- Issue: Summer 2021
- Author: Lorin Hancock
- Photographer: Adriano Gambarini
The Rio do Peixe, which flows through the town of Socorro in the Brazilian state of São Paulo, was the color of chocolate. Liquid mud. It had been that way as long as Flavia and Ana Paula Balderi could remember. When they were teenagers, the sisters began to wonder why.
A teacher explained that a forest once stood between the river and the town, but the trees were no longer there. There was nothing to filter the byproducts of human activity, nothing to keep the silt of the riverbanks from mixing into the water, and nothing to safeguard the springs that supplied it. If the river were ever to recover, the forest would have to be restored.
Flavia and Ana Paula, 17 and 16 at the time, might have just gone back to doing whatever it is that teenagers do. But instead, along with Ana Paula’s future husband, Tiago Sartori, and his cousin, Richieri Sartori, they made the audacious decision to restore the forest themselves. The quartet called their project Copaíba, named after a tree that is one of more than 100 species planted locally to form riparian areas—areas known in this region as “the eyelashes of the river” for their ability to protect springs and control soil erosion.
That was 1999. In the early days, Flavia admits, the operation was a bit haphazard. The strategy, she says, was essentially to approach landowners and ask, “Do you want to plant a tree?” The young people had nowhere to source seedlings, so they relied on donations from the municipal garden in Socorro. “We didn’t have much by way of technique,” she says. “We didn’t have much knowledge about how to restore forests.”
The Balderi sisters studied biology and filled their knowledge gap, but the seedling supply problem persisted. Even when they started growing seedlings at the Sartori family farm in 2001, and a few years later in space provided by a local nursing home, they couldn’t keep up with demand. Then in 2014 they met with unexpected fortune. Two elderly women donated their 15-acre property to Copaíba, and production went from 4,000 or 5,000 seedlings per year to more than 100,000.
Today, Copaíba produces up to 500,000 seedlings a year. What began as an after-school project has grown into one of Brazil’s foremost restoration organizations—and a linchpin for WWF and its partners bringing their vision for the whole region to life.
A fractured forest
The trees that once bordered that mud-brown river in Socorro were part of the vast Atlantic Forest, which centuries ago blanketed the eastern coast of Brazil and reached inland into Argentina and Paraguay. Today the Atlantic Forest region looks very different. Containing two of the most populous cities in the world—São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro—it is home to 148 million people.
“The Atlantic Forest was one of the world’s first tropical forests where Europeans arrived to explore and colonize,” says WWF-Brazil conservation manager Anna Carolina Lobo. Colonization, habitation, and commodity production have taken a massive toll: In Brazil, roughly 12% of the original forest remains.
But don’t count this forest out just yet. Seven percent of the world’s plant species and 5% of vertebrate species—jaguars, maned wolves, toucans, tamarin monkeys, ocelots—are found here; many exist nowhere else. “The forest manages, even with so many people living in it, even though it is so degraded, to continue to be one of the most biodiverse areas in the world,” says Lobo.
After so much destruction, Lobo says, people have begun to realize the importance of the forest and the need for restoration. And not just for the sake of wildlife. The forest purifies the air, helps regulate the climate, and is the source of water for 60% of Brazil’s population. “People’s lives and the national economy depend on it,” she says.
WWF and others have been doing restoration work here for years. But in 2009, those mostly independent efforts took a leap forward when the organization joined with institutions from the private sector, civil society, and the government in launching the Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact. With the goal of restoring more than 37 million acres by 2050, the pact represents one of the largest habitat restoration efforts ever undertaken.
Today some 350 pact members collaborate on projects and draw on shared technical knowledge, best practices, and political clout. Projects emphasize community engagement at all stages and focus on priority areas where restoration can connect the Atlantic Forest’s remaining fragments and help restore water resources.
One priority is the Mogi Guaçu River basin, which includes Socorro and the Rio do Peixe. Here, where Flavia and Ana Paula first started, Copaíba is putting its growing enterprise to good use.
Rooted in partnership
In 2018, WWF and International Paper, one of the world’s largest packaging, pulp, and paper companies, created the Raízes do Mogi Guaçu project (which translates roughly as the Roots of Mogi Guaçu). Under the umbrella of the Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact, the project aims to restore nearly 250 acres of forest along rivers in the watershed.
Daniel Venturi, a WWF-Brazil conservation analyst who works on the project, says this work is more complex than just planting trees—and it results in multiple benefits. “The Atlantic Forest, due to its history of degradation over the centuries, is a very fragmented forest,” he says, explaining that reconnecting those fragments through restoration, even one acre at a time, creates corridors that allow wildlife to move more freely. The restored regions protect crucial water sources by helping to regulate soil erosion, filter out pollutants, and maintain watershed stability.
WWF’s role is to create the necessary conditions for restoration, including mobilizing actors with a stake and interest in the region—additional private companies, local universities, rural producers, and municipalities. “Much of what’s left, those forest fragments, is in private areas,” says Venturi. And even though restoration efforts usually target degraded areas with little or no agricultural value—because many people here can’t afford to have their livelihoods compromised—the program can still be a hard sell. That’s why groups like Copaíba, which have existing partnerships and relationships with private landowners, are key.
