Mongabay Series: Amazon Conservation, Global Forests
When Takushi Sato left Japan for Belém, Brazil, in 1971, he never imagined what he would go through. By 2000, as the manager of a timber company that shipped Brazilian wood to Japan, he was tired of being extorted by officials from IBAMA, the environmental protection agency, to get the required export documents, he recalled.
One day, he secretly recorded a conversation in which an IBAMA officer asked him for a bribe.
“I could not accept this extortion even knowing the risk of sinking the company,” Sato told Mongabay by email. His company decided to take the case to the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office in Pará state, where Belém is located. The Federal Police accepted the recording as evidence, but wanted to catch the IBAMA officer red-handed. So, cooperating with the police, Sato arranged a bribe of 1 million reais ($185,000) and a meeting with the IBAMA officer for the payment.
Like in the movies, Sato took his briefcase with half of the bribe and flew to Brasília, where the handover was to take place. The Federal Police sprang their trap and arrested all of those involved in the case, including Sato, who was later released.
The experience not only put Sato through “a lot of agony,” he said, but brought to light his concerns for the environment. Since the 1970s, despite working for a company that cut trees, he felt very committed to reforestation, even if only to ensure enough tree stock for his timber production. “I have always thought that the forest is important for our survival,” Sato said. As a personal initiative, he made his company agree to keep areas of land for reforestation. That was the start of the Friends of the Amazon Forest Institute (ASFLORA), the organization he currently presides over full time.
When Sato met Japanese botanist Akira Miyawaki in 1991, a “perfect marriage” was born. Sato found in Miyawaki the scientific knowledge to drive his reforestation projects, and Miyawaki found in Sato the opportunity to expand the implementation of his unorthodox new method of growing natural forests fast. “Miyawaki opened our eyes to the ecological side of reforestation,” Sato said. It helped that both men were Japanese (Miyawaki died in 2021), especially in a country as different as Brazil, where deforestation in the Amazon was, and still is, a big concern.
Over the past four years, under the administration of Jair Bolsonaro, deforestation in Brazil increased significantly. With Bolsonaro now out of office, and a pro-environmental president in the form of Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva taking his place, demand for forest regeneration techniques is growing.
Under Bolosnaro, deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon increased by 59.5%, the highest in a presidential term since 1988. From Aug. 1, 2021, to July 31, 2022, 1.16 million hectares (2.86 million acres) of forest were cleared; the previous year it was 1.30 million hectares (3.22 million acres), the highest rate since 2006, based on satellite imagery from Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE). While the rate of deforestation in Pará decreased by nearly 21%, the absolute area of forest cleared in the state was still the most of any of Brazil’s Amazonian states in 2022, according to INPE.
Lula, who took office on Jan. 1, has promised to achieve zero deforestation and to regenerate degraded land, but the plans remain sketchy.
Two things become evident when visiting the sites of several Miyawaki projects on the outskirts of Belém. One is that if left alone, the abundance of the rainforest prevails, and it has no difficulty growing next to concrete. The other is that the Amazon isn’t only the wild rainforest that it’s often perceived to be — it’s also the cities and people living in it: nearly 30 million people in the Brazilian portion of the Amazon. The Miyawaki method accommodates this reality because it can be implemented in both large and small spaces, and in urban and rural areas alike.
Reforestation using the Miyawaki method seeks to recreate the natural forest in its original state. And it does it in only around six years. The secret to its speed lies in that it understands the forest as a society where the relationship between different trees and plants, animals and other organisms creates a living ecosystem that continuously renovates itself.
Three conditions must be met, according to the method: the trees should be native; several species should be randomly mixed; and the soil and the tree seedlings should be free from any chemical or artificial substances. Quality is essential, which is why ASFLORA prepares the tree seedlings itself.
Each seedling is nurtured in the nursery for around three months, developing its root system in an environment with 50% shade. The soil must contain organic materials such as açai stone (caroço de açai), black earth (terra preta), rice straw (palha de arroz), the residue from the extraction of castor seed oil (torta de mamona), and coconut fiber (fibra de coco) or a mix of rice straw, sawdust, chicken droppings, urine, feed remnants and feathers (cama de frango). After three months, when the seedlings are at least 30 centimeters (12 inches) tall, they’re moved to a sunnier spot for the adaptation phase, readying them for what their future conditions in nature will be. Once adapted, the seedlings are randomly planted in the organic soil prepared for them, at about three seedlings per square meter, or about one seedling every 3-4 square feet.
Two years of monitoring is enough to let nature work its magic. Josiane Mattos, project manager at ASFLORA, points with enthusiasm to the seeds, fruits and flowers on the forest floor, the fungi, anthills and new life growing on the trees, and the spiderwebs trapping insects and leaves. These are signs that the ecosystem is in full operation since it was restored in 2011. It’s a piece of the rainforest in the only reforested area in the Palavra da Vida school in the municipality of Benevides.
The total number of seedlings planted in a Miyawaki project will depend on the area available, but it’s usually at least 5,000. This figure, and the high quality of the seedlings, make the method expensive, Mattos said.
The Miyawaki method distinguishes itself from other reforestation techniques by looking to recover forests in their wildness. “Its advantage is the recovery and enrichment of the soil by putting life into that area,” Carlos Alberto Correa, an agronomist and forestry engineer with the Executive Commission for Cocoa Cultivation Planning (CEPLAC) who has collaborated with ASFLORA, told Mongabay in an interview at his office in Belém.
“The fauna is going to come back, whether it is terrestrial or aerial, because you have a collection of species that will attract those animals and that will feed on those fruits. You are rescuing part of this fauna and can even make an ecological corridor connecting one area with another one through Miyawaki,” Correa said. “The disadvantage, if you can say it is a disadvantage, is that when you put those species, you do not have a space delimitation, and it is difficult to manage it.”
