The challenges of replanting the Amazon
STORY: There’s a seemingly simple fix that could help solve the climate crisis: replanting trees in what were forests now stripped barren.But here in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest, the task is proving to be more difficult than it sounds.Reuters got an inside look into two of the largest reforestation initiatives in the country, which are operated by the nonprofits Rioterra and the Black Jaguar Foundation.And we found environmental groups facing a range of challenges…from lack of funding and extreme weather to violence and threats from hostile land-grabbers and farmers.Scientists generally agree that mass-scale reforestation could help slow global warming by trapping carbon dioxide in living trees.Such efforts could also restore wildlife habitats and help protect threatened species.In Brazil, replanting efforts are modest operations so far.Over the past decade, non-profit Rioterra has planted some 7 million trees in the Amazon – covering an area almost the size of Manhattan.Alexis Bastos is one of the group’s founders.Despite growing more trees than almost any group working in the Amazon, Bastos says it falls far well short of what is needed.“For the Amazon as a whole it is insignificant, but yes, we have already restored almost 6 thousand hectares in the past 10 years.”Black Jaguar is even more ambitious.It's a Brazilian and European nonprofit, and it hopes to spend at least $3.7 billion in the next 20 years restoring a forest area the size of Lebanon.Here is the group’s founder Ben Valks:“Our foundation has only one clear goal, is to help realize the Araguaia biodiversity corridor. It is a massive project of restoration, the corridor itself is 2,600 km long and up to 40 km wide. To have an idea of the length, on the US, it’s similar to the distance from Boston to Miami.”But replanting the Amazon isn’t cheap.Bastos says Rioterra spends more than $2 million annually on reforestation.Meanwhile through corporate and private donors, Black Jaguar has so far managed to raise just a tiny fraction, two tenths of a percent of its goal: $3.7 billion.Brazil’s government reduced reforestation funding under its former right-wing President Jair Bolsonaro, who left office in January 2023.His administration also froze the Amazon Fund, a government-created program that since 2008 has spent $57 million on reforestation.A lawyer representing Bolsonaro did not respond to a request for comment.His successor, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, quickly reopened the Amazon Fund.The Environment Ministry told Reuters the government also aims to expand economic incentives and technical assistance for reforestation.Shoestring budgets are just one of the challenges facing environmental groups.(Ben Valks, Black Jaguar founder)“We have challenges in the field and to summarize them: one is the logistics operation, second is trust, because we need trust of the farmer, we need the trust of local communities. And the other one is the need is that we need to build many times the infrastructure ourselves, because it is not there. There is no current electricity, there is no bridge in our spaces, many cases in the farms we need to make our road through the farm area to reach permanent preservation area to restore part of their land.” Meanwhile, Amazon destruction continues at a furious pace.Government data show that about three soccer fields worth of virgin forest were cleared every minute in 2022.Illegal invaders destroy in a matter of hours what it takes Rioterra or Black Jaguar a year to plant. (Alexis Bastos, Rioterra co-founder and manager) “The force of destruction is much greater than that of construction. You spend years and years recovering the area, restoring it, but a person with a machine can destroy everything in seconds”.Violence and threats against environmentalists are also commonplace.Over 200 are killed annually, according to the watchdog group Global Witness.In 2021, Brazil ranked Number 3 on its list, with 26 people killed.Environmentalists remain undeterred, saying the stakes are too high.(Ben Valks, Black Jaguar founder)“We are not in a climate change situation, but we are in a climate crisis and that has impact on the global level”.