Brazil welcomes start-ups to reforest the Amazon

Renato Crouzeilles and his team stand in front of a vast area of ​​Amazonian grassland, the forest visible only on the horizon, attracting curious glances from passers-by who are not used to seeing strangers in such a remote corner of Brazil.

As scientific director of Mombak, a two-year replanting venture, Crouzeilles is planting 3 million trees on almost 3,000 hectares in the country’s Pará state, one of the largest such projects to restore forests in the Amazon.

“The biggest challenge of the region is changing the culture. This is not forest culture, they do not think about forest renewal. In the past, they cleared forests and then put cows here,” he said.

Amazonian rainforests absorb huge amounts of carbon and act as a key buffer against climate change. However, the region has been ravaged by deforestation linked to illegal cattle ranching, gold mining and timber exports. Last year, an area of ​​forest equivalent to 3,000 football pitches was cleared every day, according to the non-profit environmental organization Imazon, while the government of the time, led by right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, was accused of turning a blind eye.

But with the election of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in October, who pledged to end illegal deforestation, environmental protection has returned to the spotlight.

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

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

At approximately 400 million hectares, the Brazilian portion of the Amazon rainforest is the largest reforestation opportunity in the world. More than 54 million square acres of wildlife—which is 1.3 times the size of California—is grassland suitable for planting trees.

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“Reforestation of tropical forests can make a significant contribution to mitigating tropical forests. . . [global emissions] and the Brazilian Amazon is the largest tropical forest on the planet,” said José Scheinkman, professor of economics at Columbia University and a member of the Amazon 2030 project, a Brazilian initiative for the sustainable development of rainforests.

According to scientists at Project Drawdown, an American non-profit organization that works to reduce greenhouse gases, reforesting tropical and temperate forests could remove up to 113 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere by 2050.

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

Botanic technician Luiz Carlos Lobato measures trees in the Mombak area
Botanic technician Luiz Carlos Lobato measures trees in Mombak area © Ricardo Lisboa/FT

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

But in Brazil, reforestation initiatives have been plagued by difficulties, notably the complexities of land rights and property rights, Brancalion said.

Gigatonnes bar chart showing known scalable methods of CO2 removal, 2020-50

Verra, the standards body for US carbon credits, said it had received a number of allegations from developers of reforestation projects about aggressive behavior on land ownership, but added it had so far found no evidence of wrongdoing.

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“Land is the number one issue, especially finding land with full titles,” said Peter Fernández, CEO and co-founder of São Paulo-based Mombak.

“There is more than enough land to use. However, find and evaluate that it is [legally compliant] it takes a lot of effort,” he said. In order to avoid disputes, Mombak did not buy land near small farmers or indigenous areas, he added.

Fernández said the company planned to expand its project to 50,000 hectares with the goal of removing 1 million tons of carbon from the atmosphere annually by 2030: “We need to create a reforestation industry the size of the pulp and paper industry. This is not artisanal. This is not an NGO task.”

A man leans against a pickup truck
Pickup trucks are the main means of reaching the vast and remote reforestation area © Ricardo Lisboa/FT

One of the bottlenecks is the lack of wood seeds. But there is a wider concern about the credibility of the market for carbon credits that underpins the business model of reforestation. Mombak initially received venture capital funding before securing a $100 million investment from Bain Capital, and intends to generate revenue by selling loans.

But the market has long been controversial, with critics saying the projects don’t always deliver the promised environmental benefits. They say some credits cost less than $5 each, giving companies little incentive to reduce pollution, and it can be difficult to distinguish between good and low-quality credits in an unregulated and often opaque market.

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But Fernández said the market is needed, and if it didn’t expand, efforts to remove carbon dioxide wouldn’t increase, “which means the world is warming. It is that simple.”

Renato Crouzeilles, Scientific Director of Mombak, examines the foliage of rainforests
Renato Crouzeilles, Mombak’s scientific director, examines the foliage of rainforests © Ricardo Lisboa/FT

Reform efforts are ongoing. The Integrity Council for the Voluntary Carbon Market, 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 issue is ensuring that reforested areas are permanent and that carbon is not released back into the atmosphere. Richard Kelly, co-director of Foresight Sustainable Forestry Company, which develops carbon credit projects in the UK, says the challenge is to keep forests healthy and protect against fire – which is an increasing risk as climate change increases.

Meanwhile, Crouzeilles and his team, dressed in shin guards to protect against snakes and wide-brimmed hats to protect against the sun, cross the Para in a pickup truck.

The region was chosen carefully, Crouzeilles said. One factor was that “there is less risk of fire here [because of regular rainfall]. It is a region with a lower risk of climate change.”

Despite the lack of reforestation in the impoverished cattle-focused area, Crouzeilles said his team was warmly welcomed by locals who were curious about working on the project.

“It’s a process to change thinking and culture,” he said. “But fortunately, they receive us very well.”

Additional reporting by Carolina Ingizza