• A programme to restore forest cover in a watershed area that serves São Paulo and other urban centres has restored 5,000 hectares (12,400 acres) since 2016.
  • The Conservador da Mantiqueira programme includes 425 municipalities in the Mantiqueira Mountains in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais.
  • The programme was inspired by the smaller Conservador das Águas project in the municipality of Extrema, Minas Gerais state, which has planted more than 2 million native trees since it started in 2005, and pioneered the use of payment for ecosystem services (PES) in Brazil.

We set out from the town of Extrema, in Brazil’s Minas Gerais state, in a four-wheel-drive vehicle at 9 a.m. on a Monday. Driving beneath a mountainous vista and blue skies, Benedito Arlindo Cortez, our host, stops to chat with everyone we meet; he pulls the car over to talk to someone, then puts it in reverse to talk to someone else. Both are landowners who have joined the Conservador das Águas project.

“All the forest you see on the tops of the hills was planted by us,” Cortez says, pointing to the green top of a mountain. “We had only 5% of forest coverage in this sub-basin. Today, we have over 30%.”

Cortez is coordinator of the Conservador das Águas (Water Conservation) project, which works to protect the Ribeirão das Posses River, a tributary of the Jaguari. The latter is the largest waterway feeding the five reservoirs of the Cantareira system that supplies water for up to 9 million people in the city of São Paulo and more than 3 million in Campinas.

The project began in Extrema in 2005 to protect the water supply for the town’s 35,000 inhabitants. Nestled in the Mantiqueira Mountains, a part of the Atlantic Forest biome that rises to nearly 3,000 meters (9,800 feet) in altitude, this region is the source of much of the water that supplies the urban centers of southeastern Brazil.

The project involves restoring native vegetation on rural properties, especially in those parts of the properties that landowners are legally required to preserve — near springs, along riverbanks, and on hilltops. Conservador das Águas also encourages sustainable agriculture and the promotion of good sanitation practices.

To date, the project has planted 2 million native trees. It has expanded to neighboring municipalities, and in 2016 led to creation of the Plano Conservador da Mantiqueira (Mantiqueira Conservation Plan), which aims to reforest 1.5 million hectares by 2030 — an area 10 times the size of the city of São Paulo.

The plan encompasses 425 municipalities comprising 14.4 million hectares (35.6 million acres) in the states of São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and Minas Gerais. These municipalities are located in the river basins that overlap with the Mantiqueira Mountains, such as the Grande, Paraíba do Sul, Tietê, Piracicaba and Rio Mogi-Pardo, or that originate in them, such as the São Francisco and the Doce.

Benedito Arlindo Cortez walks in a reforested area in the municipality of Extrema, in Minas Gerais state.
Benedito Arlindo Cortez walks in a reforested area in the municipality of Extrema, in Minas Gerais state.
Image: Sibélia Zanon

A sprouting refrigerator

Extrema has a mostly industrial economy, with ranches dedicated to beef and dairy cattle. The central town square is adorned with the statue of a man standing in a large fountain, his hat in his right hand and a staff in his left: the prototypical “man of the fields.” The monument was raised in recognition of the Conservador das Águas project, created by Paulo Henrique Pereira, Extrema’s environmental secretary from 1995 to 2020.

“Water has always been our most important resource. The idea is to preserve our sources,” says Pereira, who is also part of the Conservador da Mantiqueira management committee. “What makes our project different is that we use payment for ecosystem services, an economic tool, to reach our goals.”

An early adopter of the PES model in Brazil, Conservador das Águas has paid out more than 7 million reais ($1.4 million) to rural landowners through 300 contracts signed with the city since 2007. A total of 8,000 hectares (19,800 acres) have already been restored, including preserved forests, areas of sustainable agriculture, and pasture with soil conservation. An eighth of that total is land that has been fully planted.

“We have to protect the springs, right? We are getting old and there is still water here,” says Helias Alves Cardoso, a rural landowner who participates in the project and has reforested some 4 hectares (10 acres) on his property, which totals 18 hectares (44 acres). “If we don’t take care, the water will end in 20 or 30 years. We have to think about the future, our children and grandchildren,” he adds.

Cardoso has also worked in the tree nursery owned by Conservador das Águas for 12 years.