While methods like agroforestry have a commercial purpose and are meant to be managed, Miyawaki has an ecological purpose, and its value lies in letting nature be and play its role in the world. A study from the Cyberspace Institute Specialization in Geoprocessing and Georeferencing of Rural Properties at the Rural Federal University of the Amazon acknowledges its benefits from a biological and environmental point of view. These include the capture of carbon through photosynthesis, the interception of air pollution, the reduction of surface runoff of rainwater due to the porous soil in the planting areas, the protection of springs and rivers, thereby preventing soil erosion, and a physical barrier intercepting rainwater.
Another benefit acknowledged by the study is the positive effects of the forest on the physical and mental health of people. In a warm climate like Belém’s, shade helps to reduce the temperature, creating a more pleasant environment. It also has a calming effect on people, as expressed by students and teachers of the Juscelino Kubitschek de Oliveira agroindustrial school, located in the vicinity of ASFLORA’s 0.3-hectare (0.7-acre) reforestation site. “When it starts to rain, I can feel the smell of the wet earth,” Beatriz Pizon, a former student from the school and now working in ASFLORA as a forestry technician, told Mongabay in a group interview with several students from the school at ASFLORA’s office in Belém. “I like to stay under the trees and just feel that smell and hear the sound of the leaves. That is where I can calm down and relax,” Pizon said.
Denisson Costa, a teacher for the technology and technical classes at ASFLORA, has worked at the school for only two months, and even he sees the differences in how the presence of the forest impacts the students. “I had never seen this involvement [with the environment] in other schools,” Costa told Mongabay while walking in the school’s reforested area. “Here we don’t see visual pollution, we don’t see garbage on the floor, we don’t see chairs all covered with graffiti.”
See related: The Middle East’s first Miyawaki-style forests take root
Across Belém, 14,734 hectares (36,408 acres) have been reforested using the Miyawaki method, but the technique remains an outlier in Brazil. That’s evident in the difficulties getting local funding for its implementation; so far, the funding in Pará has come from Japanese companies like Mitsubishi. It’s easier to get financing for other reforestation projects because those aim for some kind of financial return, Mattos said. Another difficulty is the lack of recorded evidence of Miyawaki method results in Brazil. “That is one of the biggest deficiencies in ASFLORA because it does not give us scientific proof of the work we have been doing for many years,” Mattos said.
Today, the Miyawaki method’s success is measured by the evolution of the replanted forest. In the surroundings of ASFLORA’s office, Mongabay met Alex Ricardo, a geodesy and cartography expert who was comparing a natural forest with two areas that had been reforested using the Miyawaki method between 2019 and 2020. At a glance, there’s little difference between the three, considering how much younger the Miyawaki patches are.
This positive result matches the findings of studies analyzing the implementation of the Miyawaki method in other parts of the world, such as East Asia, Malaysia, and the Mediterranean region.
But visual observation isn’t enough for science. ASFLORA is currently collaborating on a study of an area inside Utinga State Park, in Belém, that was reforested in 2019. The results haven’t been published yet.
At ASFLORA, the Miyawaki method isn’t only about planting trees, but rather about educating and creating bonds with the communities. “What we can do to restore the forest by imitating natural forest is very little, but this action would help our community to perceive respect for and feel the importance of the typical forest of the region,” Sato said.
In 2019, the Miyawaki method was recognized by the Banco do Brasil Foundation for its role in developing social technology to protect the environment. Besides the ecological aspect, the method works around three other principles, Mattos said: social, because it involves the communities in the planting of the trees; ethical, because it promotes environmental protection values; and financial, because it promotes a circular economy consisting of buying the seeds and the organic material for the soil and seedlings from local producers.
But reforestation isn’t enough to protect the Amazon if local communities aren’t concerned about the forest. That’s why ASFLORA complements its reforestation efforts with educational activities. “If we think about the forest only as trees, we will not get anywhere. But if we think of the forest as a learning tool, we can reach very distant places,” Mattos said. One of those activities is a theatrical play where characters from local myths, like the witch Matinta Perera, or Curupira, the dwarf with the backward feet, or Mother Nature herself, introduce conservation to children.
Involving the local communities in the reforestation of the Amazon isn’t easy. Mattos said the key to engaging them is creating bonds with communities and seeing things from their perspective. A successful example is the Miyawaki project in the Quilombola (Afro-Brazilian) community of Vila Belmiro in the municipality of Abaetetuba to restore a riverbank.
When the project began in 2019, the community didn’t welcome the ASFLORA volunteers because they wanted something that would give a financial return. But the ASFLORA team lived in the community for two months to get to know the residents and understand what they needed. They joined the women in their afternoon coffee, spent time with the children, and provided training in local interests such as handicrafts and fish farming. “They understood that we were there to help them and that one of the ways that they could be helped, and they could help us to help them, was planting the trees,” Mattos said.
Led by the children and the women, the whole community joined the project. “The last news I heard about this project is that it was being cleaned and maintained by the residents of the quilombo and that it was very beautiful,” Mattos said with excitement.
Engaging communities in restoration projects often requires a change of mentality. “Many local people grow up without understanding that they live in the Amazon,” Ricardo said. “Others see the Amazon as a source of natural resources that are there to be exploited.”
Banner image: A staffer prepares seedlings on ASFLORA premises. The quality of seedlings is key to the success of the Miyawaki method. Photo by Nieves Zúñiga for Mongabay.
Nieves Zúñiga is a freelance journalist and researcher passionate about constructive journalism and the environment. As a 2022 LEDE Fellow at the Solutions Journalism Network, she has led a project on stories about solutions to repair the damage caused to the environment.
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