The Black Jaguar Foundation (BJF) has just one goal, but it’s a very big one: the NGO founded by the Dutch entrepreneur and environmentalist Ben Valks plans to reforest 1 million hectares (2.4 million acres) on either side of Brazil’s Araguaia and Tocantins rivers in the Amazon and Cerrado biomes.
The 2,600-kilometer (1,615-mile) long natural corridor would, when accomplished, extend 20 kilometers (12.4 miles) outward from both banks of the two streams. It will require the planting of around 1.7 billion trees, according to the organization, and serve a dual purpose of supporting agroforestry production and environmental preservation.
The BJF project is already underway, with tens-of-thousands of trees planted. But its biggest stumbling block lies ahead; the planned greenbelt will be established only on private lands, so it will require cooperation from numerous initially resistant landowners.
The merit of the project lies not only in its immense scale — the restoration as planned will cross six Brazilian states (Goiás, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Tocantins, Pará and Maranhão). It would also go a long way toward protecting and providing wildlife connectivity for Brazil’s two biggest and most important biomes: the Cerrado savanna (which occupies 48% of the project area) and the Amazon (which occupies 52%). Both biomes are under intense pressure due to the expansion of pastures and croplands.
Forest Code helps make greenway possible
If or when this vast vision is realized, the reforested territory will form the Araguaia Biodiversity Corridor, a concept first conceived in 2008 by biologist Leandro Silveira, from the Onça Pintada Institute. That year, Silveira, one of the world’s leading jaguar conservationists, founded the Jaguar Conservation Fund (JCF). Now BJF is working to make the green corridor a reality.
One of JCF’s tasks is to map the distribution of five key species in the region, and to especially study jaguar ecology in the corridor zone. BJF’s challenging, but crucial, role is to create a continuous natural corridor by connecting the green dots: linking up currently existing fragments of native vegetation with newly replanted forest that will blanket presently deforested and degraded lands on privately owned rural properties.
It is Brazil’s Forest Code — enshrined in federal law in 1965 and revised last in 2012 — that helps make the project viable. That legislation requires all private landowners in the Amazon and Cerrado to protect a significant proportion of nature on their properties. These privately conserved areas are given several designations, including permanent preservation areas (APP), Legal Reserves (RL) and Restricted Use areas. According to federal law 12.651/2012, every private rural property must include an APP and an RL.
Among an APP’s environmental functions is the preservation of water resources. The primary goal for an RL is the preservation of native vegetation, to ensure the ongoing economic use of the property’s natural resources in a sustainable manner. The size of an RL depends on the biome in which it is located. In the Cerrado an RL must occupy up to 35% of a privately held property’s area; in the Amazon, up to 80% must be conserved.
“We thought about what could be a feasible way to recover the corridor, so we did a study to identify how many and which [private] properties were obeying the [Forest Code] law and which were not. We also found the location and size of the degraded areas in the RLs and APPs, and quantified the environmental, economic and social benefits and costs of the future corridor,” Andrea Lucchesi told Mongabay. She is professor of environmental economics at EACH/USP (the School of Arts, Sciences and Humanities at the University of São Paulo) and coordinator of the feasibility study.
Commissioned by BJF, and carried out by researchers from EACH/USP and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, the research identified 24,000 rural properties in the corridor area, of which 13,148 have an environmental deficit in RLs and APPs totaling 1 million hectares. The team also mapped out other features, including land tenure and existing native vegetation areas and species.
However, the study was only able to determine clear ownership on 81% of the proposed green corridor’s total area. “The problem is that CAR [the Rural Environmental Registry, which records all rural properties in Brazil] is self-declaratory, and we found a lot of land overlap between properties, for instance,” said the environmental economist. Determining land boundaries and establishing clear title will be one of the challenges to realizing the corridor project.
The BJF study concluded that the restoration of the one million hectare green corridor, coupled with the implementation of agroforestry production systems in the restored forest, could result in US $21.1 billion in environmental and economic benefits over the next 50 years (an estimate that depends on the growth cycles of harvestable trees and forest management techniques).
Other project benefits include the capture of 262 million tons of CO2 equivalent, a reduction of 527 tons of soil erosion, revenue from timber and non-timber products, and the creation of more than 37,000 jobs. Total project cost is estimated at US $2.2 billion.
