A new movement is reclaiming forests across Latin America

A new movement is reclaiming forests across Latin America

“Financing the future of forests” is a three-part series produced in partnership with Salesforce and 1t.org. Join us on a virtual journey across Africa, Asia and Latin America to explore how businesses are investing in the future of forests. Learn more and pledge to 1t.org here.

If we are to end deforestation, Latin America and the Caribbean might be the ideal place to start.

Home to the mighty Amazon rainforest, the region contains 22 percent of the world’s forest area, including 57 percent of its primary forests – the most crucial type of forest for the protection of biodiversity.

Worryingly, these forests are under constant threat from logging, mining and ranching, and scientists fear the Amazon could soon reach a tipping point, causing it to permanently dry out.

Now, entrepreneurs across the region are stepping in to not only tackle this deforestation but also take restoration to a whole new scale – ensuring water and food security, creating jobs and building climate resilience in communities, economies and ecosystems.

From the towering Andes mountains to hurricane-ravaged Caribbean coastal ecosystems, to landscapes entrapped by megacities, businesses are partnering with local people across the region to revive forests and the services they provide to humanity.

Drawing on scientific insights, entrepreneurship, traditional knowledge and the power of community, these partnerships are sparking new restoration movements, healing nature and paving the way for a more resilient future.

Inca wisdom brings back Andean water catchers

Trees aren’t supposed to grow above the treeline, but there’s an exception even to this rule. At the foot of Andean glaciers, the planet’s highest-altitude flowering tree forms otherworldly forests in an otherwise bare, windswept land.

Thin layers of reddish bark peel off and curl around Polylepis – also known as ‘paper trees’ – to protect them from the elements. Their branches are overhung with lichens and the ground is covered in sponge-like moss.

As a high-altitude mist descends on these trees, their tightly-packed leaves harvest water, which is then absorbed by the moss, infiltrated into the rich organic soil, and slowly released as rivulets that sustain mountain villages on their way to fields, cities and the headwaters of the Amazon.

Polylepis forests, locally known as ‘queñua,’ have a growing role to play as the climate crisis causes the region’s glaciers to melt, threatening a crucial water storage service that supports lives and livelihoods not only in the Andes but also in lowland areas hundreds or even thousands of kilometers away.

“Few other habitats on the planet are proportionally as important for all they influence below,” says Peruvian conservation leader Constantino Auca, co-founder and president of Acción Andina, a joint initiative of US nonprofit Global Forest Generation (GFG) and Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos (ECOAN) working to restore Polylepis forests since 2018.

In Inca times, ‘queñua’ woodlands were strictly protected, but the introduction of European agricultural practices and livestock have since transformed these highlands. Burning and overgrazing have destroyed some 90 percent of the original native forests across the seven Andean countries, shrinking a vital habitat for endemic species like the spectacled bear, the puma and the Andean condor.

What is a Polylepis tree?

Polylepis is a genus of 28 shrubs and tree species that are endemic to the mid- and high-elevation regions of the tropical Andes. They are usually gnarled in shape, and in certain areas, some trees can reach up to 15–20 m in height, with 2 m-thick trunks.

Data: GBIF.org (03 October 2023) GBIF Occurrence Download https://doi.org/10.15468/dl.kjv4sp

Now, Acción Andina is drawing on ancient Inca values and community-wide efforts to support locals in restoring and protecting 1 million hectares of Polylepis forests and high-altitude wetlands across the Andes over the next 25 years.

The initiative is spawning a new restoration economy that’s boosting local agricultural production, as the restored trees are helping stabilize the soil and prevent erosion and runoff. The Polylepis forests also offer refuge for endangered bird, mammal, plant, reptile and amphibian species that are migrating to higher ground to survive climate change, thus creating prospects for ecotourism.

In the five years since Acción Andina was launched, the communities that it’s supported with training, technical advice and co-investment have planted more than 3.7 million native ‘queñua’ across the Andes. However, Florent Kaiser, co-founder of Acción Andina and CEO of GFG, insists that restoration doesn’t end at planting the right trees in the right place and making sure they survive.

“How do we move from a program to a movement that is decentralized, self-driven and self-sufficient?” he asks. “The power does not lie in how many forests we are able to grow and protect today but in how many people we can mobilize globally over the long term.”

Mangrove restoration goes big

When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, it ravaged large swaths of mangrove forests and seagrass meadows at Jobos Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve. With them went precious ecosystems that once sustained fisheries and biodiversity, stored carbon, attracted ecotourists and protected coastal communities from winds, waves and floods – ecosystems that had already been worn down by decades of human pressure.

To bring them back to life, The Ocean Foundation teamed up with local partners in what has become the biggest mangrove restoration project in the United States and will eventually grow to cover 566 hectares. 

