The forest saviors of São Paulo

The forest saviors of São Paulo

Published On: 1 de September de 2022

In Brazil, two sisters are reforesting the Atlantic Forest, which has been heavily decimated. The Atlantic Forest once covered a vast region along the Atlantic coast, stretching from northeastern Brazil to Argentina and Paraguay. Throughout history, however, it has become smaller and smaller due to the logging industry, sugarcane cultivation, livestock and coffee production.

Flávia Balderi looks at the neighboring property: mountainous terrain without a single tree, covered with grass, grass planted for cattle. Balderi, a slender 40-year-old woman with long dark hair, dressed in a sporty polo shirt, jeans and trekking shoes, says this land could also be reclaimed and restored to its natural state if the owners wanted it. From an ecological point of view, pastures are practically dead.

You can see the difference in the Balderi area. Copaíba's headquarters are located here in the interior of the state of São Paulo, surrounded by trees. It is the NGO that Balderi founded 25 years ago with his sister Ana Paula, when they were both teenagers. Their idea: to plant trees in the almost bare region, dominated by livestock and the coffee industry. “Many people thought we were crazy back then”, recalls Flávia Balderi. “We were against the way farmers think. The forests are unproductive for them.” It is the mentality that still prevails in rural Brazil today.

The little sister of the Amazon rainforest

With Copaíba, the Balderi sisters are reforesting the Atlantic Forest, which has been severely decimated. It is much less known in Europe than, for example, the Amazon rainforest, but it is just as important as an ecosystem. It once covered a vast region along the Atlantic coast, stretching from northeast Brazil to Argentina and Paraguay. After the Amazon rainforest, it was the second largest biotope in South America. In the course of history, however, it was severely decimated by the population of coastal regions. The logging industry, sugarcane cultivation, livestock and coffee production, in particular, contributed to the destruction, so that today only about 15% of Brazil's original forest area is preserved.

It is even more surprising that the Atlantic Forest has remained one of the most species-rich biotopes in the world, with over 200 species of mammals, some of them large, hundreds of species of birds, reptiles and amphibians. It is home to around 20,000 plants.

While forest destruction has been considered necessary for economic progress for centuries, a subtle rethink has begun in recent years – also in Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right president whose tenure saw record new areas deforested. Not only the Amazon rainforest suffered a lot, but also the Atlantic Forest, as new data show. Nearly 22,000 hectares of Atlantic Forest were felled between 2020 and 2021, an increase of 66% over the previous year. This destruction comes at an enormously high price: lack of water!

72% of Brazilians live in or around the Atlantic Forest, 70% of gross domestic product is generated here. The condition for this: water for private consumption, as well as for industry, agriculture and energy production. If it rains too little, the lights literally go out in Brazil. “2014 was a year like that”, recalls Flávia Balderi. For months it rained very little and water consumption had to be rationed in coastal regions. At the time, São Paulo was threatened with a state of emergency because the water reservoirs were almost empty and the hydroelectric plants were running out of “fuel” due to falling water levels. The authorities feared unrest.

A pair of idealistic teenagers

Flávia and Ana Paula Balderi were clairvoyant when, in 1999, they called friends in their hometown, the small town of Socorro, to plant 100 seedlings along the Rio do Peixe, a river that has always been dirty brown. In any case, nothing was seen of fish, which the river bears in its name, says Flávia Balderi. The reason: lack of trees to protect the banks. When it rained, more and more land was washed into the river from bare cattle pastures.

“At the time, a lot of people were wondering what we were really doing there. The region is very conservative”, recalls Flávia. “We were just a small group of idealistic teenagers.” Today, more than 20 years later, numerous awards and certificates hang in the Copaíba office, which is named after the Brazilian tree. The sisters managed to change their region forever. The fact that both are women makes their success even more remarkable in the macho country that is Brazil. “The most important thing is the change in consciousness that we set in motion”, says Flávia Balderi.

The NGO has already planted around one million seedlings of 130 different species of trees, most of them in Serra da Mantiqueira, the region of origin of the Balderi sisters. Just 100 years ago, it was completely naked because coffee was grown here and cattle were raised. Even today, she is faced with ignorance, says Flávia Balderi, who currently manages Copaíba alone because her sister had a daughter. “Sometimes ranchers just let their cattle graze on reforested land.”