The tables inside the nursery are lined with rows of small boxes holding plants of different colors and shapes: wild peanut (Pterogyne nitens), yellow angico (Parapiptadenia rigida), pepper (Erythroxylum deciduum), annatto (Bixa orellana), alligator wood (Piptadenia gonoacantha) and marica (Mimosa bimucronata). The variety abounds, and it continues inside the facility’s refrigerator, which holds more containers and bags with different species of seeds hibernating until the right moment for planting.

The Conservador das Águas nursery produces between 7,000 and 15,000 seedlings per month, varying according to the season: hot weather fuels growth and abundance, colder weather slows things down. Some 120 native species are cultivated throughout the year. The seeds are collected in the field and the mother or donor trees are tagged by GPS so they can be revisited at the right time in the following years. “Our work is valued by many people,” says Thalyson Augusto Ferreira, the forestry engineer responsible for the nursery.

Seedlings in the Conservador das Águas nursery in Extrema, in Minas Gerais state.
Seedlings in the Conservador das Águas nursery in Extrema, in Minas Gerais state.
Image: Sibélia Zanon.

Trees as religion

“For us Xucuru Kariri people, a tree is our church,” says Jânio Ferreira do Nascimento, the chief, or cacique, of his community. “If our trees end, our Indigenous family is ending. Trees are part of our religion because we were taught to take care of nature.”

The Xucuru Kariri, originally from what is today Alagoas state, were the first to establish an Indigenous village in the south of Minas Gerais, between the municipalities of Caldas and Santa Rita de Caldas. Twenty years on, the village today occupies 52.3 hectares (129 acres). The Xucuru Kariri have joined the Mantiqueira Conservation Plan, fencing off 2.3 hectares (5.7 acres) that they intend to reforest. The land has been prepared and native seedlings will soon be planted by a private company as part of its environmental compensation program.

In addition to the land already being restored, the Conservador da Mantiqueira team visited the Xucuru Kariri to present possibilities for better use of the land, including developing agroforestry systems, planting fruit trees, and other projects that could be of interest to the village’s 140 inhabitants.

“All this work is aimed not only to improve the environmental quality of the Indigenous land, but also to sustain the survival of the Indigenous people in the long term,” says Adriana Kfouri, a member of the Conservador da Mantiqueira management committee and director of The Nature Conservancy’s Mantiqueira region. “Restoration work has social and economic potential. The idea is that we have the restoration land and that the standing forest has value.”

‘Restoration Tinder’

Conservador da Mantiqueira supports local public policymaking, contributes to technical training, and provides expertise on environmental governance at city halls to promote reforestation. This allows it to help get rural landowners engaged and bring the resources needed to drive the restoration efforts. Getting landowners interested is fundamental for the program’s success, proponents say.

“All the producers I talk to who own a spring want to join the program because they see that it benefits themselves, not others,” says Carlos Delatesta, the agriculture and livestock secretary of the municipality of Caldas, whose own farm participates in the program and who promotes the cause and its benefits to fellow landowners. “I hope that the people of the city later on will also benefit, right? Because if we preserve it here in our region, on our own properties, there will be more water in coming years. I am 55 years old and remember how it was 20 years ago … today the waters have dwindled far too much.”

Another Caldas resident, Alexandre Henrique Gomes, inherited around 60 hectares (150 acres) from his late father, whom he described as someone who believed in restoration. This taste for preservation has passed down from father to son, Gomes says.

“The change is very evident. I’ve fenced off an area up there and the water is already surfacing,” he tells a team of seven women from Conservador da Mantiqueira. “Did you see this venture next door? You can’t let something like that be destroyed,” he adds, referring to a mining operation next to his land, which shows up in the satellite image printout he’s carrying.

“It is evident that we have a massive presence of women within the municipal projects of Conservador da Mantiqueira,” says Priscila Bueno, the environmental secretary for the municipality of Santa Rita de Caldas, who leads the expansion of the program in her region. “Today, women are the majority and are involved in all of the Conservador’s work. They carry out planning actions, environmental diagnosis, carry out projects and go out to do fieldwork together with rural producers.”

