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 Dollars and chainsaws: Can timber production help fund global reforestation?

[Jan 06, 2023]

 •  As global reforestation commitments grow, how will companies, governments and communities pay to restore forest ecosystems and help sequester carbon over the long-term?

 •  One option: Grow and sell timber on the same plots of land where reforestation work is underway, as exemplified by pioneering restoration projects in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest, where a single harvest of fast-growing eucalyptus grows up amid restored native trees. Eucalyptus sales then help pay for long-term restoration.

 •  Another approach is to concurrently grow tree plantations and forest restorations on separate, often adjacent, plots of land, with a large portion of the profits from timber harvests going to support the long-term management of the reforestation projects.

 •  But some scientists and forest advocates worry that projects or businesses that become overreliant on timber revenues to finance restoration could undermine an initiative’s environmental benefits, and lock in unintended harvesting within native ecosystems. Experts ask: Can we truly pay for new trees by cutting others down?

 •  Pedro Brancalion is used to the roar of chainsaws. For years, he’s heard loggers tearing down rainforest giants in the Brazilian Amazon, and listened as ancient trees were toppled and yanked from the Atlantic Forest’s remaining fragments. But this time the rip-roar of machinery and thwack of falling trees means something very different.

This time, instead of chainsaws sounding a rainforest’s demise, they provide the soundtrack to its rebirth.

Brancalion’s restoration project on Brazil’s Atlantic coast is reviving lost rainforest, with a twist. Like other ecological restoration efforts, his work involves the planting of thousands of tree seedlings of dozens of native species in a plan to resuscitate a dwindling ecosystem. But there’s a big difference here: Along with every few native plantings, his team sinks a surprise into the ground: Eucalypts.

These represent an exotic group of tree species, mostly originating from Australia. In Brazil, they’re usually confined to the monocrop plantations that stretch homogenously to the horizon, rather than here, on land slated for reforestation.

But after five years, the result is a spectacular juxtaposition that holds promise for the future of forests. Tall, thin, harvest-ready eucalypts, primed for a commercial timber harvest, overtop the chaotic ecology of a regrowing, floristically diverse rainforest.

When Brancalion’s team chainsaws down these non-native sentinels and sells their wood as timber, they recoup up to 75% of the costs of regenerating the rainforest. And, according to recent research, they do so without inhibiting the regeneration of the complex understory — the rainforest of the future — as it grows skyward below.

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