Tree planting turns farmland to rainforest

Discover how tree planting on farmland can create a rainforest thriving with wildlife

I arrived at the REGUA Reserve in Brazil’s Atlantic Rainforest at the end of December, when the tree planting season was already in full swing.

The rangers were out in force; under the baking heat of Brazil’s summer sun, they were painstakingly planting native tree saplings. They’d grown most of them in the reserve’s nursery from seeds they gather in the surrounding forest.

By the end of the season, in just over three months, they’d have planted 80,000 trees – a herculean effort that breaks all previous annual tree planting records for the reserve.

On my first morning at REGUA, I get up with the dawn chorus in excitement to explore the reserve. Wisps of mist cling to the mountain peaks, reflected in the ever-changing pinkish light of the wetlands. Despite it being out of season, the array of birds are a hive of activity; these unfamiliar species that I spot hoping along the forest floor or darting among the branches – forever chirping and chattering – will soon become well-known friends. A tiger heron clears the water’s surface, with long wing beats it flies above a herd of capybara – the world’s largest rodent – and the motionless eyes of the partly submerged broad-snouted caiman. As I look around me, on my first of many walks in REGUA, I notice the newly planted forest merge with the old growth but it’s hard to believe that most of this area was once farmland; the wetland drained and the trees logged to make way for cattle. The Locke Family, who still own and run the reserve, were frustrated at the government’s inaction over the country’s environmental destruction, so decided to restore some of their farmland and set it aside as a protected area.

Sadly, very little of the Atlantic Rainforest had been protected and only 7% of the original forest cover remains. But despite the loss, this ecoregion is still ranked in the top five of the world’s biodiversity hotspots. One of the greatest problems is that the forest is highly fragmented; if you want patches of forest to retain their ecological complexity long-term, they must first be safeguarded, then joined up through reforestation. This is what REGUA is doing.

Land purchase and tree planting

The reserve now stretches across the equivalent of 19,000 football pitches and year-on-year the team try to raise more funds, to buy more land, to save more forest. Alan Martin, WLT council member and Secretary of the Brazilian Atlantic Rainforest Trust (BART), said:

“Land prices are starting to increase significantly, partly fuelled by the investment in roads and infrastructure flowing from the World Cup and Olympics to be held in Rio, but also from an increasing desire for city dwellers to build holiday homes. These un-controlled developments are threatening to further fragment the forest unless we can purchase key areas quickly.”

To tackle this increased threat, REGUA is embarking on a major new land purchase initiative to extend the reserve and are looking for support to raise £400,000.

At the same time, they have developed and successfully secured funding for a project to create ecological corridors between existing blocks of forest, by planting 250 acres (1,000 hectares) of rainforest over just two years. Recreating the forest, ensuring there are enough ecologically significant species to provide food for a healthy, diversity of wildlife is an enormous challenge.

But the REGUA team have a lot of experience; since 1987, the rangers and volunteers have planted 250,000 native trees to create a thriving habitat for a wealth of wildlife: 466 species of bird have been recorded at REGUA, along with 74 amphibians, 42 reptiles, 38 arachnids, 103 orchids, 360 butterflies, and 61 mammals, including the puma and the southern woolly spider monkey – South America’s largest of most endangered primate.

Despite this success, REGUA have never attempted reforestation on this scale under such a time pressure before. But with one season complete, they are well on their way to success.

Today, the REGUA Reserve stands as living proof that forests can be replanted. Habitats can thrive with wildlife again. It’s a message of hope that you can see flourishing.

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