Scale Transformation

14 de March de 2024

Forests of the Future, a trailblazer program in the restoration of the Atlantic Forest, celebrates 20 years of experience in seedling production, site prospecting, planting techniques, monitoring, and collaboration with farmers, businesses, and government

By Sérgio Adeodato, from Itu, Brazil

After a 1,396 km expedition through forest restoration areas in nine municipalities in São Paulo and Minas Gerais, the landscape in the Itu region (São Paulo), the endpoint of the journey, encapsulates the essence of the challenges faced by the richest and most populous Brazilian biome in restoring lost native vegetation. The car winds its way through vast sugarcane fields, pastures dotted with grazing cattle, rural homesteads, and suburban zones intertwining with urban areas. Behind the wheel, Roberto Cândido, known as Betão, the field supervisor for SOS Mata Atlântica, takes in the surroundings and comments, "This is the aftermath of a lengthy period of impacts that now need to be solved in the face of climate change."

Here and there, isolated patches of forest offer a measure of the original landscape and what can be restored. Driving along the Marechal Rondon Highway (SP-300)— which was named after the military engineer and frontiersman who set up telegraph lines, engaged indigenous communities, and ventured into the Amazon in the early 20th century—we see that the landscape bears the marks of past scars. These scars tell the tale of internal migration, a narrative that unfolded well before the pioneer Bandeirantes carved their path across São Paulo's territory. Along the highway, the effects of economic cycles and urban expansion are evident everywhere. However, there are also signs that, for nature, it's not a lost battle.

At kilometer 118, the entrance sign proudly declares: SOS Mata Atlântica Center for Forest Experiments–Heineken Brazil. Stretching across 526 hectares in Itu, the site operates as a crucial hub and knowledge center in the mission to restore the biome. It oversees the entire production chain—from seed collection and seedling nursery to area diagnosis, coordinating with rural properties, planning and executing plantings, and monitoring the new forests.

"It is a hub that disseminates best practices and encourages involvement," remarks Betão upon arriving at the center, which includes facilities for professional training and environmental education aimed at local schoolchildren and youth.

Structure of the Forest Experimentation Center in Itu. Photo by Alexandre Macedo/SOSMA.

"Holiday at the Forest" event at the Forest Experimentation Center of SOS Mata Atlântica in Itu. Photo by Léo Barrilari/SOSMA.

Restoration mobilizes environmental education in Itu. Photo by Léo Barrilari/SOSMA.

Blueprint for Replicating Restoration

With 414 years of history that have significantly impacted natural resources, the municipality of Itu is strategically positioned in an ecological transition zone between the Atlantic Forest and the Cerrado, with the Tietê River nearby, under the risk of degradation. Over a decade ago, the notion of restoring what was once lost seemed implausible due to adverse environmental conditions. "We've proved the feasibility of establishing a functional forest that not only conserves soil, but also safeguards springs," emphasizes Betão.

Granted by Brasil Kirin (currently named Heineken), the space also accommodates the watersheds that provide water to the nearby beverage industry unit, located 8 km away.

Throughout the 2014-2015 water crisis that affected the Southeast Region, the tree planting initiatives implemented by SOS Mata Atlântica since 2007 not only restored the hydrological cycle, but also averted a production shutdown in factories, thereby assisting in the water supply for local residents. This effort also served as a model for future initiatives within the biome.

So far, 720 thousand seedlings of various native species have been planted on the premises, covering 380 hectares in the process of restoration. Embracing new inhabitants, cameras strategically positioned in the forest have documented the presence of deer, jacu, paca, and even pumas—a complete family unit with a mother and her cubs.

Since the turn of the millennium, the NGO has supported the planting of 43.6 million seedlings in the Atlantic Forest through various initiatives, covering approximately 24.7 thousand hectares. This effort has directly benefited approximately 1.7 thousand landowners. Behind the impressive numbers, there's a well-thought-out strategy at play that hinges on successful teamwork with partners form different sectors, deep knowledge of the biome, and technical expertise in restoring ecosystems, with gains in scale and results that make a difference in the face of current socio-environmental challenges.

"It's a journey filled with lessons, mistakes, and victories that have shaped the current landscape, leading to greater maturity, confidence and investment assurance," emphasizes Rafael Bitante Fernandes, the manager overseeing forest restoration at SOS Mata Atlântica.

At the Center for Forest Experiments in Itu, where the NGO's headquarters are located, teams benefit from cutting-edge technologies, such as a management system with geospatial data on the areas, details about current forest fragments, different stages of recovery, and other crucial information. This setup streamlines the oversight of operations and facilitates remote supervision of operations and well-informed decision-making. "The system allows us to collaborate with partners on actions of a much smaller scale, whether philanthropic or compensatory, in order to group small planting areas and form bigger ones," explains Rafael.

Tasks can be completed more quickly. We can promptly generate reports about our various partners, thanks to a comprehensive database that includes project history, photos, videos, and all necessary documents—including dates, techniques, and financial records. "It acts like a vast memory bank for projects, helping us to fine-tune our initiatives," underscores the manager. He also added: "It helps us figure out when we established more partnerships and restoration agreements, who supplied us with more seedlings, and where our planting efforts had a more significant impact." It produces strategic indicators, providing insights to improve and expand our tree planting initiatives in the Atlantic Forest.

