- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 31, 2001

TAGACABA, Brazil — In order to make forestry history, Andre Ferretti took a boat down the Tagacaba River, clambered ashore over mangroves and hiked up onto a hill that overlooks a spectacular vista of green fields, brooding mountains and the glistening waters of the Atlantic.

There, under the relentless glare of Brazil's summer sun, he and seven other foresters hacked away the rough grass and planted hundreds of inch-high saplings. The reconstruction of the Atlantic Forest, one of the world's most diverse and endangered wooded areas, was under way.

The restoration project has been made possible by an unusual collaboration between Brazilian ecologists and U.S. multinational corporations.

General Motors, which invested $10 million in the plan in May, has joined forces with another U.S. company, American Electric Power, to enable a Brazilian nongovernmental organization (NGO) to purchase 41,500 acres of buffalo pasture and deforested hills they aim to turn back into the thick woodland it was 500 years ago. It is not a quick fix.

Less than 8 percent of the original Atlantic Forest remains, and fashioning what is left back into the dense forest it once was is no mean task.

"How do you bring back as diverse a landscape as the Atlantic Forest?" asked Joe Keenan, one of the project's coordinators. "It's a real challenge to take a cattle pasture and put a forest on it. This restoration project is a recognition that we have gone too far. It's a slow process. In fact, it's like watching grass grow."

Here in southern Brazil, 1,600 miles south of where the arrival of Portuguese explorers in 1500 triggered the rape of Brazil's forests, the Atlantic Forest has fared better than almost anywhere else.

Because the terrain is mountainous and inaccessible, about half of the Atlantic Forest here survived, compared with just 1 percent in some northeastern states.

Along the banks of the Tagacaba River lies a vast expanse of terrain that rises from the sea across flat fields and up to the towering Serra do Mar mountains. Much of the land here was razed for pasture in the 1970s when the local government offered landowners tax breaks to rear Asian water buffalo.

Today, thanks to the U.S. funding, that land belongs to the Sociedade de Pesquisa em Vida Selvagem e Educacao Ambiental (SPVS), a Brazilian NGO whose previous attempts at reforestation were hampered by a lack of cash. GM and American Electric Power helped the Brazilians overcome that problem by giving them the $15.4 million to buy the land.

The companies are looking for ways to supplement the reductions in carbon dioxide emissions they are making in their core businesses, and one way to do that is by planting trees that soak up carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere.

They chose Brazil because land prices are lower than in the U.S. and because the forests along the Atlantic coast eat up more carbon dioxide per hectare than similar areas in the United States.

They hope to one day recoup their investment from institutions that will pay big companies, through the much-vaunted carbon sequestration market, to keep the atmosphere clean.

The companies are taking a gamble because with the carbon market still at an early stage, there is no guarantee they will get any financial return on their investment.

Nevertheless, experts said the creation of such projects is still crucial because if the companies succeed, they will show that preserving a forest or a water table can be a moneymaker as well as environmentally sound.

"We have to create a market so that things like biodiversity conservation and watershed conservation and climate mitigation are things that are just as valuable as wood cut down and chopped up," said Michael Jenkins, the executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Forest Trends. "Right now that's not the case, but that's where we are going, and that's what is exciting about the potential of the carbon market."

The challenges facing the foresters are different but no less daunting. With few people ever having attempted to reforest land on such a massive scale, there are no established procedures to follow and the unusually large and varied number of species — the surviving parts of the forest contain 2.7 percent of the world's plant species and 2.1 percent of all vertebrate species — means that details about some of them are hard to come by.

Mr. Ferretti is not sure where and when to plant pioneer species, where to collect seeds or how to work the seeds so they germinate. Much of what he does is based on trial and error.

One of the few things he is sure of is location. Planting on areas bordered by relatively untouched forest increases their chances of success because seeds from existing woods will germinate in the new areas. The pioneer species, which are expected to survive maybe 20 years, are expendable as they are used only to provide enough shade for the second-tier species to grow.

Likewise, the second-tier species, which will survive between two and four times as long as the pioneer species, will eventually die away and be replaced by the key third-tier species, the ones that will compose the mature forest.

What Mr. Ferretti and his colleagues are trying to do is give the forest a chance to evolve by itself. Animals like the otter and the red-tailed parrot, for instance, will instinctively know when the area is ready to be inhabited again, so Mr. Ferretti is concentrating on introducing plant species rather than animal species.

If the project is successful, jaguars, monkeys and crocodiles could be back in the regrown forest within a decade.

The long-term nature of the venture gives SPVS the peace of mind to work unhindered. By giving the money up front and committing themselves to the project for 40 years, GM and American Electric Power are enabling SPVS to properly plan, effect and monitor the restoration, something they were never able to do before.

Conservationists both north and south of the equator hope it will bear enough fruit to convince others to sponsor similar ventures.

"This is more than buying a chunk of forest," Mr. Keenan said. "It is a challenge."

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