The Nature Conservancy, in collaboration with collaborative mapping initiative Mapbiomas, created the Portal da Mantiqueira platform to help visualize the region’s hydrography and identify individual rural properties and the parts of each one that must legally be preserved. The platform helps to connect land available for reforestation to interested landowners, and is affectionately referred to as the “Restoration Tinder” by members of the management team.

Seedlings in the Conservador das Águas nursery in Extrema, in Minas Gerais state.
Seedlings in the Conservador das Águas nursery in Extrema, in Minas Gerais state.
Image: Sibélia Zanon

Making the forest happen

Conservador da Mantiqueira has now restored some 5,000 hectares (12,400 acres). More than 150 municipalities are involved in the plan in some way, and 32 of them have already implemented PES legislation. Even though a national law on the issue was enacted this year, municipalities also need to have their own legislation with specific guidelines.

In joining the Conservador da Mantiqueira program, each municipality creates its own rules. Among the plan’s guidelines is the payment per hectare restored, amounting to an average of 300 reais ($60) per hectare per year, but the conditions and ways of working may vary according to the legislation of each municipality. Extrema, which was the first, pays participating landowners not only for hectares restored, but for the total land area.

The accumulated years of experience in restoration have shown that there are several ways to make the forest come back to life: it can be through natural regeneration, through planting seedlings, or planting muvuca, a mixture of native seeds being tested in the Atlantic Forest.

“When we implement, we always seek to have more effective use of the resources, which are scarce,” says Kfouri from the management committee. “This way, we are able to meet our need for scale due to the urgency that we have to make the restoration happen. The water issue and climate issue are urgent.”

Conservador da Mantiqueira has formed partnerships with educational institutions, including the Federal Institute of Education, Science and Technology of the South of Minas Gerais (IFSULDEMINAS), to study the best options for restoration and to provide technical support. In 2019, a 1.5-hectare (3.7-acre) forest restoration pilot project was implemented on the institute’s campus, in the municipality of Inconfidentes in Minas Gerais state. It’s being used to evaluate the most effective techniques for the Mantiqueira Mountains’ unique characteristics.

A Conservador da Mantiqueira reforestation site in Caldas, in Minas Gerais
A Conservador da Mantiqueira reforestation site in Caldas, in Minas Gerais
Image: Sibélia Zanon

In 2021, the U.N. declared the start of the Decade on Ecosystem Restoration, which runs until 2030. For restoration projects in general, and Conservador da Mantiqueira in particular, a fundamental issue is generating the resources to make restoration feasible, which can come from different sources: the municipality itself, environmental compensation programs by private companies, the River Basin Committee, NGOs and, more recently, through carbon credits.

Managed by The Nature Conservancy, the carbon credit project is financed by e-commerce company Mercado Livre, which created the Regenera América program to offset its emissions and initially invested 45 million reais ($9 million) in initiatives to restore the Atlantic Forest.

“Seven rural landowners have already signed on” for the carbon credit scheme, Kfouri says. “We have the challenge of implementing 2,700 hectares [6,700 acres] and these seven contracts already encompass 20% of that area. We plan to get many more people on board in coming months.”

In 2018, Extrema developed its own carbon credit program, called “Extrema no Clima.” The program aims to offset the emissions by the municipal government and residents.

“Companies need to present their emissions inventory. We calculate the number of trees needed to offset these emissions and they have to pay,” says Pereira, the former environmental secretary. Residents can also offset their individual emissions: “Car owners emit greenhouse gases when driving their vehicle. We take a part of the IPVA [vehicle tax] paid by citizens to offset their emissions and apply it to the Conservador das Águas,” Pereira says.

“There is no point in a municipality having an environmental department and being stuck in a negative agenda of complying with bureaucracy, of authorizing deforestation,” says Bueno, the Santa Rita de Caldas environmental secretary. “What really matters is having a positive agenda. What are the environmental, social and economic projects that that department manages to maintain in the municipality?”

Sunset in the Mantiqueira Mountains.
Sunset in the Mantiqueira Mountains.
Image: Sibélia Zanon

Banner image of Helias Alves Cardoso in the Conservador das Águas greenhouse in Extrema, in Minas Gerais state, by Sibélia Zanon.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Feb. 8, 2022.