“Our main focus is creating the conditions to speed up natural regeneration at the landscape level,” says Ben Scheelk, a program officer at The Ocean Foundation. “Over the course of six years, we shall plant up to 50,000 trees but see the recovery of millions.”

With support from the Reserve and local community members, the project is re-excavating and dredging out channels to let in the tidal flows that mangroves need to thrive. Alongside these structures, they’re using dredge material to build elevated areas the size of coffee tables, known as safe sites, where they plant the seedlings, known as propagules.

The goal is to prevent the soil from being washed away immediately, allowing young trees to take root. Mangroves in dispersal centers will eventually produce seeds and propagules, which will flow down through the channels and colonize new areas.

Regenerating seagrass meadows

Seagrass meadows are one of the Earth’s most productive yet endangered ecosystems. They can capture atmospheric carbon up to 35 times faster than tropical forests, and they account for around 10 percent of the ocean’s capacity to store carbon – known as ‘blue carbon’ – despite occupying only 0.2 percent of the sea floor.

“Blue carbon ecosystems, like salt marshes and mangroves, have often been looked at as something to be removed to pave the way for development and cookie-cutter hotels,” says Scheelk, “but now, we are seeing a growing recognition of how critically important they are.”

As a result, the project is also working to speed up natural regeneration for flowering marine plants. Scheelk notes that the stems of seagrasses extend sideways below the sediment surface, enabling them to expand into neighboring areas. This means they grow better on flat seafloors than on irregular ones with cavities, like those caused by boat anchors and propellers.

The first step is leveling the seafloor. Then, the team transplants quick-growing pioneer species to denuded areas. The pioneering species stabilize the sediments and are eventually replaced by climax species like turtle grass, a favorite of the endangered green sea turtle. 

Even birds have been given a role in reviving seagrass beds. “We are planting stakes with a little roost on top that birds sit on,” explains Scheelk. “As they do their business, they are fertilizing the area below, further accelerating the recovery of ecosystem services.”

In remote Xcalak, in Mexico’s Riviera Maya near the border with Belize, the local fishing community has always understood the centrality of those ecosystems to their wellbeing, but they lacked the means to restore them – until recently.

Learn more about mangrove restoration and the project in Xcalak

With training and support from The Ocean Foundation, community members take pride in leading their own mangrove restoration work and making a statement about the kind of development they want – the antithesis of the mammoth resorts that line the Yucatan Peninsula.

Despite the grim environmental outlook globally, Scheelk is optimistic. There’s growing recognition of the important role of coastal and marine ecosystems, and coastal habitat restoration is emerging as an attractive career path and even a business opportunity. Meanwhile, both practitioners and financiers are identifying approaches, technologies and innovative finance tools to take restoration to a whole new scale.

“We are seeing a shift towards greater ambition born out of a sense of urgency, and that is exciting,” says Scheelk.

Investing in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

The iconic green hills of Rio de Janeiro are remnants of the massive forest that used to cover the length of Brazil’s east coast, stretching as far south as Argentina and as far inland as Paraguay.

The Atlantic Forest is one of the global ecosystems that holds most promise in terms of restoration, but with 80 percent of the original landscape gone, it’ll take all hands on deck to bring it back. Enter the Land Accelerator.

Hosted by the World Resources Institute (WRI) and Initiative 20×20, the program trains and mentors local entrepreneurs in the reforestation, agroforestry and regenerative farming sectors with a twin goal: supporting local economies while promoting landscape restoration through sustainable and profitable business models.

The 25 small- and medium-sized businesses selected to participate in the first two cohorts either produce agricultural products and timber in previously degraded areas or provide supplies and technical advisory services connected to restoration.

Some businesses supply seeds and seedlings, while some advise farmers willing to introduce native tree species into their farms. Others plant trees to harvest fruits, nuts and legal, sustainable timber to ease pressure on primary forests.

For most of these entrepreneurs, the main challenges are planning for ambitious yet realistic business growth, as well as attracting funding and investment to ensure their projects can be sustained long after their participation in the Land Accelerator is over.

“We give them tools and connect them with investors to enable business expansion and long-term support for forest restoration projects,” says Luciana Alves, forest coordinator at WRI Brazil, who also points out the importance of creating new markets for products and services related to forests and restoration.

As noted by WRI, the Atlantic Forest has an estimated 20,000 plant species – more than in all of North America or Europe – and is home to charismatic species such as the golden lion tamarin and the Paubrasilia tree that gives the country its name.

 “The Atlantic Forest plays a crucial role in reducing climate risk and preserving biodiversity, while supporting the livelihoods of rural communities,” says Alves. “By putting landscape conservation and restoration at the heart of a new forest economy, we can reclaim all of those benefits for humanity.”

Text by Gloria Pallares
Illustrations by Inês Mateus
Produced by Eden Flaherty