Planting Trees + Creating Jobs in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

© Neil Palmer/CIAT for Center for International Forestry Research/Flickr Creative Commons

Editor's note: As the world gears up for the Rio+20 conference next week, we’re bringing you stories of how green economies are already being implemented across the globe. Today we hear from Beto Mesquita, who has dedicated much of his life to supporting conservation in the forests surrounding some of Brazil’s biggest cities — including Rio.


When people hear the phrase “Brazilian tropical rainforest,” the first place that usually comes to mind is the Amazon. However, Brazil has another rainforest that may be even more important for the country’s economy and the welfare of its population: the Atlantic Forest, a territory that once covered around 1.3 million square kilometers (more than 500,000 square miles) of the South American continent — a region larger than Peru.

The Atlantic Forest is among the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots — Earth’s richest and most threatened biological regions — and therefore is undoubtedly a priority biome for biodiversity conservation. It contains many species found nowhere else on Earth, including 261 kinds of mammals, 688 birds, 200 reptiles, 280 amphibians, more than 20,000 plants and countless other species we have yet to discover.

But that’s not all: The Atlantic Forest is also home to 70 percent of Brazilians and generates around 80 percent of Brazil´s GDP. Seven of the 10 most populous cities of Brazil depend on the remnants of the Atlantic Forest for their water supply and to generate most of electricity they consume.

Despite its importance, the forest coverage of Atlantic Forest that remains — around 17 percent of the original area — is severely fragmented, with more than 80 percent of the fragments being smaller than 50 hectares (123 acres). These fragments are often isolated from each other and subject to strong edge effects — damages to the edges of forest fragments mainly caused by fire, excess sunlight, grazing animals and the invasion of exotic species. Also, the current network of protected areas — which cover only 9 percent of the biome — is inadequate to preserve this forest.

After several years of discussion — including recent heated debates on possible changes to Brazil’s Forest Code — we will arrive at Rio+20 without a new legal framework to protect the country’s remaining forests and other vegetation. A new national forest law will be essential for the long-term preservation of these valuable ecosystems; in the meantime, there is an urgent need to take actions that restore forest cover, create strategic corridors between protected areas, protect ecosystem services and generate job opportunities and income for local people.

For the last 20 years, I have worked in cooperation with CI, working for local partner institutions. Now I am glad to be part of CI’s team and very proud of the fact that for the past two decades, CI-Brazil has been playing a key role on each of these fronts.

To meet the challenge of conservation in the Atlantic Forest requires the joint efforts of numerous stakeholders. Different levels of government, landowners, environmentalists, scientists, community leaders, businessmen and concerned citizens need to integrate their assets in favor of the protection of the last forest remnants of the Atlantic Forest and the restoration of critical areas.

With this inspiration, three years ago we helped create the Pact for the Atlantic Forest Restoration, which aims to restore 15 million hectares (more than 37 million acres) by 2050. By gathering over 200 members — including companies, NGOs, government agencies and research centers — the pact represents an innovative approach to forest restoration in highly fragmented ecosystems.

Surveys on land use in the Atlantic Forest indicate it is possible to recover the most important areas for critical environmental services (such as water provision and climate stability) without competing with food and raw materials production. Moreover, the activities required for forest restoration — seed collection, seedling production, planting and maintaining areas, driving and monitoring natural regeneration — require manpower and constitute a supply chain that can generate a positive social impact, especially in economically disadvantaged regions.

To help develop a productive chain of forest restoration, CI-Brazil designed and is implementing Pró-Viveiros (“pro-nurseries” in Portuguese), a program that teaches seedling producers sustainable farming techniques and business management skills. We believe that initiatives that aim to increase skills and the knowledge of people and small businesses associated with forest restoration activities are one of the best ways to generate better incomes in rural areas. In the next 10 years, we aim to restore over 10,000 hectares (almost 25,000 acres) of forest, planting around 24 million native trees and creating more than 500 new jobs.

On the eve of Rio+20, where central debates will revolve around themes such as green economies and poverty alleviation, I hope world leaders will look to initiatives like the Pact for Atlantic Forest Restoration as tangible examples of compatibility between economic development and conservation. And that certainly inspires me and makes me feel that, despite all challenges and threats, we are on the right track toward preserving this critical region for all who depend on it.

Beto Mesquita is a forest engineer and the Atlantic Forest program director for CI- Brazil. He is also a board member for the Pact for Atlantic Forest Restoration.