Category: Excellence in Environmental Journalism

Author: Guilherme Russo (Brasil)

"Meet the forest growers"

National Geographic Brazil magazine 

January 11, 2019

The Atlantic Forest, known locally as Mata Atlântica, is Brazil’s richest and most threatened forest land. At the Mantiqueira Mountains (Serra da Mantiqueira), not far from the country’s largest urban centres, some are leading by example and getting their hands dirty to restore the past and sow the seeds of the future.

Before human activity picked up in the Mantiqueira Mountains, one would struggle to find a spot in the range where the sound of flowing water was out of reach, amid the symphony of the winds and the fauna from the native forest – high-altitude Atlantic Forest. After more than three centuries of predatory exploitation of noble woods, fires to make room for grazing land and farming, the range’s outlook has changed – and the water that would once spout from the natural springs is merely a fraction of what it was; the flow is visibly diminished, or even vanished.

Mantiqueira is a word originating from the tupi language, meaning “drop of rain” or “the place where the waters spring”. Poetic souls would call it “the weeping mountain range”. Behind it all is the fact that these mountains – the range stretches through the states of São Paulo, Minas Gerais and Rio de Janeiro – are responsible for supplying water to some 25 million people and their daily needs, according to data from ICMBio, the Brazilian government’s environmental agency. This supply is crucial to countless cities in the country’s
three most developed states. Nested between the biggest Brazilian urban centres, the range's strategic significance is also an important gauge of Atlantic Forest conservation. “We are now at the threshold of failure for the forest. There’s very little left, and the consequences are already evident to society, as seen in the reservoir crisis," says Ricardo Cardim, botanist and author of newly-released Remanescentes de Mata Atlântica: as Grandes Árvores da Floresta Original e Seus Vestígios [Remains of the Atlantic Forest: larger trees of the original forest and their traces].

Throughout the decades, but especially in the 20th century, the task of cutting down the forest to make room for farmland or cities was considered a noble one – a triumph of man over nature, allowing for progress. In Southeastern Brazil, where the Mantiqueira is located, new roads built for transporting wood – used in urban buildings and furniture – facilitated this process. According to ecologists’ estimates, only 12.4% of the original forest remains from the time of the first settlers (see map above). A patchwork of 17 public conservation areas helps in preserving the range, which “comprises some 15% of the remaining areas of Atlantic Forest, somewhat higher than expected for the biome," said Marcia Hirota, chief executive of the Fundação SOS Mata Atlântica. However, 80% of total forest conservation areas are in private properties – in the Mantiqueira alone there are 62 private reserves of national heritage (RPPNs).

“Today we find the biome shredded in 245 thousand fragments throughout the country," Cardim said. “And forest restoration is crucial in linking these fragments together.” YES, THERE ARE PEOPLE COMMITTED TO FOREST GROWING. In the Bocaina de Minas municipality – located partly inside the Itatiaia National Park, the first of its kind in Brazil, created in 1937 – there are at least three distinct initiatives of forest regrowth that resulted in verifiable outcomes for the restoration of wildlife and the natural springs. Environmentalist Lino Matheus de Sá Pereira, 74, is a forest grower. He estimates having planted 56 of the 82 hectares he preserves in the Vale das Flores since 1977, when he arrived in the region to live in Boa Vista Farm, formerly a cattle ranch.

It is calculated that a hundred years are necessary for the full regeneration of deforested areas after reforestation. But the forest Pereira has grown already has lush trees – he began transforming the grazing lands of Boa Vista as soon as the last payment for the property was made. “The end of the burn cycle used by previous farmers in the region was just as important," he said. A third of his land was taken by capoeiras – the name given to regenerating woods in the Mantiqueira – that remained untouched in the first few years. Half the land was used for grazing. A pocket of native forest inside the farm became the source of seeds that Pereira turned into seedlings that grew stronger before being planted.

According to the environmentalist, the region’s favorable humidity conditions – annual precipitation is over 1,600 mm – are a contributing factor driving regeneration. Another such factor is the terrain: because logging areas are hard to reach and there’s little commercial interest in sloping lands for farming, part of the forest was preserved, allowing the wind, the bees, birds and bats to spread seeds and pollen. The water springing from his farm had a 30% increase in flow after the forest was restored.

While planting his trees, Pereira and other locals have been fighting for the forest in different fronts. In 1978 he created the Associação dos Protetores da Natureza dos Vales da Bocaina (Aprobo, Association of Nature Guardians of the Bocaina Valleys). At the time, he helped in reporting wood thieves and the illegal opening of roads into the Itatiaia park. He also noted that power lines to be installed in Bocaina de Minas would cross riparian lands, requiring deforestation – the proposed path of the power lines was subsequently altered. Amidst the dispute, we was sued – and acquitted – on charges of illegal logging and hunting. “I told the judge I’m a vegetarian!," he recalls, jokingly.
In the following years, Pereira was a militant against a project that would build a dam flooding parts of the Mantiqueira and became and advocate of the management plan for the Environmental Protection Area (Área de Proteção Ambiental, APA) of the Serra da Mantiqueira. When he felt the first tremors from Parkinson's, he withdrew to the routine of his property and his many books, while the forest he planted continued to grow. His farm became a reference for environmentalists and hosts research and other alternative projects. On social media, Pereira still reports activity he sees as detrimental to nature.

