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‘Audacious’ reforestation effort grows in Brazil

© Flavio Forner

A bold initiative to regrow 73 million trees in the Brazilian Amazon has made substantial progress despite some unexpected hurdles, according to an upcoming report. 

While the global pandemic and an increase in Amazon fires presented setbacks, the initiative, launched in 2017, has delivered almost 20 percent of its forest restoration target, according to Conservation International in Brazil, one of several partners involved in implementation. 

The partners point to surprising progress taking root, as the COVID pandemic shows signs of leveling off and a new incoming presidential administration publicly commits to stem the tide of deforestation. 

As the presidents of Brazil and the United States prepare to meet later this week in Washington, the initiative offers tangible hope that a healthy future for the Amazon is still possible. 

An audacious initiative

Launched at a Brazilian music festival, the initiative targeted areas along the southern edges of the Amazon forest, known as Brazil’s “arc of deforestation,” as well as in the heart of the forest, where natural regeneration is still possible.

By restoring these carbon-absorbing forests, the initiative is intended to help the South American country achieve its climate commitments under the Paris Agreement, as well as its target of reforesting 12 million hectares (nearly 30 million acres) of land by 2030. 

The initiative comprises two efforts: Amazonia Live, an effort led by the Rock in Rio music festival in collaboration with Conservation International and Brazilian nonprofit Instituto Socioambiental; and the Amazon Sustainable Landscape project, a collaboration among Conservation International, the Brazilian Ministry of Environment, the Global Environment Facility, the World Bank and the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund. 

In sum, the initiative is an experiment to “figure out how to do tropical restoration at scale, so that people can replicate it and we can drive the costs down dramatically,” Conservation International CEO M. Sanjayan told Fast Company in 2017.

“This is a breathtakingly audacious project. The fate of the Amazon depends on getting this right — as do the region’s almost 30 million residents, its countless species and the climate of our planet.”

The method

One of the initiative’s most noteworthy features was the use of a seed-planting method called “muvuca,” widely advocated by the Instituto Socioambiental as a way to reduce restoration costs. Unlike typical reforestation efforts, in which tree saplings are planted one at a time, the muvuca method relies on spreading a large and varied mixture of native seeds across the targeted areas, to assure a higher diversity of trees. 

The technique’s results have exceeded expectations, experts say. 

“We’re seeing a tree yield that is three times higher than our initial estimates,” said Miguel Moraes of Conservation International’s Brazil office. 

“Rather than 3 million trees growing in 1,200 hectares (3,000 acres), as we would have expected, we’re estimating 9.6 million trees in the same area,” based on monitoring reports, he added. “This is a very good result, and it offers hope of overcoming the challenge of reducing restoration costs to enable restoration at a large scale.”

Trial by fire

This restoration effort has not escaped some hard, real-world realities in Brazil’s Amazon.

Some restored areas were burned by fires and will be monitored to see if they can regenerate on their own, Moraes said. (The area lost was not counted against the overall goal.) 

Such fires — all of them set by humans, usually to clear forests for agriculture and livestock — are a sign of the times. 

The Brazilian Amazon has been hit especially hard by wildfires in recent years. By September 2022, more forest fires were recorded in the region than in all of 2021, amid a surge of deforestation.

When fires ravaged the region in 2019 — cloaking the city of São Paulo in daytime darkness due to airborne smoke — many of the blazes stopped right at the edges of protected areas. That trend hasn’t necessarily held in the years since. 

“Our initial expectation [in this effort] was to prioritize the restoration of large contiguous areas within conserved areas,” Moraes said. Restored forests in those areas should have been more durable; however, in the past two years “deforestation within protected areas in Brazil has increased significantly,” he added. 

The resilience of the Brazilian Amazon’s many protected areas will be critical to the long-term success of the initiative. 

Then came the pandemic

As it did around the world, COVID upended life in Brazil, which has the second-highest COVID-related death toll worldwide. Project planning, staffing and transport were heavily affected, all but halting implementation of the initiative for long periods. The effects of COVID cannot be overstated, Moraes says.

“Like everyone, we were completely unprepared for a global pandemic — not only at the project level, but also at an individual level,” he said. “It impacted relationships and changed the priorities of governments, communities, organizations and people.”

“Twenty percent restored might seem a low figure — and it generates a bit of frustration. But given the context, that we were able to achieve 20 percent of our target is impressive.”

A question of permanence

Even in the tropics, trees take years to grow to maturity. But reforestation projects usually last only a fraction of that time. The big questions for any restoration effort, and for the Amazon: Will these restored forests last? How will we know? And who will do the work of protecting them? 

“Most projects like these are an intervention at a point of time, and then they end,” Moraes said. “But restoration is a long and continuous process. So, ensuring permanence is a huge issue.”

Practitioners are taking steps to address this, including planning for long-term satellite monitoring to keep a close eye on restored forests. They will also work with communities and local governments to try to bolster on-the-ground protection of these areas. 

Early optimism

Five years after the restoration initiative was announced, nearly three years into a pandemic and just weeks since a new administration took office in Brazil, project organizers are hopeful. The 2023 deadline for completion has been shifted to 2026, after some administrative challenges in the project’s early years. Organizers have now grown more comfortable managing the complexities inherent in a partnership of this size, Moraes said.

“I believe we underestimated the complexity of the challenge ahead of us. We are now trying to be more strategic, supporting federal and state level governments in the implementation of existing public policies. Natural regeneration within protected areas and restoration liabilities of the forest code are great opportunities to scale up results,” he said.

Though it’s still early in the project — and in the life of the newly restored forests — Moraes is optimistic. 

“Conservation International’s restoration efforts in Brazil go beyond just this effort,” he said. “But if we succeed, we can show that we can make an impact at the scale needed to bring the forest back from the brink.”

Bruno Vander Velde is the managing director of content at Conservation International. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates. Also, please consider supporting our critical work.