The expenses are to be covered by BJF, and will include maintenance of the reforested areas during the first three years of the project, along with forest monitoring in the 10th and 20th years after the planting. Each rural property owner that joins the BJF effort will receive their own restoration plan based on the size of the area owned, an estimate of the current level of land degradation, along with native species seeds and seedlings that offer greater agroforestry economic development potential.
“The two restoration models we have adopted [both] follow ecological principles for the conservation of biodiversity” and the restoration of forests and native vegetation, but the second model also follows “economic principles that include the sustainable use of the soil for the generation of timber and agriculture products,” explained Dimitrio Schievenin, a BJF forest engineer and project coordinator. “The [reforested] areas cannot be disfigured, nor can they be clear cut, and the removal of one or two trees per hectare, when they are grown, is common in plans for sustainable management in native forests.”
A project in its early stages
So far, almost none of the private property owners who have signed contracts with BJF have shown interest in implementing a timber management system on their lands, claiming that use requires a very bureaucratic process and costly labor to cut the trees. Instead, they prefer agricultural extractivism, gained from such forest crops as baru (a chestnut from the Cerrado that has high nutritional value), pequi (an oil-rich fruit with many uses), cupuaçu (a fruit widely used in Amazonian cuisine), and buriti (a palm tree whose fruit is rich in vitamins A, B, and C).
The corridor’s first tree seedlings were planted in 2018 in the Santana do Araguaia region (in southern Pará state), and in Caseara (Tocantins state) — both located in the Amazon-Cerrado biome transition zone, roughly at the center of the long corridor. By December, total plantings numbered 100,000 seedlings on 130 hectares (321 acres), including a pilot area. Fieldwork gained momentum in the last quarter of 2020, when 30,000 seedlings were planted.
“Before the [COVID-19] pandemic, the goal was to arrive in March 2021 with another 250,000 seedlings [with planting done from October to March, in the rainy season], but we reduced that to 80,000. Last year some workers of the field team contracted the virus and landowners locked themselves in and refused entry,” explained Schievenin.
Although the current numbers are far from meeting the next planting goals — one million trees by the end of 2022, and ten million by 2025 in the Santana do Araguaia area — BJF is confident that it will carry out the work on deadline.
“It is challenging, but not impossible. Until last year we were focused on obtaining the financial resources for the first million trees, which we practically achieved. The combined areas of the owners with whom we have already signed an agreement represent 40% of the 600 hectares [1,482 acres] needed for that million trees,” BJF Institutional Relations Coordinator Marina Tavares told Mongabay. “The other 60% is on properties of five new farmers with whom we are negotiating.”
Ingo Isernhagen, a researcher at Embrapa Agrossilvipastoril (a Ministry of Agriculture unit specializing in the development of new technologies) and a member of the BJF advisory board, agrees that the NGO’s goals are very ambitious, but notes that the project holds great ecological and economic promise for Brazil’s rural areas.
“The project covers a long latitudinal gradient, north-south, that crosses regions of the Cerrado and the Amazon biomes,” the Embrapa biologist said. “Brazil has a huge liability in degraded areas, and the BJF initiative is a huge outdoor laboratory for ecosystem restoration in the center of the country, in the agricultural frontier region.”
Because the current project working area is located in the Amazon-Cerrado transition zone, “The field team needs to be [very] attentive to variations in vegetation physiognomies and look for sources of seeds and seedlings that take into account those differences in regions. There are versatile species [growing in the project area], but one more typical of the Cerrado does not necessarily go well in environments of the Amazon biome, and vice-versa.”
Another logistical challenge: the NGO’s seed collecting and seedling planting effort requires a good number of field workers. However, Isernhagen explained that the scarcity of skilled labor in forest restoration has been a problem occurring in the region for some years.
That lack of skilled labor is compensated for somewhat by BJF’s restoration techniques: the NGO not only does hand-planting of seedlings, but carries out direct seeding using agricultural machinery (which brings gains in scale and decreases labor). The project also relies heavily on natural regeneration. “There are areas that have been recently deforested and have not undergone so many years of cultivated crops, so there is a good chance that the [native] vegetation will recover on its own,” said the Embrapa specialist.
