The communal effort behind the restoration of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

HP and WWF are joining forces with local communities to bring back biodiversity in a crucially important rainforest ecosystem.

By Emily Mathieson — June 22, 2023


The communal effort behind the restoration of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

HP and WWF are joining forces with local communities to bring back biodiversity in a crucially important rainforest ecosystem.

By Emily Mathieson — June 22, 2023

Five hundred years ago, the great Atlantic Forest stretched for thousands of miles — from Argentina in the south to the northeast tip of Brazil. It was one of the most biodiverse places on the planet, second only to the Amazon in biological diversity and endemic species. By the late 1990s, centuries of human activity had left the forest bare and patchy, decimated by deforestation and farming, reduced to just 12% of its previous 133-million-hectare size. Today it’s highly fragmented, putting the flora and fauna in what remains at high risk. 

In the rural area of Cachoeiras de Macacu, to the northeast of Rio de Janeiro, it wasn’t just plant and tree life that was affected by shrinking forestlands. Work for people who lived in the region was insecure and low paid, and illegal logging and hunting meant that once abundant brazilwood trees, as well as populations of armadillos, tapirs, and deer, had dwindled to almost nothing. 


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This story of decline may be depressingly familiar. What is less common is the optimism that has taken hold in this forest, which contains 7% of the world’s plant species and 5% of vertebrate animal species, as companies like HP, global NGOs, and local nonprofits work to stitch it back together, one acre at a time. 

Across once desolate patches of pasture, new seedlings push through the rich undergrowth, winding up against thick foliage and the gnarled roots of fig trees and lush areas with established trees. In the resulting forest corridors, branches and plant life rustle with the calls of elegant mourner birds, while the elusive puma, which came close to extinction, has returned.

“Seeing degraded pasture recover shows how resilient the Atlantic Forest can be and how urgently we need to restore it,” says Daniel Venturi, restoration specialist at WWF-Brasil.

Local knowledge and expertise

Due to local conservation efforts, this region once again holds a range of biodiversity similar to the Amazon, with, for example, 443 tree species identified in a single hectare. And as the plants return, so, too, do the animals. “Who would have thought that the puma would come here?” asks Mauricio Nogueira, 45, a nursery coordinator and plant collector who has been working for REGUA, a local nonprofit helping to protect and restore the Atlantic Forest, for over 20 years. “Or that one day we would see an alligator walking here, or capybaras?” 

Nursery coordinator Nogueira in the forest leading efforts to find rare seeds; a close-up of collected seeds in a plastic bag ready for replanting; saplings growing in the REGUA nursery.

Jody MacDonald

From left to right: Nursery coordinator Nogueira leads efforts to find rare seeds; collected seeds await replanting; saplings grow in the REGUA nursery for a year before replanting.

In the last few years, World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has partnered with REGUA to contribute to HP’s forest conservation goals. HP has worked with WWF for over a decade to improve the sustainable sourcing of paper and paper-based packaging in the company’s supply chain. In 2019, WWF and HP began a partnership to help restore 550 hectares of threatened forests in Brazil and improve the management of 89,000 hectares of forests in China. Two years later, HP and WWF announced the expansion of conservation efforts in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest to address the impacts on forests from printing with HP printers. They also identified two new crucial landscapes: Madre de Dios in Perú, one of the most biodiverse regions in the Amazon, and the forests of eastern Australia, home to koalas and other species that were severely impacted by recent wildfires. Work in these three crucial landscapes totals nearly 333,000 acres, or 134,771 hectares. Additionally, in 2022 HP gave $10 million to Conservation International for reforestation work in the Amazon Rainforest that will help HP toward its forest conservation goals. 

As the private protected area maintained by REGUA has expanded to nearly 11,000 hectares, including over 400 hectares of forest under restoration, Nogueira has become one of the heroes of this story. “I know this place like the back of my hand. When I first came here, I was a little boy. Many years ago this was a cattle pasture,” says Nogueira. Many of the 650,000 trees that have been replanted in the region have passed through the hands of his small team.

Germinating rare trees such as the rusty-trunked pau-brasil or the elongated jequitibá-branco is complex. Every seed is registered according to size and date of collection, then weighed and kept in a refrigerator until it is ready to be germinated in a nursery and grow into a seedling, where it stays for up to a year before it can be replanted in the wild. A deep well of local knowledge is often vital to identification. “Not every species is in the book, so I go back to the woods, collect a branch, register it, then take it to a person who will say, ‘This is a so-and-so,’” says Nogueira. “Sometimes, I have to go to the internet to know if it is from our region, or São Paulo, or Minas Gerais.”

It’s hands-on work and for the longtime local, it’s also a passion. Nogueira is known by locals as a father of the forest and is determined to share his holistic vision of what could be achieved here. “I have to pass on this knowledge, this teaching,” he asserts. “When I am no longer on the land, I am sure that my son will say, ‘This was my father who did it,’ and the people will say, ‘Ah, the late Mauricio, he reforested all this, he passed it all on.’” Therein lies the possibility of a lasting legacy, says Nogueira. “That’s what I’m here for — for children, for your future. I’m leaving it to you.” 

Mariana Muniz de Oliveira is a nursery staff member who joined Nogueira’s team in 2021. At just 24 years old, she shares his deep love for the landscape. Working with REGUA is a dream come true, and HP’s investment with WWF enabled the organization to expand its staff to include her position. “Planting a tree has a magical, incredible importance,” she says. Sometimes she wants to cry when she sees plants collected as seedlings growing bigger than she is, Oliveira says.

