of Jaú.

The State Park of the Serra do Aracá case

One of the recommendations made by the scientists in the motion sent to the Environmental Council of the Amazonas State is the extension of the State Park of the Serra do Aracá, in order to include 450,000 hectares of white sand scrubs in the protected area. This conservation unit is located in Barcelos, in the North of the State, and was created in 1990, with an area of 1.818,700 hectares.

The redesign of the State Park of the Serra do Aracá is being studied since last November by a working group created by the State Centre of Conservation Units (CEUC) of the Department of Sustainable Development of Amazonas (SDS). The creation of this group was a result of a request presented by the Hutukara Yanomami Association, due to the overlap between part of the conservation unit and the indigenous land.

In the proposal presented by the members of this working group in April, the State Park of the Serra do Aracá would have 874,121 hectares (48% of its original area). It would lose 1.560,869 hectares of the overlapped area, which would remain protected, since it is part of the Yanomami Indigenous Land. And, as compensation, the State conservation unit would encompass 617,290 hectares of its buffer zone, an area that is covered with white sand scrubs and igapós (flooded forests). There, the headwaters of the most important rivers of Demeni Basin are located (as the Cueiras and Jauari rivers).

With the support of the geo-processing laboratory of FVA, the members of the working group of CEUC-SDS are now setting the exact boundaries of the new polygon suggested to the State Park. When this work is finished, they will schedule a public audience in Barcelos to present and debate the proposal.

This story was made specially for the Flag It Project and was published originally in Portuguese in O Eco – Click here to read the article in Portuguese