International Paper’s investments in forest restoration align with the company’s core values, says chief sustainability officer Sophie Beckham. “As a global company, and one of the largest fiber buyers in the world, we feel it’s important to contribute to efforts to ensure healthy and abundant forests.” Such investments are also a strategic business decision. Investing in places where the company doesn’t source fiber, Beckham says, helps develop knowledge and techniques to ensure the health and productivity of areas where it does.
Along with all of São Paulo State, the region around International Paper’s eucalyptus plantations and mills has recently suffered from extreme drought—a water scarcity that has impacted both the company’s operations and the local communities. But the company’s investment is working to protect the critical water resources on which both depend. The hope is that increasing forest connectivity and helping landowners to plant trees will make the region’s water resources more resilient to future crises. “The nexus of forest and water stewardship is really in focus with this reforestation work,” says Beckham.
None of this would be possible, she adds, without partnership. “The collaboration between International Paper and WWF facilitates knowledge sharing; allows us to jointly reach out to diverse stakeholders, such as landowners, to engage them as catalysts for change; and ultimately lays the groundwork for scaling up the project with additional partners,” she says. “These are the critical building blocks of true systems change, which we could never achieve by simply planting trees on our own.”
WWF-Brazil’s Venturi concurs that landowners are key catalysts. He emphasizes that engaging local stakeholders from the very beginning is vital to ensuring that the people who live in the landscape, who are impacted most by the work, are the ones who own it.
“It’s an approach that comes from the bottom up,” says Venturi. “That is a story of hope. You bring people together who want to help the forest recover.”
One of those people is Ellen Souza Pinto Fontana, a fifth-generation coffee farmer in Mogi Guaçu. The acres she is restoring will connect to areas of existing forest on her land—forest she credits with her farm’s wealth of water and relative lack of pests and diseases. “I imagine that everything will live together well,” she says, “the crop and forest together. I think this balance is good for the business, good for the family, and good for our soul.”
Fontana wants her daughter, now three years old, to have a prosperous future on the land that has served her family for generations. Moreover, she says, “living in a balance between coffee production and the environment provides a benefit not only for our family but for all the other people who will enjoy these resources.”
The restored forest on Fontana’s land will bridge to another fragment of land belonging to José Fernandes, her neighbor and fellow project participant. Together, their restoration efforts will connect an expanse of forest covering nearly 500 acres.
Fernandes is the owner of Colina dos Sonhos (Hill of Dreams), a resort priding itself on environmental sustainability. He thinks of the Raízes project as an opportunity to contribute to a better country and world. But he also expects an economic return.
“We really believe that with this type of project we will be able to improve the quality of tourism locally,” Fernandes says. “Because one of the big goals of tourist activities here in this area is to observe wildlife.” And here, he says, “you can’t do tourism without conservation.”
Restoring an acre here and a few acres there may sound like slow work, but it quickly adds up. “In the past few years we have seen around 2.5 million acres restored,” WWF’s Lobo says. “And when the forest is healthier, natural springs return, the water comes back, life returns. This demonstrates how resilient the forest is. It gives us hope that what we’re doing is worthwhile.”
But, she says, if the Atlantic Forest Restoration Pact wants to meet the goal of restoring 37 million acres, more corporate investment is needed.
In the Mogi Guaçu region, additional investment has already arrived. In 2019, technology company HP Inc., a long-standing supply chain partner of International Paper, committed to build on the progress of the Raízes work by restoring an additional 250 acres of forest and watershed in the region as well as nearly 1,000 acres in other Atlantic Forest priority areas. The first round of tree planting began in late 2020.
“We set a zero-deforestation goal to ensure all of our HP brand paper and paper-based product packaging is derived from certified and recycled sources—a goal we’ve now met for nearly 100% of our supply,” says Ellen Jackowski, chief sustainability and social impact officer at HP. “But we know responsible sourcing is just one part of the equation. It’s time for companies to give back more to forests than we take out.”
Linda Walker, senior director of corporate engagement for forests at WWF-US, says this idea of giving back is catching on. “More and more companies are asking how they can go beyond just reducing their footprint to make a positive impact on the planet, for nature and for people,” she says. WWF is responding with an initiative called Forests Forward, which will launch in the United States this year.
The program will build on the success of WWF’s Global Forest & Trade Network, which over two decades has engaged more than 150 companies in 18 countries to produce and source forest products more sustainably. With Forests Forward, Walker says, WWF is challenging companies to scale up their actions. “Our goal is to tackle deforestation and forest degradation globally and work to restore the resilience and extent of forests we’ve already lost,” she says.
Forests Forward participants will commit to sourcing responsibly, supporting community-based restoration and other on-the-ground efforts, and advocating for policies that help keep forests thriving. “We’re confident that with enough companies embracing this model and recognizing that better forests mean better business,” Walker says, “we can make significant progress toward global sustainability goals.”
Planting the seed
Back at Copaíba headquarters, the Balderi sisters are focused, as always, on the future—a future where the trees they plant today become the canopy of a lush forest. They’re also focused on the next generation of forest guardians. From the beginning, Copaíba has worked to educate local school groups about the importance of the forest, and over the years some students have even convinced their parents to plant on their properties. “From the moment people are involved by taking on the importance of conservation, of restoration,” Flavia says, “we are protecting the forest.”
There’s no better proof than Flavia herself. “We were a group of young people who came together with motivation and a dream,” she says. With each passing year the trees grow taller and the Rio do Peixe, cleaner.
And in a few decades, when the area along the river mirrors a native forest, it will all be traced back to that one seed of a dream.