Rafael Bitante Fernandes manages the data system to decide on the restoration process. Photo by Juan Pablo Ribeiro.

Growing Demand

At the core of these initiatives is the "Forests of the Future" program, run by SOS Mata Atlântica since 2004. It brings together organized civil society, private enterprises, landowners, and the government in collaborative projects for forest restoration. Individuals and companies can contribute in two ways: through voluntary participation or mandatory compensation in the State of São Paulo via the Environmental Recovery Commitment Agreement (TCRA).

The program facilitates collaboration between donors and rural landowners who need to restore areas in order to comply with the Native Vegetation Protection Law (12.651/12). Seedlings are strategically planted after priority areas for restoration are mapped in the biome, among other criteria. The NGO teams up with plant nurseries and service providers to diagnose areas, plant seedlings, maintenance and monitoring. This effort boosts the restoration chain.

The goal is to deliver young, functional forests that fulfill their ecological role through projects that span five to eight years, avoiding haphazard seedling planting. The finished areas must be capable of providing ecosystem services and supporting wildlife.

The demand reflects the main trends in forest restoration in Brazil. Without the efforts of SOS Mata Atlântica and other organizations, it would be even more challenging to comply with the Forest Code. According to Rafael, beyond solving Legal Reserve (LR) and Permanent Preservation Area (PPA) liabilities, there is a growing realization of the benefits of allowing forests and agricultural production to coexist (for example, pollination and water security). In the climate market, there's an expectation—plant six seedlings, and you've captured one ton of carbon from the atmosphere. It’s the standard used by "Forests of the Future" with donor companies interested in reporting climate mitigation. Rafael notes, "There is a strong movement to adopt environmental and social criteria in supply chains across various sectors of the economy."

He emphasizes the role of civil society organizations in coordinating with land use stakeholders, such as SOS Mata Atlântica already does with its pioneering credentials in the sector. The country's most devastated biome cries for action. Only 24% of the original forest cover remains, with a mere 12.4% representing mature and well-preserved forests. What remains is distributed very unevenly.

Zero deforestation is essential and urgent, says Rafael, but not sufficient to reduce current and future risks of climate change and water scarcity. Forest restoration is crucial in the country’s most populous and economically significant region.

To comply with legislation, the seven states in the South and Southeast regions of the country need to restore 2.3 million hectares of PPAs, forests that used to protect springs and riverbanks but suffered illegal deforestation, according to a study published by researchers from SOS Mata Atlântica, Imaflora, University of São Paulo (USP), and the Forest Code Observatory. There are also 1.3 million hectares of liabilities related to the Legal Reserve requirement that need to be restored or compensated with native vegetation.

Rafael stresses the need for two simultaneous priorities. "In the realm of forest restoration, it's vital to defend the preservation of existing forest fragments. We also urgently need to achieve zero deforestation in the Atlantic Forest. Trying to advance restoration technology while losing the biome to deforestation is working against our goals," he emphasizes.

Both initiatives are vital in tackling climate change and preserving biodiversity. "There are added social benefits, such as job and income generation in the restoration service chain, which is crucial for expanding our efforts", he says. "We only reap benefits."

According to Ana Beatriz Liaffa, who coordinates voluntary restoration at SOS Mata Atlântica’s "Forests of the Future", "the growing interest in environmental compliance as a means to showcase responsibility and enhance product value is a key driver behind the growth in native tree plantations."

She points out that the biome has a lot more players, mostly small private properties, which adds complexity to the task. "Because this is the homeland of most Brazilians, people are quicker to connect to the issue, and visibility is stronger than ever," she says. Demand is on the rise, and there's mounting pressure to get landowners to provide areas for planting projects. At SOS Mata Atlântica, the number of contracts for seedling plantation increased 44% between 2022 and 2023.

The UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, launched to significantly boost global efforts and investments to rebuild natural environments by 2030, is driving this movement. On the planet, the biodiversity crisis, marked by the ongoing loss of species and ecosystem services, adds to the urgency of the climate emergency—both subjects of global actions on various fronts. Forest restoration emerges as a pivotal solution. The Atlantic Forest, given its extensive biodiversity and the enduring impacts it has faced and continues to face, stands out as one of the world's priority regions in this undertaking. A recent scientific study reveals that nearly half of the biome's trees are at risk of extinction—a threat impacting over 80% of the species found exclusively in that area. 

Field Experience

The biggest challenge in restoration is the groundwork that has to be done, which must have quality and respect local realities. Also, the work of planting seedlings and turning them into forests is demanding. "From area diagnosis, through which we assess its land-use history, resilience and natural regeneration potential, to the technical planting project, soil preparation to open 'beds' to receive seedlings, maintenance and monitoring, there's a series of procedures that requires field experience," Betão explains.

