by Julius WiedemannMar 31, 2022
If you are walking into a forest, you might assume that the experience you are having is only related to everything that is natural or within nature. That number of species, the sounds of the birds, the fresh air, the varieties of green. Everything looks perfect. I had the opportunity two weeks ago to visit Symbiosis Investimentos, a sustainable reforestation project with now about one million trees and its oldest part growing for 18 years, cultivating over 30 different types of wood, that will start to be cut soon, but that will also become a permanent forest in many areas of region. What I have learned there is that wood is one of the most sustainable products in the world. We can grow them, we can easily recycle them, and they also have the advantage of capturing carbon from the air. But what I really didn’t know and I was very surprised to learn, was the amount of technology employed to get a new forest off the ground.
In natural conditions, when a forest is cut down, it takes about 200 years through the process of reforestation to become a primary forest again. If we use all technologies and knowledge, and we understand every species, and blend them, accordingly, using all their potential, it can take 40 years for a new forest to grow almost the size of the original one. This “almost miracle” is not just a coincidence, or luck, or something that we have done by chance. It is a long process filled with minutia, and with plenty of technological tools employed to maximise the results from all the effort and the long-term investment that has been put there. Moreover, the learning curve for such an investment is huge. The area I visited, is one of the three big areas where they will blend trees in large scale. The region where these forests will be on the coast of Brazil, in the northeast, where the Portuguese arrived here for the first time around 1500. It spreads about thousand kilometres, with similar weather, humidity, winds, but especially, similar types of foods that can be planted with a little variation from one farm to the other.
They have started trying around 50 different species, mostly Brazilian, from the tropical forest, which is now only seven per cent from the original. Over 10 years, they have tested different forms of growing, and different mixes of trees in the same place, trying to understand how they would relate to each other, and how they would grow without creating trouble for neighbouring trees. From the amount of water to the salinity of the soil, from the amount of light to the exact position of the next one that was planted, from the type of plagues that will appear automatically, but also that can be naturally killed by another plant. The database that has been formed over 18 years now is a jewel. But more than that it is a model for expanding the reforestation project. After 18 years they are ready to scale. They have now only the eight percent of what they want to achieve, 50.000 hectares of forest. In the facility I visited, they start with seeds, and have created a seed bank to make sure that they can grow species that have been almost extinct for about 100 years. A simple test for a new tree can take five to ten years. For us this sounds like a long time. But for nature it’s just a millisecond.
Sustainable forests are embedded with digital technology these days, so that we have maximum control of what is being cut. When FSC woods are taken from the forest, a long process is employed to assess which trees are permitted, and sent to the institution for a detailed planning, such as understanding about what types of wood, and in which conditions, they can be taken from that forest. At Coomflona, a sustainable reservoir in the north of Brazil, in the Amazon region, in the edges of the rain forest, is a great example of how to take care of the environment using woodland that will be regenerated. The first step is to divide the land in 30 parts, meaning that only one part will be used each year, totalling 30 years of regeneration. Those years now has been lifted to 35. The second was the mapping of the species in the land. When the first piece of the land was selected, they flew over that part with a drone, which enabled FSC in the USA to know which species and sizes were appropriate, and which ones could be cut, looking from the sky. The decision as to which trees can be taken is not taken by the employees of the cooperative, it is done outside so that there is compliance to be followed. For each tree that is taken, it needs to have one child tree, and two grandchildren around. They only take trees that allow the forest to keep growing, so that 30 years later it will be in the same situation that they were before.
Symbiosis and Coomflona have two things in common, and they are not wood. Even though both cut trees, they have completely different approaches to the use of sustainable wood. Did you know the things they have in common are highly skilled professionals, and the employment of Kathy Nash technology, from surveillance to biotech so that they understand exactly what they are taking from the planet, but most importantly how it will return to each in pristine condition. I had a walk around on both sites with Chef entrepreneur Morena Leite, and furniture designer Paulo Alves to understand the ambition of their projects using those woods, a modular house made of wood, and a series of furniture pieces to be sold separate or in combination. It will take another year or two for it to come to fruition.
Measurement is key. And measurement doesn’t exist without technology these days. Every piece of wood, every seed, every sample of soil, every type of rock, every type of plague, any sample of bacteria, and so many other things, need to be sent to a lab in São Paulo, the economic capital of the country, where a test is performed at USP university, a reference in the world for the field. Measurement of absolutely every single detail needs to be performed. Technology is bringing hope to the environment. It will set us free to take the right decisions with the conscience that the planet can be rebuilt if we have better digital eyes.
Read more from the series Digital Legacies where our columnist Julius Wiedemann investigates the many aspects of digital life.