Private Natural Heritage Reserves, a Brazilian success story

The Private Natural Heritage Reserves (RPPN in Portuguese) in Brazil represent one of the largest privately protected area systems in the world, covering 48% of the country’s protected areas. Even if they cover only a relatively small proportion of Brazil’s territory, the RPPNs are well-placed to protect areas of high biodiversity. With a focus on the future of this privately protected area, Brazil has recently concluded its 5th RPPNs Congress.

Brazilian environmental authorities at the opening ceremony

The 5th Brazilian Congress of RPPNs was held in the city of Florianópolis, Santa Catarina, southern Brazil, July 26-29th 2018. RPPN is the Portuguese acronym for Private Natural Heritage Reserve, a kind of protected area   that is voluntarily established on private lands, legally recognized by federal, state and local governments and included in the Brazilian System of Protected Areas.

With the main theme of 'The Future of the RPPNs' the 5TH Brazilian Congress of RPPN gathered around 230 people, mostly RPPN owners. The programme included lectures and debates, organized in 12 sessions, with more than 30 speakers. The first session focused on the intergenerational challenge of a privately protected area created in perpetuity. Owners of three RPPNs and their sons shared dreams, achievements, frustrations and plans for the future. In order to engage youth and the RPPN´s heirs, the workshop 'Heirs of Natural Heritage' was held. The result of this workshop was a document with guidelines and proposals, which will be the basis of a program to be implemented over the next few years.

Representatives of governmental agencies presented major initiatives related to the public policies to encourage the creation and implementation of RPPNs: a new law being negotiated in the National Congress, aiming to broaden the legal protection and fiscal incentives for the reserves, and the program of payments for environmental services that some states are implementing. The Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation (ICMBio) - a government agency responsible for the management of federal protected areas - presented the new module of the Computerized Monitoring System for RPPNs. It is an online tool to assist RPPN owners to prepare a management plan of their protected areas.

Experts from academic institutions and civil society organizations were responsible for presenting innovative models and instruments for planning, management effectiveness and sustainability of RPPNs. During the congress the book 'Conservation in a Continuous Cycle  ' was launched. This book brings an innovative model of financial planning and management, based on the potential of generating income from the different activities that can be carried out in the RPPNs.

The last lectures have been given by Brent Mitchell, chair of the IUCN-WCPA Specialist Group on Privately Protected Areas and Nature Stewardship, and James Barborak, co-director of the Center for Protected Area Management of Colorado State University. Brent Mitchell presented a global overview of voluntary conservation and highlighted the relevance of RPPNs in this context. James Barborak emphasized the importance of tourism and the engagement of neighborhoods for the sustainability of privately protected areas.

Brazil has a well-established and growing system of privately protected areas. The Private Natural Heritage Reserves, or RPPN from the name in Portuguese, represent one of the largest privately protected area systems in the world.
There are nearly 1,500 RPPNs in Brazil, totaling 772,000 hectares. That’s not a large area compared to over 76 million hectares of federal protected areas, but RPPN are often well-placed to protect areas of high biodiversity. RPPNs also play a relevant role in protecting ecosystem services. In many Brazilian municipalities, as well as in some river basins that supply water for small and medium-sized cities in the country, the only existing protected area is an RPPN.

Considering the total number of protected areas in Brazil, - about 2800, if we add all existing RPPNs to the National Register of Protected Areas - we may conclude that 48% of the Brazilian protected areas are RPPNs.

RPPN are protected in perpetuity and created owing to the initiative of landowners. Activities allowed in these areas include: scientific research and tourism, recreation and education, as long as such activities are not incompatible with the protection of the resources in the area. The RPPN category was created in 1990 and has been incorporated in the national system of protected areas by federal law since 2000. The land is kept as private ownership and it can be sold or otherwise transferred, but the status of protected area is also transferred to a new owner.

RPPN can also be better managed than the public protected areas. For example, there is only one manager per every 45,000 hectares of federal protected area. Assuming a minimum of one manager per RPPN, the average is one per 550 hectares. These are just average data in a huge country, but it can give some sense of scale. A recent assessment of management effectiveness in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul found that indeed the RPPN are better managed than their government counterparts, though both needed improvement overall.

This congress demonstrated the strength and organizational capacity of RPPN owners' associations. The so-called 'RPPN Movement', led by the National Confederation of RPPNs, is in a positive momentum, regaining its capacity to mobilize. Several regional and state associations that had not been active in recent years began to be reactivated. A huge re-articulation effort is underway, involving hundreds of owners acting in a network, through social networks and online collaborative platforms.

The initiative to build a program to engage the heirs of the current owners   perhaps is the most strategic result of this event. The perpetuity of RPPNs, as well as their restricted protection character - where the direct use of natural resources is not allowed - embodies an intergenerational challenge. The future of the RPPNs is in the hands of the children and the millennials, who will be responsible for pursuing and expanding this legacy.

The next congress is already being planned for 2019 and will be held in the city of Palmas, capital of Tocantins, in the central region of the country. Palmas is in the Cerrado biome, one of the global biodiversity hotspots, which has already lost more than half of its original natural coverage, mainly due to the expansion of soybean plantations.

"The RPPNs are an achievement of Brazilian society and a landmark of the commitment of citizens, private companies and organizations, who dedicate time, creativity and resources to the protection of the country's natural heritage. They do this because they have a certainty: Nature is our greatest asset!" said Beto Mesquita, RPPN specialist and director of Policies and Institutional Relationships of BVRio, a civil society organization that promotes green assets.

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