His journey into this craft began as a seed collector for botanical evaluation projects in the state of Mato Grosso. Later, he ventured into producing eucalyptus seedlings in São Paulo. Upon joining SOS Mata Atlântica in 2010, he worked in managing planting data from the Click Árvore program, led by the NGO, where people could donate trees by clicking. Since then, field visits and direct contact with nature have become a source of inspiration—and resilience.

"Besides the sun, rain, long treks across steep terrain and marshes, there's always the risk of snake bites, ticks, and thorns," explains Betão. He is responsible for overseeing the Forests of the Future projects in several municipalities. "This is no leisurely stroll in the woods," he adds.

Modern technologies, such as drones and mobile applications, have made it possible to perform some of the work remotely, reducing the physical exertion, time, and costs associated with field expeditions. Nevertheless, despite these technological strides, the success of cultivating new forests still requires getting one's feet—and occasionally hands—dirty.

Trails raise awareness about the importance of the forest. Photo: Alexandre Macedo/ SOSMA

Plant Nursery: The Launchpad

The plant nursery of the Center for Forest Experiments has an annual production capacity of 750,000 seedlings. Technical expertise, skill, and a delicate touch in handling over 100 native species are indispensable there. Mariana Roseira, who has spent 16 years in the field alongside six other colleagues, mostly females, stresses the importance of expertise right from the start of the process in establishing new forests. "The secret is the careful repotting process—moving the newborn seedlings from the plant nursery to the tubes, where they go through growth stages before being distributed for planting," shares the plant nursery worker.

With rising demands in a sector still finding its footing, a good chunk of our know-how came from hands-on experience. After stints in sugarcane fields, coffee plantations, and even on a beer production line, Mariana declares that getting into forest restoration was like "falling in love with plants." Yet, amid the romance, there's the day-to-day reality of churning out trees in a factory-like fashion. One standout illustration is the crafting of seedlings in a "swiss roll" style—a blend of 50 plants from different species neatly bundled and rolled up like a massive carpet. These are prepared in substantial batches, adding up to 25,000 units, which are then transported by truck to the field. Rooted in scientific expertise and a long history of hands-on know-how, the knowledge generated in Itu reach those who need it in the Atlantic Forest municipalities.

The Labor Behind Seedling Growth

The process of planting native trees to rebuild a forest that is capable of safeguarding water, capturing carbon, and upholding biodiversity, involves complex work that isn’t always noticed in the seemingly mundane act of planting a seedling in a schoolyard.

The activity involves different stages and techniques, and engages professionals across the production chain until the nascent forest matures and establishes conditions akin to—albeit never quite identical—those of its original vegetation.

Explore below the fundamental steps of this work, which has evolved over recent decades and attained new quality standards through science and the networked actions of NGOs, such as the Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact.

Plant Nurseries: Seeds collected from nature are processed; dormancy broken (if needed); sowing; germination in greenhouses; young plants transplanted into tubes; development (shade house); hardening under the sun; dispatch and final preparation for field planting.

Diagnosis: Evaluation of land-use history to determine the resilience potential of the area earmarked for restoration, which includes identifying suitable areas for planting or natural regeneration; mapping nearby forest remnants; assessment of proximity to urban centers and high-traffic highways (due to an increased risk of fire); assessment of presence of livestock and erosive processes; soil analyses. Examination of the restoration chain’s potential to generate jobs and stimulate the local economy through input purchases and labor contracts.

Technical Project: Defines the location and size of the area, and number of seedlings; proposes a planting methodology and techniques, with species from the functional coverage group and diversity group, considering spacing requirements and the presence of spontaneous and ruderal native species. There are between 90 and 120 species commonly used for forest restoration, and specific techniques can be applied depending on the characteristics of the location.

Soil Preparation and Planting: Tillage to loosen soil, either using a tractor or manually with excavators; chemical control of leaf-cutting ants; opening beds for seedling installation (2,500 beds per hectare); fertilizer application; use of hydrogel to maintain root moisture; manual planting of seedlings; irrigation, according to climate and soil characteristics; control of invasive exotic species that prevent seedling establishment or growth.

Maintenance: Monthly interventions: two years for voluntary projects; three years for environmental compensation projects. Scheduled actions, coordinated with the technical project, include monitoring for potential issues, such as cattle intrusion, ant attacks, and the growth and mortality of seedlings; clearing the area around seedlings to prevent the encroachment of unwanted invasive species; applying inputs—such as cover fertilization—to promote optimal growth.

Inspection: Following the interventions carried out by the planting company, projects undergo technical visits from SOS Mata Atlântica collaborators. The goal is to validate actions, document planting progress through photos, and provide guidance to the contracted company for any necessary corrections. All information is input into the management system, ensuring that everyone involved in the projects has access to the contents of the technical reports.

Monitoring: Post-planting assessments occur over a span of five years, while environmental compensation projects undergo an assessment period of eight years. Monitoring covers potential impacts such as fire, flooding, and frost, with possible interventions to correct problems. For instance, replanting seedlings may be undertaken to ensure the continued progress of the project. The primary goals of monitoring are to ensure the project stays on course, track planting evolution, and assess the ecological gains from the initiative.

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