The biggest challenge so far for BJF, according to those interviewed, is not on the technical or financial side of things, but rather depends on the willingness of the owners of the 24,000 rural properties to join in the enterprise.
“There is a lot of resistance among landowners sometimes; their profiles are diversified. While some agree that ecological restoration brings gains to agricultural production, and [they] are concerned about being within the law, others are unaware of new technologies and have half a head of cattle per hectare on their lands,” said Isernhagen, and so they don’t immediately buy into the advantages of participation.
“We seek to show the benefits that they will have in addition to environmental regularization, such as improving the climate and soil, controlling pests through biodiversity and maintaining water resources,” said Schievenin. “Unfortunately, there is no sense of urgency. The [rural landowners] think that [forest] restoration will not be their problem, but that of their son or grandson. [But] those who have joined the initiative so far have already had an ecological conscience.”
The fine art of negotiation
A case in point: Guilherme Tiezzi, owner of a 500-hectare (1,235 acre) farm in the municipality of Caseara in Tocantins state. When he heard about the green corridor plan, he was, in his own words, super excited.
“A month later I was in Amsterdam to talk to [BJF founder] Ben [Valks]. I was the first farmer to sign the agreement,” Tiezzi told Mongabay.
He and his sister inherited their property from their father, who had cleared 60% of the land as cattle pasture. The younger family member’s vision, however, was far bigger, and working together with the NGO, this agricultural technician invested in the construction of the project’s first seedling nursery which was installed on Tiezzi’s lands. BJF planted 500 seedlings on 200 hectares (494 acres) of the farm, which today serves as a Private Reserve of Natural Heritage (RPPN) within APP and RL areas of the property. On the other 300 hectares (741 acres), the farmer is developing agroforestry and crop-livestock-forest integration systems. Toward that goal, he has already planted dozens of native plant species, and in the near future, hopes to introduce hens, pigs, and fish to the mix.
“It is easier to deforest everything and install monocultures because it rains a lot in this region,” and everything grows fast, Tiezzi said. “But if everyone plants only soybeans, in the medium term the soil decays, the surrounding animals die and the ecosystems stop regenerating. My intention is to keep the forest standing and generate business at the same time. Like BJF, I believe that economic gain for rural landowners is the way to succeed in large-scale restoration.”
However, Tiezzi, a pathfinder, is currently something of an exception, in Eduardo Malta’s view; Malta is a specialist in ecological restoration with the NGO, Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), and was one of the coordinators of an ISA project that, with its partners, planted 1 million trees on 300 hectares within APPs in a single year (2017) around the Xingu Indigenous Reserve.
“In Mato Grosso and Pará states we received a lot of dirty looks from landowners. They thought they would lose production area,” Malta recalled of his ISA tree planting experience.
“Even so, we managed to convince some of them by presenting a consistent proposal, with a lot of clarity and transparency,” he remembered. “Also there was no [President Jair] Bolsonaro or [Minister of the Environment Riccardo] Salles at the time, and more people were willing to comply with the [federal Forest Code] legislation. The current political situation sends the message that there is no need to reforest and landowners think they can put it off until later, or that the law could still change.”
Although many rural landowners see BJF’s coverage of project costs as a big incentive, Malta suggests the project could more easily make its way forward if the property owners had bigger involvement — including direct financial help and providing farm employees to participate in the project’s plantings. “Otherwise, [landowners] have nothing to lose if they do not commit. We provided everything in some cases, and sometimes it worked, sometimes it did not. One owner, for instance, released the cattle where we had planted, and another one sold the property and did not tell us.”
Despite countless challenges, BJF is moving steadily forward, achieving more day by day. Last month, the NGO received approval from the municipality of Santana do Araguaia to build a third plant nursery, to be equipped with solar panels, a rainwater harvesting system, and having an annual production capacity of 500,000 seedlings. According to Valks, the Black Jaguar Foundation founder, the nursery is part of a wider town plan to create a 40-hectare (99 acre) park, of which two hectares (5 acres) will be occupied by the nursery.
“Especially in a country such as Brazil, a very complex one, it is amazing to see that municipalities start embracing our mission,” BJF’s Valks told Mongabay. “We are confident that our project will be successful. We must believe in the positive of mankind, so that we can take action and at least make a strong effort to bring back the balance between mankind and nature.”