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World’s ‘largest’ tropical reforestation project slowed by Covid, Bolsonaro, fires

  • In 2017, Conservation International launched what was dubbed the “largest tropical forest restoration in the world” and slated for the Brazilian Amazon. Despite a goal of completing the project by the end of this year, CI is less than 20% of the way there.
  • According to project managers, the initiative has been slowed by two main factors: the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2019-2022 presidency of Jair Bolsonaro.
  • But fire, once a rarity in the Amazon, has also played a role, destroying 2,700 hectares (nearly 6,700 acres) of restoration areas in 2021 alone.
  • Still, the initiative is moving ahead across the “arc of deforestation,” with organizers hoping to prove it’s possible to restore the rapidly receding southern edge of the Brazilian Amazon before a large part of the rainforest biome hits a tipping point and changes over to savanna — releasing huge amounts of carbon to the atmosphere.

It was dubbed the “largest tropical forest restoration in the world” by Conservation International when the plan was announced at the Rock in Rio bash in 2017. The goal was ambitious: CI, along with the Brazilian government and several NGOs, pledged to plant 73 million trees across five states in the Brazilian Amazon, covering 30,000 hectares (about 74,000 acres) at 93 sites, ranging in size from 0.1 to 573 hectares (0.2 to 1,416 acres).

“This is a breathtakingly audacious project,” Conservation International’s CEO, M. Sanjayan, said at the time. “The fate of the Amazon depends on getting this right.”

CI and its partners pledged to finish the project in six years. They won’t.

Restorers mixing seeds.
Restorers mixing seeds. Image by Flavio Forner / Conservação Internacional.

Currently, the NGO has achieved less than 20% of its pledge, with the deadline to complete the rest looming at the end of 2023. But, of course, that pledge was made in 2017, which to many feels like a lifetime ago. CI restorers say the project was hampered by two key issues that happened since then: COVID-19, and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro.

“We didn’t anticipate the political context … the change in national leadership,” said Miguel Moraes, Conservation International Brazil’s senior director, referring to the 2018 election of Bolsonaro as president. From the moment he took office at the start of 2019, Bolsonaro began gutting Brazil’s environmental protections and opening up the Amazon to logging, agriculture and mining, leading to a massive rise in deforestation across the biome. During his four years as president, deforestation shot up by almost 60%.

“During the [Bolsonaro] administration, other conservation measures were prioritized by subnational [state and municipal] governments, before restoration,” Moraes said. “Additional delays of course were due to the pandemic, and the related travel restrictions.”

The start of 2023 brought with it a new president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has pledged to drastically cut back deforestation and boost Amazon conservation.

Soy farm crew manually dispersing seed with the help of machinery used for soybean planting.
Soy farm crew manually dispersing native plant species seeds with the help of machinery used for soybean planting. Image by Inaê Brandão.

There was a third problem: Fire

As a rule, tropical rainforest didn’t burn in the past, but the Amazon has been hit with unprecedented drought in recent years — especially under Bolsonaro. While worsening climate change and deforestation, leading to a drier rainforest, have greatly exacerbated fires, the grand majority of blazes in the Brazilian Amazon are ignited by landowners and land thieves to clear forest and make way for more economically profitable land uses such as cattle pasture and croplands.

The CI reforestation project lost 2,700 hectares (nearly 6,700 acres) of natural regenerating forest to fire in 2021 in a sustainable-use reserve known as RESEX Rio Preto Jacundá, in the state of Rondônia. Moraes said this loss further hurt their goal, “as we expected to have those hectares already included in our accountability.”

Despite its large size, the CI project — whose partners also include the Brazilian Ministry of Environment, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the World Bank, the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund (Funbio), and Amazonia Live — represents a small part of Brazil’s commitment to restore 12 million hectares (30 million acres) of forest made in 2016 as a member of the Bonn Challenge, a global agreement to restore degraded and deforested ecosystems.

CI project success also counts toward Brazil’s climate goals under the Paris Agreement, which includes a top-line pledge to greatly reduce deforestation and jump-start reforestation, with the nation becoming carbon neutral by 2060. Importantly, reforestation under the Paris accord can include new tree plantations that store less carbon than native forest, according to current science; however, all of CI’s regeneration employs native species and are not considered plantations.

Moraes said the completed project is expected to sequester 200,000-300,000 metric tons of carbon. He added that carbon storage is just one goal: the partners also want to improve biodiversity, boost local economies by planting some native species with economic value, and reduce reforestation costs.

Fire near Humaitá, Amazonas in August 2022. Photo © Christian Braga / Greenpeace
Fire near Humaitá, Amazonas, in August 2022. Photo © Christian Braga / Greenpeace

A big rainforest experiment

The project depends on multiple methods of restoration. One of the main ones is assisted natural regeneration of forests, where restorers prepare an area for natural regrowth. This method is being used on public land. In the tropics, under the right conditions, this can happen pretty quickly: around two to four years, according to Moraes.

“Setting areas aside for natural regeneration might be a very cost-effective approach, but only in sites where there is still natural regeneration potential,” Moraes said, noting that this accounts for about 80% of the areas they’re working on.

Another major technique is an experimental method known as muvuca, which in Portuguese means “a lot of people in one small space.” In this case, however, restorers use the term to refer to seeds. Simply put, restorers sow a ton of mixed native seeds in one place and then watch what grows. The muvuca method was invented by the Xavante people, an Indigenous group native to what is today the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso.

