Brazil’s Tijuca National Park in Rio de Janeiro has been celebrated for over a century as an example of large-scale restoration. But it’s less than one-thousandth the size of China’s 4-million-hectare (nearly 10- million-acre) restoration of the Loess Plateau. While the Chinese project is much bigger, Brazil can boast of restoring lands rich in biodiversity. What can Brazil and China learn from each other from their experiences in landscape restoration?

A new long-term cooperation between Chinese and Brazilian experts, which will soon include experts from other countries, aims to answer that question.

Brazil and China’s global influence is vast. Brazil and China are both BRICS, a group of major emerging national economies that also includes Russia, India and South Africa. As two of the 10 largest economies in the world, China and Brazil both face significant challenges from degraded lands. Brazil’s land-use change makes it one of the 20 largest greenhouse gas emitters on Earth. China’s historic forest loss has made it one of the world’s most forest-deficient countries, with a national forest cover of 22 percent, compared to a global average of 31 percent. Both are experienced at ambitious restoration. China has spent 40 years restoring degraded lands and expanding forest protection, with total investments of more than $105 billion.

Both countries are addressing their natural resource challenges in bold but different ways. In Brazil, the 2012 Forest Law could provide an opportunity to change approaches and give farmers incentives through new schemes such as the Environmental Reserve Quota (Portuguese acronym, CRA), a tradable legal title to areas with intact or regenerating native vegetation that exceeds legal requirements. In China, the 1999 Grain for Green program is to continue providing ecosystem service payments to rural households to encourage turning agricultural lands into areas with more vegetation, tree cover and erosion-fighting terracing.

China—The bigger the better

Huge scale is in the Chinese DNA, visible in the Great Wall or in the staggering size of its factories and housing developments. How did China manage to restore so much land in just 40 years?

Discussions amongst Brazilian and Chinese experts offered three essential components of China’s landscape effort: leadership, discipline, and mobilization of resources. First, China’s large-scale success was determined by strong leadership. A problem was identified – to stop desertification and soil loss in the north -- and plans were designed to address the problem through efficient centralized decision-making. Second, there was disciplined follow-through: restoration policies continue to be implemented after 40 years. Finally, the mobilization of both human and financial resources enabled China to literally create a restoration army (one that happened, incidentally, to include the actual Chinese army).

These results came with costs. The speed of China’s efforts was only possible by using single species or minimally diverse plantings, and local communities were often unable to enjoy the benefits of restored forests. In many areas, restoration has protected land from desertification and brought better rural livelihoods. But in others, trees have grown slowly and some are already dying. Chinese experts readily admit trees were sometimes planted in arid regions better suited to grass. What could China have learned from the Brazilian approach?

Brazil—The devil is in the detail

Brazil cannot match China’s success at scale, but it excels at complex restoration focused on multi-functional and resilient forests. Experts say Brazil’s success appears to derive from three key principles: process, technology, and adaptive management.

First, process: in Brazil, mapping of restoration potential and priority is taken seriously, with soil prepared before planting and careful selection of native species suitable for the area with plant succession considered in multiple waves of planting. Scarce affordable labor in Brazil has led, in part, to the development of technology that reduces the demand for laborers. (With succession planting techniques, “climax” species emerge naturally once easy-to-plant pioneer species have readied the site). For much restoration work, Brazilian researchers have even obviated the need for nurseries; very small areas can be utilized to produce new plants. Finally, adaptive management has been applied in many Brazilian restoration sites, making them more dynamic and robust. Brazilian researchers are continually looking at new approaches to make the business case to landowners or reduce the cost of restoration. The Atlantic Forest PACT has a new restoration goal to restore 15 million hectares (37 million acres) by 2050. Can conservationists meet their goals with business as usual?

Quality vs. Quantity

China has created the world’s largest landscape restoration laboratory. There are striking lessons to be learned about sustainability, novel ecosystems, governance, process and prioritization. For both countries – the exchange made it clear - restoration requires prioritization. Case studies of historical restoration have found that all goals – biodiversity, soil erosion protection, timber security, and water protection cannot all be achieved simultaneously. They can, however, be achieved in stages. China has shown that huge-scale is possible; Brazil has shown that a complex approach can lead to long-term success.

More than half of Brazil’s native vegetation grows on private land. Can Brazil convince enough private landowners and farmers to join in a large-scale restoration effort? Can restoration be undertaken so as to result in high-functioning ecosystems at huge scale? One can hope that the kind of exchange that is now occurring between Brazilian and Chinese champions of restoration are the foundational BRICS of a new era for ecosystem restoration.