Brazil looks to start-ups in battle to reforest the Amazon -Dlight News

Brazil looks to start-ups in battle to reforest the Amazon

Standing in front of a vast stretch of Amazonian grass, with the jungle just visible on the horizon, Renato Crozelis and his team attract curious glances from passers-by who aren’t used to seeing strangers in such a remote corner of Brazil.

As director of science at Mombak, a two-year-old reforestation start-up, Crouzeilles is planting three million trees on nearly 3,000 hectares in the country’s Para state, in one of the largest such projects aimed at restoring forest in the Amazon biome.

The biggest challenge in the region is to change the culture. It’s not a forest culture, they don’t think about reforestation. What they did in the past was clear the forest and then put the cows here,” he said.

Amazonian rainforests absorb vast amounts of carbon and are a critical buffer against climate change. But the region has been ravaged by illegal cattle ranching, gold mining and deforestation associated with timber exports. Last year, forested land equivalent to the size of 3,000 football pitches was cleared every day, according to non-profit environmental group Amazon, which the then government led by right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro accused of turning a blind eye.

But with the election in October of President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who has pledged to end illegal deforestation, environmental protection is back at center stage.

While government efforts have so far focused on promoting enforcement to prevent destruction, a range of private companies are working on reforestation. They buy or rent land, plant trees, and generate income by selling carbon credits, which buyers use to offset the pollution produced by their activities. Each offset represents one ton of emissions avoided or removed from the atmosphere.

One of the sites designated for reforestation in the Brazilian state of Pará
One of the sites designated for reforestation in the Brazilian state of Pará © Ricardo Lisboa/FT

At nearly 400 million hectares, Brazil’s section of the Amazon rainforest represents the world’s largest opportunity for reforestation. More than 54 million square hectares of the biome—an area 1.3 times the size of California—is grassland, suitable for planting trees.

“Reforestation of tropical forests can make an important contribution to prevention . . . [global emissions] And the Brazilian Amazon is the largest tropical forest on Earth,” said José Schenkman, a professor of economics at Columbia University and a member of the Amazon 2030 Project, a Brazilian initiative to sustainably develop the rainforest.

Reforestation of tropical and temperate forests could remove 113 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere between now and 2050, according to scientists at Project Drawdown, a US-based non-profit that advises on reducing greenhouse gases.

This is more than double the potential of silvopasture – the integration of trees with livestock – which, according to Project Drawdown, is considered the next most effective method. According to the international database EDGAR, global carbon emissions have reached about 38 gigatons in 2021.

Botanical technician Luiz Carlos Lobato measures trees at a site in Mombak.
Botanical technician Luiz Carlos Lobato takes measurements of trees at a site in Mombak © Ricardo Lisboa/FT

Pedro Brancalion, a reforestation expert at the University of São Paulo, said the creation and maintenance of forests can bring global, regional and local benefits, including reducing climate change, protecting air currents known as “flying rivers” that carry water from the Amazon across Latin America. America supports agriculture and industry. Locally, it can create jobs and generate income from carbon credits and forestry products.

But reforestation initiatives in Brazil have been plagued by difficulties, particularly the complexity of land rights and ownership claims, Brancalion said.

Bar chart of gigatons showing known measurable methods for CO2 removal, 2020-50

The US Vera, the established carbon credits standards body, said it had received numerous allegations of aggressive behavior by reforestation project developers regarding land ownership, but added that it had yet to find any evidence of wrongdoing.

“Land is the number one issue, especially finding land with full legal titles,” said Peter Fernandez, chief executive and co-founder of Sao Paulo-based Mombak.

“There is enough land to use. However, finding and assessing that it is [legally compliant] Takes a lot of hard work,” he said. He added that Mombak did not buy land or land near local areas to avoid disputes.

Fernández said the company plans to expand its project to 50,000 hectares with the goal of removing 1 million tons of carbon per year from the atmosphere by 2030: “We need to create a reforestation industry that is on the scale of the pulp and paper industry. This is not craftsmanship. This is not the work of NGOs.”

A man leans against a pick-up truck
Pick-up trucks are the main means of accessing large and remote reforestation sites © Ricardo Lisboa/FT

One bottleneck is the scarcity of tree seeds. But a wider concern is the credibility of the carbon credit market, which underpins the reforestation business model. Mombak initially received venture capital funding before securing a $100mn investment from Bain Capital and intends to generate revenue by selling credits.

But the market has long attracted controversy, with critics saying the projects don’t always deliver the promised environmental benefits. Some credits cost less than $5 each, they say, doing little to incentivize companies to reduce pollution, and it can be difficult to distinguish between high- and low-quality credits in an unregulated and often opaque market.

But Fernandez said the market is necessary and if it doesn’t grow, efforts to remove carbon won’t grow either, “which means the world will warm. It’s as simple as that.”

Renato Crozelis, director of science at Mombak, examines foliage from a rainforest.
Renato Crozelis, director of science at Mombak, examines foliage from the rainforest © Ricardo Lisboa/FT

Improvement efforts are ongoing. The Integrity Council for Voluntary Carbon Markets, an international task force initially led by former Bank of England governor Mark Carney, is expected to announce a set of rules this year for what a “good” market looks like.

Another concern is to ensure that reforested areas are permanent and that carbon is not re-released into the atmosphere. Richard Kelly, co-head of Foresight Sustainable Forestry Company, which is developing carbon credit projects in the UK, said keeping forests healthy and protecting them from fires – an increasing risk as climate change intensifies – was a challenge.

Meanwhile, wearing shin guards to protect against snakes and wide-brimmed hats to ward off the sun, Crozelis and his team drive past the para site in a pick-up truck.

The region was chosen carefully, Crozelis said. One factor was that “there is less risk of fire [because of regular rainfall]. It is a region where the risk of climate change is low.”

Despite the lack of awareness of reforestation in a poor area focused on pastoralism, Crozelis said his team was warmly welcomed by local people, who were eager to learn about jobs with the project.

“It’s a process of changing minds and cultures,” he said. “But luckily we’re being received very well.”

Additional reporting by Carolina Ingiza

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