This method is far cheaper than planting individual trees one at a time, and Moraes said it appears to be working. CI is pursuing this method when working on private land.

CI-Brazil and partners mixing the muvuca seeds.
CI-Brazil and partners mixing the muvuca seeds. Up to 120 native plant species from the region where the restoration will take place are used in the mix of seeds. Image by Inaê Brandão.

“We’re seeing a tree yield that is three times higher than our initial estimates,” he said in a CI blog post. “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 … 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.”

Moraes said the partners are currently using 170 native plant species in the muvuca restoration, helping to ensure biodiversity as well as carbon storage.

“They sprout in different moments mimicking the natural process. The fast-growing trees appear earlier,” he said. “The slow-growing come after. Once the trees start to grow and attract animals, the process gradually accelerates.”

Mauricio Bianco, senior vice president of CI Brazil, added that the muvuca method can bring social benefits and enhance food security, while improving local economies, which is also a project goal.

Mosaic of seeds before they are mixed together.
Mosaic of native plant seeds before they are mixed together for the muvuca planting. Image © Conservation International/Inaê Brandão.

Climate change and tipping points

If successful, all of the 73 million trees may do more than store carbon, increase biodiversity and help local livelihoods. The renewed forest may help buffer the Amazon from hitting, and surging beyond, a terrifying tipping point.

The project, targeting the Brazilian states that make up the Amazon’s “arc of deforestation,” could help restore and buffer the fragmented southern edge of the rainforest, whose carbon storage is vital to preventing rapidly escalating climate change impacts. The arc sweeps across Brazil, marking an approximate line of demarcation between intact rainforest and areas that have been greatly degraded or denuded of trees on land crisscrossed with roads, logged, and converted to pasture and croplands.

As deforestation has increased and climate change ramps up, there’s growing concern that parts of the Amazon could hit that tipping point in which extended deep drought turns tropical rainforest — the most biodiverse place on Earth — to degraded savanna. Grasslands store far less carbon than rainforest, and the death of so many trees — and relatively rapid release of their carbon into the atmosphere — would harm not only Brazil, but would worsen climate change across South America and the entire world.

Researchers especially fear for the southeastern Brazilian Amazon, where 31% of the forest has already been lost. Researchers agree that a loss of 20 to 25% of the entire Amazon is the crucial tipping point threshold. But no one can say for certain when the irreversible tipping point will have been reached until after we pass it. By then, it will be too late to turn back.

“Savannization is already taking place” in both Brazil and Bolivia according to a report last year.

Large-scale reforestation projects like the one CI is leading, however, have the potential to provide buffers against a drying Amazon, to begin restoring what’s been lost. Far more reforestation is needed, however, and urgently, if current deforestation trends are to be reversed

“The only pathway to avoid the Amazon tipping point is through scaling up restoration interventions,” Moraes said. “The deforestation moves northward as natural resources are depleted, and economic activities are no longer attractive. But if we could transform the [Amazon] deforestation arc into a landscape restoration arc, we could engage local communities, governments and companies on a virtual cycle of prosperity.”

A logging truck through deforested lands.
Logging in the Amacro region, the triple border between Brazilian states of Acre, Amazonas and Rondônia. This region has been subjected to intensive deforestation, illegal occupation of public lands, mining, and human-made fires. Image © Bruno Kelly/Greenpeace.

Securing the forest

One of the challenges of working in Brazil’s arc of deforestation is security, or the lack of it. In this volatile, sometimes violent and lawless region, conservationists and restorers must face illegal loggers and land grabbers — egged on by a former president whose incendiary words denigrated Indigenous people and the environment, and whose administration defunded environmental agencies and neglected enforcement. The situation there now could still turn more violent.

Given this, Moraes said, the project has developed a “close relationship” with both local authorities and communities, as well as with security experts.

But we know how dangerous the work can be. Many colleagues have faced challenging field encounters with illegal loggers and land grabbers,” he said.

CI staff working in such areas are given “security awareness training,” said Phillip Horne, CI’s senior director of global safety and security. That includes “helping them identify signs of escalating risks, what to do in specific scenarios, and ensuring they have contacts with local police and leaders to provide support and information.”

Of course, one of the major threats in the region isn’t to the people working there, but to the ecosystem they’re trying to restore. And the biggest threat remains fire.

Soy farm crew manually dispersing seed
Soy farm crew manually dispersing native plant seed. Image by Inaê Brandão.

Horne said that to combat fire, restorers build fire breaks and “also have some firefighting equipment.” CI doesn’t provide “formal security for newly forested areas,” but depends instead on relations with local police and communities.

“We find the presence of people, especially local communities, and the appearance that these areas are being cared for … provides the best deterrent. People who are deforesting tend to choose lands that appear neglected,” Horne said.

This points to another challenge: Reforested areas can’t simply be planted and then abandoned to let grow — they must be nurtured and protected.

“It’s important to consider restoration as a long-term process,” Moraes said. “Intervention is just the first step. Ensuring permanency and steering the natural succession to deliver ecosystem functionality is probably the biggest challenge. Beyond planting, we need to engage [local] communities, ensure a favorable institutional environment, and monitor and maintain interventions in changing landscapes.”

But the goals are worth the work, according to Moraes, even as the project comes up against multiple setbacks.

“With law enforcement and the right economic incentives, we could reverse the deforestation trend and avoid the tipping point.”

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