Brazil is looking for start-ups in the fight to reforest the Amazon
Renato Crouzeilles and his team stand in front of a vast expanse of Amazonian grassland, the forest only visible on the horizon, attracting curious looks from passers-by who are not used to seeing strangers in such a remote corner of Brazil.
As science director at Mombak, a two-year-old reforestation start-up, Crouzeilles is planting 3 million trees across nearly 3,000 hectares in the state in one of the largest projects of its kind aimed at restoring forest in the Amazon biome Para.
“The biggest challenge in the region is to change the culture. It’s not forest culture, they don’t think about reforestation. What they did in the past was cut down forests and then bring cows here,” he said.
The Amazon rainforest absorbs large amounts of carbon and is a crucial buffer against climate change. But the region has been ravaged by deforestation linked to illegal ranching, gold mining and timber exports. According to environmental non-profit group Imazon, forest areas the size of 3,000 soccer fields were being destroyed every day last year, with the then-right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro-led government accused of turning a blind eye.
But with the election in October of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who has pledged to end illegal logging, the focus is once again on protecting the environment.
While government efforts have so far focused on strengthening enforcement to prevent destruction, a number of private companies are working on reforestation. They buy or lease land, plant trees, and generate revenue by selling carbon credits, which buyers use to offset the pollution caused by their activities. Each offset represents one tonne of emissions avoided or removed from the atmosphere.
At approximately 400 million hectares, Brazil’s portion of the Amazon rainforest represents the world’s largest opportunity for reforestation. More than 54 million square kilometers of the biome – an area 1.3 times the size of California – is rangeland suitable for planting suitable for trees.
“Reforestation of tropical forests could make an important contribution to alleviating . . . [global emissions] and the Brazilian Amazon is the largest tropical forest on earth,” said José Scheinkman, an economics professor at Columbia University and a member of the Amazon 2030 project, a Brazilian initiative for sustainable rainforest development.
Reforestation of tropical and temperate forests could remove up to 113 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere by 2050, according to scientists from Project Drawdown, a US-based nonprofit that advises on reducing greenhouse gases.
This is more than double the potential of silvo pasture – the integration of trees with livestock – which Project Drawdown ranks as the second most effective method. According to the international database EDGAR, global carbon emissions reached nearly 38 gigatonnes in 2021.
Pedro Brancalion, a reforestation specialist at the University of São Paulo, said creating and maintaining forests could bring global, regional and local benefits, including mitigating climate change and protecting air currents known as “flying rivers” and water from the Amazon through Latin America transport America, supporting agriculture and industry. Locally, it can create jobs and generate income from carbon credits and forest products.
But reforestation initiatives in Brazil have been fraught with difficulties, particularly the complexity of land rights and property claims, Brancalion said.
Verra, a US-based carbon credit standards organization, said it has received numerous allegations of aggressive behavior from developers of reforestation projects related to land tenure, but added that it has so far found no evidence of wrongdoing.
“Land is the number one concern, especially finding land with full legal titles,” said Peter Fernández, CEO and co-founder of São Paulo-based Mombak.
“There is more than enough land that can be used. However, finding it and evaluating that it is so [legally compliant] it’s very tiring,” he says. Mombak has not bought land from small farmers or land near indigenous areas to avoid disputes, he added.
Fernández said the company plans to expand its project to 50,000 hectares with a goal of removing 1 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere every year by 2030: “We need to create a reforestation industry that is on the scale of the pulp and paper industry lies. This is not manual. This is not an NGO task.”
A bottleneck is a lack of tree seed. But a broader concern is the credibility of the carbon credit market that underpins the reforestation business model. Mombak initially received venture capital funding before securing a $100 million investment from Bain Capital and intends to generate revenue from the sale of the loans.
But the market has long been a source of controversy, with critics saying projects don’t always deliver the environmental benefits promised. They say some loans cost less than $5 apiece, giving companies little incentive to reduce pollution, and that it can be difficult to distinguish between high- and low-quality loans in an unregulated and often opaque market.
But Fernández said the market is necessary, and if it didn’t expand, neither would efforts to remove carbon, “which means the world will heat up.” As simple as that.”
Reform efforts are underway. The Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market, an international task force originally 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 carbon is not released back into the atmosphere. Richard Kelly, co-leader of the Foresight Sustainable Forestry Company, which develops carbon credit projects in the UK, said keeping forests healthy and protecting them from fire is a challenge – an increasing risk amid increasing climate change.
Meanwhile, Crouzeilles and his team, wearing shin guards to protect against snakes and wide-brimmed hats to protect against the sun, traverse the Pará compound in pick-up trucks.
The region was carefully selected, Crouzeilles said. One factor is that “there is less risk of fire here [because of regular rainfall]. It is a region that faces a lower risk of climate change.”
Despite the lack of awareness of reforestation in an impoverished, livestock-focused area, Crouzeilles said his team received a warm welcome from locals, who were eager to learn about jobs at the project.
“It’s a process of changing mindsets and cultures,” he said. “But fortunately we are very well received.”
Additional reporting by Carolina Ingizza
https://www.ft.com/content/55e2079a-6f5a-4dcd-afc3-3cfbc378cab2 Brazil is looking for start-ups in the fight to reforest the Amazon