The book, "Rare Plants of Brazil," was compiled by more than 175 scientists from 55 research institutions. It shows that the number of rare and endemic species in the country is more than four times the government's estimate.
The result of a study run by Feira de Santana State University with the nonprofit organization Conservation International, the book identifies and maps 2,291 rare plant species in Brazil.
The rare plants were identified according to two criteria - those occurring only in Brazil and those present in a total occurrence area equal to or smaller than 10,000 square kilometers.
A rare Brazilian flower Sinningia guttata (Photo © A. Chautems courtesy CI Brasil)
"This means that the current number of plant species officially recognized by the Brazilian government as threatened, 472, was grossly underestimated, to say the least," says Alessandro Rapini from Feira de Santana State University, one of the book's authors.
The rare plant species were used to identify 752 proposed Key Biodiversity Areas, KBAs, the most important sites for global biodiversity conservation.
These proposed KBAs cover 140 million hectares - 16.3 percent of the country's area. Around half of the proposed KBAs have been heavily degraded by human activities. Only 7.8 percent have more than 50 percent of their area in protected areas or indigenous lands.
This lack of protection, the increase of human activities in the country and the substantial effort by Brazilian agribusiness to soften environmental laws creates an explosive combination that could mean the rapid extinction of thousands of Brazilian plant species, the authors warn.
"This is the first effort in Brazil to understand well the plant diversity in the country as well as pinpoint priority areas for conservation using plant species as surrogates," said Jose Maria Cardoso da Silva, Conservation International vice-president and one of the book's authors.
A rare Brazilian cactus Micranthocereus hofackerianus (Photo © M. Machado courtesy CI Brasil)
"Without the effective protection of these species, Brazil faces a mass extinction," he said.
"This should be a major diplomatic embarrassment for Brazil - one of the first signatories of the Convention on Biological Diversity," he said, "as the Brazilian government has pledged to make all efforts to prevent the loss of species in the country."
"Plant life on the old plateaus and mountains in central-eastern Brazil is richest in the same places where the headwaters of the most important Brazilian rivers are found," said Cardoso. "Therefore, the link between the conservation of rare species and provision of freshwater ecosystem services for most of the Brazilian population is quite strong."
This study added at least 25 percent more priority areas than the previous effort by the Brazilian government to identify the most important areas in the country for the conservation of biodiversity and ecosystem services.
Published last week, the book, written in Portuguese, has been well received by civil society, government, academia and corporate sectors.
"Civil society likes because the effort provided a strong scientific foundation on why Brazil cannot change the environmental legislation without a deep understanding of its biodiversity, government likes because this is a big contribution so that the Brazilian government can evaluate its efforts toward the 2010 targets and improve its conservation actions," said Cardoso.
"Academia likes," he said, "because they think this is a good example on how to organize the knowledge in a collaborative way to influence large-scale policy, and corporations like because they have, for the first time, access to a critical information that will facilitate the risk analysis of any new investment."
Copyright Environment News Service, ENS, 2009. All rights reserved.