For hundreds of thousands of years, the Araucaria evergreen has been a distinguishing feature of the landscapes at the southern edge of Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. The tree has a cultural significance as well: The Kaingang people use its wood in wood-carving practices and as kindling for bonfires during Kikikoi funerary rituals and its ashes for face-painting. Meanwhile, for the Xokleng people, the trees mark the passage of time by the coming and going of pinhão—the Araucaria pine nut or seed.
These trees have been growing since the Jurassic period, surviving a tremendous array of geological eras and events, only to be threatened by human activities. Beginning in the 20th century, Brazil saw rapid economic growth that fueled an unsustainable demand in timber, ultimately consuming an estimated 97% of the country’s Araucarias.
After a century of unregulated logging, the Mixed Ombrophilous Forest, an Atlantic Forest ecosystem that once covered enormous swaths of southern Brazil, has been reduced to only a few dispersed fragments. The trees are now critically endangered and, as the planet warms and rainfall patterns become disrupted due to human activities, the relatively cool, moist conditions necessary for Araucaria survival are disappearing, further threatening to drive the species towards extinction.
Known as the Brazilian Pine, the Araucaria tree is the symbol of the Brazilian state of Paraná. However, only 0.8% of its natural forests remain preserved—a mere 60,000 hectares (150,000 acres) of the original 8 million (20 million acres) that once existed.
In recent years, Araucaria Connection, an organization founded by the Society for Wildlife Research and Environmental Education (SPVS) has aimed to reverse the decline of Araucaria trees in Paraná—the state with (ironically) the highest rate of deforestation in the Atlantic Forest—and to transform natural areas into economic assets through compensation programs that pay the farmers for sustainable practices. These efforts are based on the notion that well-conserved native forests have the potential to drive the local economy, triggering financial benefits equal (if not surpassing) those of farming.
By 2023, the organization—in collaboration with local farmers—plans to restore 335 hectares (827 acres) of Araucaria moist pine forests by planting 250,000 seedlings in Conservation Units and Permanent Preservation Areas, which are grounds for most of the forest’s remaining fragments on the Paraná plateau. The strategy is to plant seedlings behind protective fences, ensuring the necessary conditions for the remaining patches to reconnect through ecological corridors. The long-term aim is to assist in the rise of local biodiversity and genetic flow, as well as to reestablish ecosystem services, which are vital for the well being of humans and economic activities.
Over three years, according to farmer reports, 240 hectares of land have already been restored. Such success is undoubtedly attributed to Araucaria Connection’s dedication to the principle of preservation with compensation, which serves as a financial incentive for farmers to work towards preventing deforestation. More specifically, owners of preserved forest receive payment in the form of environmental services in exchange for maintaining standing forest.
These efforts reveal that long-lasting social and environmental change is most effective if, rather than being imposed by external forces, it encourages and empowers the local community to take the well-being of the earth and, in turn, their own well-being into their own, capable hands.
Clara Rabbani is a rising sophomore at the University of Chicago, majoring in Anthropology with a minor in Urban and Environmental Studies. She is passionate about poetry and is the editor of “The World is Waking Up: Poetry of Resistance from Youth Around The World”. With a Brazilian and Iranian background, she is also fascinated with the diversity of human cultures and their intersection with environmentally sustainable practices. She will be collaborating as the Environmental Writer for Brazil.