“The science blends into a type of art: collecting the seeds, taking them to the nursery, propagating the seedlings into life, and then restoring barren patches of land to get the forest growing again.”

— Nicholas Locke, founder of REGUA

A responsible concept of reforestation

Though one hectare of the Atlantic Forest can store between 223 and 460 metric tons of carbon, the motivation that drives Nogueira’s team goes beyond the climate benefits of restoration. In addition to the practical know-how, there is a connection with the land entwined with personal and universal legacies and the health and well-being of people.

This combination of ecosystem knowledge and enthusiasm is vital. But it is not the full story. Returning over-tilled land back to healthy forest is a complex undertaking. The successful transformation of Cachoeiras de Macacu is the result of visionary ideas and the boots-on-the-ground work of REGUA, which began when its founder, Nicholas Locke, decided to return his own farmland and pastures to forest. 

“Nature has a tempo throughout the year and it’s always producing. It’s working alongside us. It’s making its own raw materials,” says Locke. “The science blends into a type of art: collecting the seeds, taking them to the nursery, propagating the seedlings into life, and then restoring barren patches of land to get the forest growing again.” His grassroots organization and WWF have achieved as much as they have by putting communities at the heart of the project. The very first step of this plan, says WWF’s Venturi, was to build engagement into restoration efforts: “Restoration goes far beyond planting trees. People and organizations on the ground know that.”

Responsible restoration is a complex process of ecological balance and creating long-term environments for biodiversity and ecosystems. All the impacts, from water provision for locals to measuring carbon benefits, need to be aligned. 

“People need to see the results. If you don’t work for and with local people, if rural farms are not affected positively, they’re not going to take care,” says Venturi. “Collaboration is vital.” 

Community collaboration

Many people who live near the Atlantic Forest rely on it for their livelihoods, through subsistence agriculture or by selling timber, charcoal, or other forest-derived products. To be successful, restoration is not just about the longevity of plants and animals, but also uplifting local communities with jobs and sustainable agricultural practices. REGUA’s focus to create something that can thrive in the future, not just replace what’s been lost, is a result of identifying community engagement champions such as Nogueira and Oliveira and consistently investing in their expertise. 

Some local farmers and hunters have struggled with the changes. Creating a dialogue has been an important part of Nogueira’s work, such as informing local hunters it’s illegal to hunt in the protected areas. At first he used to check traps and release animals. “If I saw a hunter, I’d say, ‘My friend, I’m sorry, but this is now a preservation area. You’ll have to excuse me, I come here to talk to you. It’s my job.’ When we find out about illegal hunting, we warn these people of the risks associated with it.” 

Oliveira tending to starter seedlings in the nursery; an up-close shot of  a jequitibá-rosa seedling and its roots; Oliveira bending over to transplant a young sapling on the forest floor; a marmoset perched on a tree, overlooking conservation efforts.

Jody MacDonald

Clockwise from left: Oliveira tends to starter seedlings in the nursery; a closer look at a jequitibá-rosa seedling and its roots; Oliveira transplants a young sapling on the forest floor; a common marmoset keeps an eye on conservation efforts.

The project also educates farmers about the interconnectedness of nature and economics — and how dependent they are on the ecosystem for success, especially water. “We use the project to raise awareness of the local population, always trying to bring them in as part of the process,” says Taruhim Quadros, conservation and restoration analyst at WWF-Brasil. “We highlight that, by adopting sustainable practices, they may have more productive areas and the same amount of income they would get from ‘business-as-usual’ agriculture.”

REGUA promotes agroforestry techniques in the region: planting agricultural species, especially native ones, together with species that help to reestablish ecosystem functions in the area — for example, trees that fix more nitrogen in the soil, which in turn makes more nutrients available for the crops under production. Locke explains this reduces the need for artificial fertilizer, lowering costs to the farmers while potentially creating a higher market value for the products by making them organic. 

Ecotourism has an important role to play here, too, with tourists coming to get a glimpse of rare flora and fauna, thus driving economic development. Locals are employed as trail or animal guides and increasingly value the conservation efforts as they create more employment opportunities. 

Over time, the message of mutual aid has started to get through as people have begun to see the wider benefits. “The reserve came to be a new way to take care of the forest through work, offering options for a way we can live in communion with nature,” says Locke. 

A vision of the future It’s clear we can’t just plant our way out of the climate and nature crisis. But the Atlantic Forest shows we may be able to build a new future where people and nature thrive through partnership with governments, businesses, nonprofits, and local communities. 

So far, the partners that WWF and HP work with, including REGUA, have created over 160 jobs in the region, and new standards have been set. Through the strengthening of multi-scale networks of local organizations and people, rural landowners, governments, and the private sector, WWF-Brasil is catalyzing the impact of these partners. “We are showing people that we can align global ambitions with our national and local demand,” says Venturi. “We are creating a virtuous circle. Then… we can bring hope.” 

REGUA was heralded at COP26 as a model of ecosystem restoration. The initial ambition of Nicholas Locke to restore a small area of farmland and forest has now expanded to be a part of the Trinational Atlantic Forest Pact to restore 15 million hectares by 2050. 

“It is exciting to see the trees produce their first leaves and their first fruit after many years,” says Locke. “That’s what keeps me wanting to plant more. We’re able to create habitats that create the best chance for the forest’s survival.”


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