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Inside the Rebirth of South America’s Atlantic Forest

Standing amid his yerba mate plants, Paraguayan farmer Eger Báez is not breaking a sweat despite a mid-morning temperature approaching 30°C. That’s because his valuable organic crop is shaded by a host of trees.

Persuading and helping landowners to let more indigenous trees grow on their land is central to one of the world’s most sustained and ambitious environmental projects: the restoration of the once-mighty Atlantic Forest.

“The world over, our forests are under siege,” said United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) Executive Director Inger Andersen. “The restoration of the Atlantic Forest through engaging local communities is a powerful reminder that nature can heal when given half a chance and deliver tremendous benefits in the process.”

The Atlantic Forest once covered a vast swath of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. But five centuries of logging, agricultural expansion and the relentless growth of cities, like Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro, have reduced it to fragments.

Under the Trinational Atlantic Forest Pact, up to 360 organizations have been working for more than three decades to preserve and restore what remains. They are protecting endangered species, like the jaguar and golden lion tamarin, securing water supplies for people and nature, countering and building resilience to climate change, and creating thousands of jobs.

Some 700,000 hectares of land have already been restored and the goal is to protect and revive 1 million hectares by 2030 and 15 million ha by 2050 – an area bigger than all of Nepal, Greece or Nicaragua.

The UN has recognized the pact as one of its 10 inaugural World Restoration Flagships. The flagships, which are eligible to receive UN-backed promotion, advice or funding, showcase how environmental advocates are mending damaged landscapes under the umbrella of the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

“We are celebrating the award of restoration flagship status,” said Julie Messias e Silva, Secretary for Biodiversity in Brazil’s Environment Ministry. “This effort is a recognition of the unique role that the biome plays not only in terms of ecosystem services, but also for the economy and for people.”

Forest on farms

Báez, 43, grows yerba mate on 2 ha of his land in Alto Vera, Paraguay. The plot was once a bare field, he says. Now he lists with pride some of the indigenous trees that are shading the crop: viraro, guatambu, cancharana, cedro, peteribí.

With help from a non-governmental organization, his yerba mate crop has been certified organic and commands a healthy price with buyers, including a beverage company in the United States of America. Baez insists that the financial benefits are secondary.

A man walks beside some saplings.
Restoring the Atlantic Forest is part of the strategy to maintain water security for millions of Brazilians. Photo: UNEP/Luca Messer

“The main reason that I have gone for this approach is my family,” says Báez, a father of three. He and his yerba mate-growing neighbours “can see that our streams are cleaner, and our families are not exposed to pesticides near our homes.”

Alto Vera lies in the Upper Parana, a region of the Atlantic Forest with relatively intact tree cover that straddles the borders of the three countries. Restoration work in areas like Alto Vera and in Argentina’s Misiones Province is designed to link the Upper Parana’s major protected areas together.

Wildlife corridors are vital for species like near-threatened jaguars, extending their habitat and allowing different populations to mingle and deepen their gene pool. The number of jaguars in the Upper Parana rose by an estimated 160 per cent between 2005 and 2018.

“Jaguars are very hard to see, but farmers tell us that they are spotting smaller cats, like ocelots and margays, on their farms for the first time in many years and they are happy to see them back,” says Claudia Amicone of Fundacion Vida Silvestre, an Argentinian non-governmental organization working to restore the Upper Parana.

Benefits for millions

More than 1,000 km to the east, restoring the Atlantic Forest is part of the strategy to maintain water security for millions of Brazilians.

In the Municipality of Extrema, authorities make annual payments-for-ecosystem-services to landowners who grow and maintain forest trees around springs and streams on beef and dairy farms. The measures help prevent soil erosion and protect water quality in the system of reservoirs that supply nearby cities.

A man stands in a forest.
Some 700,000 ha of the Atlantic Forest have already been restored, and the goal is to protect and revive 1 million ha by 2030. Photo: UNEP/Luca Messer

“An action that is carried out in the Municipality of Extrema, a small municipality of about 40,000 inhabitants, also benefits more than 12 million inhabitants in the greater Sao Paulo area,” says Paulo Henrique Pereira, the municipality’s environment manager.

The approaches to restoring the Atlantic Forest are as diverse as the ecosystems and communities that are found there. There are initiatives focused, for instance, on scientific research, building partnerships, raising funds, and developing government policy as well as on reforestation and agroforestry.

But there is an overarching emphasis on developing and spreading knowledge of the benefits of healthy landscapes and on putting people at the centre of the process.

“If we are talking about maintaining the ecosystems, the biomes in a region, we need to talk, to work with the communities that are there,” says Taruhim Quadros of the Trinational Alliance for the Atlantic Forest. Only communities can “be there constantly protecting, fighting, managing and collaborating so that it is sustained in the long run.”

The UN General Assembly has declared the years 2021 through 2030 the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration. Led by UNEP and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN together with the support of partners, it is designed to prevent, halt, and reverse the loss and degradation of ecosystems worldwide. It aims at reviving billions of hectares, covering terrestrial as well as aquatic ecosystems. A global call to action, the UN Decade draws together political support, scientific research, and financial muscle to massively scale up restoration.

Source : UNEP