Science - May 11, 2006

Rubber tree planter repents

Brazilian forester Dr José Faria (41) changed his focus from commercial forestry to ecological restoration of forests. The barren, eroded soils of Brazil should hold native, rich tree stands once more.

Faria, who received his PhD last week, started working in the late eighties for a rubber tree plantation project in the southeast region of Brazil. He was a fresh out of college, with a bachelor’s in forest engineering. ‘We conducted a trial for the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture to introduce rubber trees in our country. In countries like Peru or Argentina, there are large rubber tree plantations, but at that time there were none in my country. Our trial was successful.’

Although the work was scientifically challenging, Faria discovered he was actually more interested in restoring and protecting nature. ‘In Brazil already eighty percent of the forest in the Atlantic coastal region has disappeared as a result of logging. There has been a great loss of biodiversity. Only about two hundred of the eight hundred native species are left. It would be a waste for humanity if more of our trees disappear.’

In Faria’s home province, Minas Gerais State, agriculture has replaced large tracts of forest. Forests have also disappeared under water, as dams were built for hydroelectricity generation. ‘Reclaiming our forests is important not only for biodiversity. Many trees also provide edible fruits like the guava. The task is to protect and expand forests by collecting seeds and planting seedlings.’

Faria has worked on restoring forests along various rivers and lakes in southeast Brazil. At Wageningen University he focused on seed quality, as this is a bottleneck in forest restoration. One of the species Faria wants to reintroduce is the native Inga vera tree. ‘It is a great tree because its fast growing seedlings are able to survive flooding for up to three months. It is a king in the water.’

But Faria also found out that seeds he collected did not survive for long. ‘When the seed dries, it dies. In the freezer, the seed expands and collapses. Keeping them in the fridge does not work either: fungi take over. ‘The solution lies with genetic engineering: we need to find the gene that makes the seed withstand drying.’ Another insight of Faria is that it is pointless to blindly go for fast growing trees. ‘In Brazil, the tree species that grow fast die young. Trees that grow relatively slowly are generally stronger, better equipped to withstand hot, dry and other extreme conditions.’

Back in Brazil, Faria will continue his work at the Forestry Department of Lavras Federal University, using the techniques he learned in Wageningen. This will include analysing the quality of tree seeds and identifying important genes for survival. ‘For me this is easy now: like baking a cake.’

Besides the practical work of restoring forests, Faria finds it even more important to inform local people about the significance of the remaining forests. ‘I want to teach ecology to as many people as possible. Show how important forests are for wildlife and humans, as they retain water and prevent fertile soils from eroding.’ Too much land has been degraded, says Faria, the result of irresponsible clear-cutting of forests and no coordinated strategy to protect or restore nature.

Luckily, the Brazilian people are showing increasing interest in environmental protection. ‘Brazilians are quite superstitious. Many believe that the increased flooding and hurricanes around the world are nature’s revenge for the environmental degradation that humans have caused. So in Brazil at present it is easier to find support for ecological restoration programmes.’

Faria, who came to the Netherlands with his wife and children, is not completely looking forward to going home. ‘I love Holland; I love the weather here, rainy and not so warm. I could live here all my life. My Dutch colleagues think I am crazy, but the fact is I’ve had enough sun in my life. Also it is safe and clean here. In Brazil we need big walls and electric fences around the houses to keep thieves out.’ But Faria has bought the flight tickets: the work on protecting Brazilian forests continues. / HB

José Faria received his PhD on 1 May 2006. His promotors were Professor Linus van der Plas of Plant Physiology and Professor Anne Mie Emons, Head of the Laboratory of Plant Cell Biology.