“LANDOWNERS ARE VERY IMPORTANT FOR REFORESTATION,” said Marcia Hirota. “Restoration is only possible when there are areas available for planting, and that requires the owners’ authorization and their interest in taking part in such projects.” In the projects promoted by SOS Mata Atlântica, landowners make their lands available and the non-profit’s partners are tasked with planting new seedlings of native species. “There’s mutual interest in the initiative. The greatest beneficiary is society as a whole.” Some of the tales highlighting the dream of forest recovery are love stories. Artist and organic farmer Margarete Nogalis, 62, and musician Lucia Mugia, 58, both teachers, met each other in 1985, in São Paulo. Seven years later, they developed a steady relationship – their dream became one and the same, and they were off to the mountains where they live happily to this day.

The land they bought, encompassing 39 sloping hectares isolated from the road by a steep ravine, was taken by native vegetation and was used by locals for logging and hunting. The two will never forget the date of September 19th, 2007. As they woke up that morning, they saw the property engulfed in smoke. A neighbor started to burn the forest in his property to make room for eucalyptus. The flames spread out. It was late dry season in the Mantiqueira, and the rains were still absent.

The fire burned at least 10 hectares of their property. Two days after it started, the region got its first rain of the season, putting out the flames. Nogalis and Mugia made the neighbor agree to provide them with 3 thousand seedlings of native species as compensation, and they soon began the reforestation effort. They also started a seedling production of their own, resorting to donation initiatives to amass more seedlings. “We counted all the way up to 8,742 trees successfully planted; after that, we stopped keeping track. I’m positive we’re over 10 thousand now," said a proud Nogalis.

Tasked with protecting an area of 129,4 hectares located in Bocaina de Minas, the non-profit Associação Ave Lavrinha, for which Nogalis and Mugia work, has changed the outlook of farmer Vicente de Paula Costa, 58, from exploiting the land to restoring the forest. Since 1987, Costa has been responsible for planting 16,1 hectares of forest, according to the organization’s records.

Luciano Jardim, 47, manages a plant nursery in Visconde de Mauá. According to his estimates, the facility produces something between 2 thousand and 3 thousand trees per year. This forestry engineer said that anything he doesn’t sell ends up planted somewhere anyway – wether at the side of the road or at his family’s property of 10 hectares.

Jardim dedicates his time to planning and carrying out reforestation activities in properties and farms belonging to outsiders looking to enjoy the mountains' nature. He says the best regeneration outcomes are reached when using seeds from around the area to be restored.

“The seedlings are made from seeds genetically adapted to the local soil," he said. “These individual forest restoration initiatives are an example of people’s awareness of their role in society," concludes Marcia Hirota. “It’s not about merely supporting the fauna and flora, but ensuring future generations can have a quality life.”

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When it comes to restoring the forest of new lands, forestry engineer Luciano Jardim, 47, is quick to spot where the water is located. “Water is always on my mind," he says, taking particular care with the reforestation of springs and riparian lands. He estimates he’s planted over 50 thousand trees.

When he took over the Boa Vista Farm, in 1979, Pereira began replacing the grazing grounds with species from the native flora. In the 30 years that followed, he estimates having planted some 20 thousand trees, of which 15 thousand are developing fully – there are some 2 thousand araucárias among them.

Owner of a vast library, the environmentalist is a sort of intellectual ambassador of the Mantiqueira. During the Rio 92 climate summit, he invited representatives from environmental entities from around the world to hop on a bus and go plant trees. The so-called Bosque das Nações [Grove of Nations] is alive and growing.

Margarete Nogalis and Lucia Mugia were introduced to the Mantiqueira in the 1980s, in the wake of friends that wanted to buy some land to live in a commune. The two were the only ones who carried on with that dream to the end. Their land, with three natural springs, is now a private reserve of national heritage called Morro do Elefante, giving the place permanent preservation status.

Cattle raising is still an important industry in the Mantiqueira, even as wildlife makes a return.

With their motion-activated photo machine, Nogalis and Mugia have documented five onçaspardas (jaguars) that share their property, as well as other large and medium-sized mammals.

As a simple man of “very little” schooling who can barely read and write, farmer Vicente de Paula Costa has set many fires to the Mantiqueira forest, like so many other traditional local farmers, as a means of making room for crops and cattle. “Cambará, candeia, jacarandá, quaresmeira, araucária. I have planted pretty much everything," he said.

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The Atlantic Forest is one of the world’s richest and most threatened forests – there’s little more than 12% of its original vegetation (above). Its biome comprises an area equivalent to 15% of the total Brazilian territory stretching through 17 states, of which 14 are coastal. It hosts some 72% of Brazil's population, seven of the country’s nine largest drainage basins and three of the largest urban centres in South America. And it allows for activities crucial to our economy, such as agriculture, fishing, power generation, tourism and leisure.

By Guilherme Russo
Photographs by Renato Stockler