Story | 01/31/2023 08:07:22 | 5 min Read time

Protecting biodiversity on UPM’s eucalyptus plantations in Uruguay

In Uruguay, biological surveys have been carried out in areas owned by UPM since the early 1990s to help identify, classify and protect species and native ecosystems. At present the network of formal conservation areas covers nearly 14,000 hectares. The aim is to increase these protected areas and continue with UPM’s long term biodiversity programme.

In 2020 UPM defined three biodiversity indicators for its land as part of its global biodiversity programme established in 1998. The three indicators are (1) Developing the nature conservation area network, (2) Maintaining and enhancing endemic (i.e. native only to Uruguay) and threatened species populations in formal conservation areas, (3) Controlling and decreasing the invasion of exotic woody species populations in conservation areas.

In Uruguay UPM’s sustainable eucalyptus plantations are situated on grasslands that were previously used for cattle grazing. UPM does not, and will not, convert natural forests into plantations. However, in public discussions in recent years, some have argued that UPM’s plantations in Uruguay represent a monoculture.

According to Ivan Grela, UPM’s Biodiversity Coordinator, Pulp and Forestry Operations in Uruguay, this viewpoint is not that simple. “There is the idea that the eucalyptus plantation is just eucalyptus and that is not correct at all,” he says.

“We manage diverse landscapes. On our farms we have eucalyptus tree stands – and we also have natural ecosystems that preserve the natural ecosystem we had before the plantations. The larger farms include natural grasslands, natural forest, and wetlands. On average we have 60% of the farms planted and 40% unplanted. These natural unplanted areas are a harbour for many natural species of plants and animals.”

Grela continues: “This 60% planted is not just a single stand. Plantations are fragmented into small stands separated by firebreaks, keeping the natural vegetation, mainly grasslands, that are used by many mammals and birds as was reported in a recent paper Grassland afforestation in South America: Local scale impacts of eucalyptus plantations on Uruguayan mammals.”

Managing diverse landscapes

At the end of 2022 UPM owned around 305,000 hectares of land in Uruguay, and of this total 114,000 hectares were classified as comprising natural ecosystems – mainly natural grasslands – and 18,000 hectares of natural forests.

To provide some context regarding the land area owned by UPM and designated as natural ecosystems and natural forests, 122,000 hectares is equivalent to 1,220 km2 – a total land area around three times larger than the Caribbean island of Barbados (431 km2). To manage this land UPM has put in place long term biodiversity targets and monitoring programmes. UPM’s conservation work is carried out in close cooperation with local environmental organisations and third party experts.

Grela adds: “Our eucalyptus plantations are FSC™ and PEFC certified, and in addition there are four categories of conservation area. High conservation value areas are the most important, followed by conservation areas, connectivity areas or biodiversity corridors, and representative areas. We now have 54,000 hectares dedicated to conservation if we combine those four areas. The two most valued areas, the formal conservation areas, comprise nearly 14,000 hectares.”

In addition, UPM preserves the most important vegetation type found in Uruguay, which is natural grasslands. On this grassland cows graze and provide food for people. The company also undertakes ecosystem services such as managing soil erosion, for example.

Classifying and protecting native species

The ambition of UPM in Uruguay is to have 20% or more of its own land holding designated as under conservation management. To help further this aim the company continually works with external experts to have an up-to-date list of total species, flora and fauna, and endangered species. Of note, of the 2,430 native flora species in Uruguay recorded by the end of 2022, some 75% of those species (1,823) were also present on land owned by UPM. Similar percentages were noted for fauna species. Likewise, 259 native continental birds were present on UPM-owned land out of a total of 410 seen across the entire country.

The field work is constantly creating dividends. Says Grela: “As a botanist, I was very surprised and happy to hear that a new native flower species had been discovered on our conservation land. This was the first time this flower had been discovered in the country. The white flower, Antiphytum charruasorum, is a new endemic species from western Uruguay. This shows how important it is to have conservation areas growing around the eucalyptus plantations.”

A new native flower species was discovered on UPM's conservation land in 2021. This was the first time this white flower, Antiphytum charruasorum, had been discovered in the country.

In 2021 the management team in Uruguay implemented an upgraded biodiversity strategy to allow it to deliver a long term vision on biodiversity conservation management. The strategy has four key elements: diverse landscape management, value ecosystems conservation, endangered species conservation, and alien species management.

“As part of the biodiversity strategy, a comprehensive database was created to keep 30 years of field surveys. Around 80,000 records have been added so far. We also developed a set of indicators which help us to grasp the real scale of the positive impact on biodiversity conservation,” says Grela.

For Grela and his team the conscientious work throughout the year, and the comprehensive biodiversity strategy for the future, is clearly bearing fruit and delivering tangible results.

“We consider ourselves as complimentary to the official government efforts. I am proud that we are making a very important contribution to Uruguayan biodiversity conservation,” he concludes.

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