Tech: As Brazil's new president threatens the Amazon, Brazilian entrepreneurs create a device for large-scale forest restoration

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The Nucleário device with a seedling growing in its center.

Brazil's new president, Jair Bolsonaro, threatens the Amazon. Three Brazilian entrepreneurs have created a device to help restore rainforests.

  • Forests are a crucial part of mitigating climate change because they remove more than 25% of the carbon emissions added to the planet's atmosphere each year.
  • In Brazil, three entrepreneurs have created a device that protects seedlings from invasive grasses and leafcutter ants.
  • The device, Nucleário, could help restore deforested areas in Brazil's rainforests, the inventors say.
  • Brazil may be moving in the opposite direction with the recent election of president Jair Bolsonaro.
  • Bolsonaro's planned initiatives could devastate the Amazon.

Forests are vital to fighting climate change, removing more than one-quarter of the carbon emissions added to the Earth's atmosphere annually.

Nonetheless, the rate of deforestation has grown in much of the world in recent years.

A number of governments and charitable groups are taking steps to help restore the Earth's forests. The Ray C. Anderson Foundation and the Biomimicry Institute, for example, launched a competition that this year addressed solutions to climate change, and a team of Brazilian entrepreneurs won the $100,000 prize for creating a device that protects seedlings from invasive grasses and leafcutter ants.

The Nucleário device, which gathers rainwater for the soil and tree roots, was designed to be deployed in parts of the Atlantic rainforest. Its inventors say the device allows more reforestation in less time, as field workers will no longer need to focus on seedling maintenance and can plant more trees instead.

The device's creators — Bruno Rutman, Pedro Rutman, and Bruno Ferrari — participated in the Biomimicry Launchpad before winning the final competition on October 20. The launchpad is an accelerator program for entrepreneurs to develop nature-inspired ways to tackle climate change.

Bruno Rutman told Business Insider that biologists and engineers are using sensors to test the device's effect on temperature and other soil conditions. Until now, the prototypes were made of plastic, but the team will gather garbage like cardboard and food waste to serve as the raw material moving forward.

Nucleário will need to stay in place for three years to help a seedling grow, Rutman said. It will allow field workers to focus on planting more trees instead of maintaining existing ones.

"The biggest bottleneck of forest restoration is the labor around the maintenance of the seedlings," he said. "To scale up forest restoration around our planet, we need to improve their jobs."

Generally, field workers need to maintain seedlings for three years after they are planted, Rutman said. This involves cutting invasive grasses, watering the seedlings, and killing leafcutter ants. The workers also use toxic agrochemicals throughout this process, he said.

Even with all this effort, about 30% of seedlings die out in the first three years, Rutman said. With Nucleário, his team wants to make forest restoration faster, cheaper, and safer for the environment.

Brazil's rainforests are shrinking, and president Jair Bolsonaro could cause more deforestation

Nucleário was created to help with large-scale forest restoration, Rutman said. While his team wants to help restore deforested areas globally, they are starting with Brazil, where 500 devices have been placed in test patches.

Along Brazil's coast, Rutman said there are about 42 million acres of land that can be reforested. That's roughly the size of Florida.

"Nature needs human help to connect those fragments and create the forest corridors," Rutman said. "We need to do that as soon as possible."

Climate change is a global issue, but Brazil plays a large role in mitigating it. Rutman noted that the country has taken significant steps to restore forests in recent years, including a commitment to restore roughly 30 million acres of land as part of the international Bonn Challenge.

But Brazil's government now looks likely to move in the opposite direction. Far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro recently won the presidential election, and could put the Amazon and other forests at risk.

During his campaign, Bolsonaro pledged to withdraw Brazil from the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change, though he later told reporters that Brazil would remain in the accord. He also dropped plans to merge Brazil's environmental agency with the agricultural ministry after initially suggesting he would shut down the former ministry, which oversees deforestation and environmental degradation.

Still, Bolsonaro's initiatives could devastate the Amazon. Reuters reported that Bolsonaro has considered reducing penalties for people who violate environmental laws, and critics worry he will open up Brazil's rainforests to economic interests instead of taking steps to protect it.

During Bolsonaro's run for president, new research showed the rate of deforestation in Brazil's Amazon is still going up. About 210 square miles of forest were deforested in August — three times more than the amount cleared in August 2017.

Rutman said while the election has been troubling, he remains optimistic about his team's ability to help restore forests.

"Forest restoration is the biggest opportunity for climate change mitigation," Rutman said. "We will keep it going, with the politicians or without them. We can't stay waiting."

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