The Balderi sisters, who today employ 16 people, have reforested around 500 hectares and more than 200 plots of land. Hundreds of springs were bubbling up again in the new forests, says Flávia Balderi. “Many older landowners who are seeing success are coming to us because they are running out of water. They understood that deforestation leads to the depletion of sources. Copaíba's work is financed through donations and partnerships with companies. Planting and caring for a seedling costs the equivalent of four euros. Copaíba also participates in public tenders.

The sisters are not alone

Flávia Balderi passes over the hill, past the Copaíba headquarters, in the small town of Monte Alegre do Sul. The centerpiece is a large greenhouse in which Copaíba has grown 3.5 million seedlings to date. A forest was – of course – planted on about half of the six-hectare property. It serves to bring students closer to nature. “We have already received 30,000 children and young people here”, says Tatiana Terasin, responsible for the educational program and a trained teacher. “Brazilian schools are terribly theoretical and abstract,” she says. “Here, students come into contact with nature. Copaíba’s work would be in vain if it were not continued by future generations.”

Marcos Massukado also thinks so. The São Paulo lawyer bought an old coffee farm as a country house for himself and his family and turned to Copaíba. “I think the planet needs help! It is necessary to act”, writes Massukado by e-mail because he is in São Paulo on the day of the visit. Of the approximately 160 hectares of land he owns, he wants to plant half and continue to plant coffee on the rest. The reforestation is carried out by Copaíba, financed by the Hamburg company Jungheinrich, which manufactures forklifts, among other things.

“Reforestation takes place in several stages”, explains Álvaro Guerreiro, one of Copaíba's reforestation specialists. First, the soil is prepared, pasture grass is removed, and an attempt is made to decimate the leaf-cutting ants, which can eat young trees within hours. Then, suitable tree species are selected and small holes are dug which are filled with hydrogel, a fertilizer, before the seedling is planted. After 30, 60 and 90 days, plant development is monitored.

change of mind

Today, four men from the small company are on the property, hired by Copaíba to plant. Maurilio Rodrigues worked with horses and on coffee plantations. Then the 32-year-old realized there was more to making money in the region than just farming. He called his company “Rodrigues Planeta Verde”. He says they "help the planet". Maurilio has three employees, who walk with rubber boots down the slope to be reforested, removing grass from the pasture and fertilizing around the seedlings. Maurilio and his young company are an example of the change that Copaíba has brought to the region. It not only occurs in nature, but also in the mind.

However, the example of Marcos Massukado also shows that it is, above all, the new owners who bring with them a different view of the environment. Tourism also plays an important role here, for example when old farms are converted into hotels. Tourists want to see trees, birds and other wildlife, not bare hills.

Luís Gonzaga's 19th century coffee farm is located in the picturesque village of Monte Alegre do Sul. If there's one thing the 64-year-old former engineer loves more than anything, it's birds. And so the grandson of Italian immigrants reforested part of his farm with the help of Copaíba. Now it offers birding, and bird watchers from all over the world come to it because here they can see rare owls and 18 different species of hummingbirds, three of which are found only in the Atlantic Forest.

But not only the birds have returned thanks to reforestation. Gonzaga set up camera traps in a wooded area and captured rare maned wolves, a cougar and large wildcats in front of his lens. “I do all this out of love for nature and water,” says Gonzaga. “I want my children to live in an intact Atlantic Forest environment and I am doing my part here together with Copaíba.”


Text by:

Philipp Lichterbeck, Rio de Janeiro


Philipp Lichterbeck, born in 1972, has lived in Rio de Janeiro since 2012. The freelance correspondent and reporter reports on Brazil and the rest of Latin America for German, Swiss and Austrian media. In 2013, his book “Paraíso Perdido. A trip through Haiti and the Dominican Republic”.

Ian Cheibub (born 1999) is a visual storyteller who lives in Rio de Janeiro and studies at Universidade Federal Fluminense. He also works as a photographer for Reuters and covers reporting in Brazil for other media. In his work, he tries to understand what mechanisms people in the Global South develop to survive.


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