2020 might be the year we all faced a pandemic. But 2019 was the year the earth burned. In Australia, the world watched in horror as bushfires destroyed 10.3 million hectares, marking the continent’s most intense and destructive fire season in over 40 years. Earlier that fall, California saw more than 101,000 hectares destroyed, with damages upward of $80 billion. Alaska saw nearly a million. Record-breaking fires also hit Indonesia, Russia, Lebanon — but nowhere saw the sheer mass of media coverage as the fires that tore through the Amazon nearly all last summer.
By year’s end, thousands of global media outlets had reported that Brazil’s largest rainforest played host to more than 80,000 individual forest fires in 2019, resulting in an estimated 906,000 square hectares of environmental destruction. At the time, Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research reported it was the fastest rate of burning since record keeping began in 2013.
But amid the charred ruins of one of the largest oxygen-producing environments on the planet, a secret lies buried beneath the soil. A complex network of seeds, scat, fungi and fertilizers are already hard at work creating the next generation of tropical regeneration. We are racing to reverse-engineer the rainforest — and like any half-decent architect, we’re going to have to do it from the ground up.
Silica, Define Reverse-engineer
verb A process by which an object or system is deconstructed to reveal its designs, architecture and concepts within, then rebuilt into something similar with our current level of technology.
This year, deforestation seems imminent. In January 2020, humans cleared 110 square miles of rainforest in the Amazon, more than twice that registered in January 2019. The risk was compounded by a February 2020 announcement by President Jair Bolsonaro of a bill he'd sent to Brazil’s Congress that would further open up indigenous reserves in the Amazon to commercial mining, oil and gas exploration, cattle ranching, agribusiness, hydroelectric dam projects, and tourism. By May, deforestation had increased by more than 50% across the region, actually intensifying in the midst of the global COVID-19 pandemic, as illegal loggers and miners rushed in to subsidize their incomes. It’s no secret in Brazil that many believe for their country to prosper, the Amazon will have to burn.
With software, taking something apart and putting it back together again can help engineers improve their understanding of the underlying source code of their software. In structural engineering, the same methods can determine the cause of potentially fatal design flaws. Reverse-engineering is also useful in medical and scientific research, like with the Human Genome project, where researchers try to decipher human DNA to discover more about how we work as a species.
Locked in a race against time, politics, and climate change, the ways in which we might be able to reverse-engineer and recover our rainforests might surprise even the most stoic of environmental theorists.
The first step in reverse-engineering anything is to develop a shared language. What can we agree on? What are the risks? What are the goals? How can we apply quantitative properties to qualitative phenomena so we can measure and track our results? Those are the questions a new generation of rainforest researchers, using complex computational models are asking themselves as they begin to map the past and future of the Amazon.
“When it comes to computational modeling, the most useful role is to enable us to simulate different kinds of futures,” says Paul Moorcroft, an ecologist at Harvard University who has published a series of groundbreaking studies on the ecological dynamics of terrestrial plant communities and ecosystems around the world. “We can look at all sorts of different scenarios, for example land use management, or enforcement of fire codes and see how much potential wilding you would get versus destruction under different scenarios.”
These potential futures, which essentially range from “It’ll be okay” to “The Amazon will turn into a literal grassland by 2050,” are hotly debated in the rainforest research community. One thing researchers can all agree on, however, is that the Amazon burning is not a natural phenomena.
Hello reader! Tapirus terrestris, here. Want to learn more about rainforest regeneration technologies? Follow my tracks to explore an emerging world of environmental engineering happening right now on the rainforest floor.
Translated from Portuguese as “a crowd of people in a narrow space,” muvuca is an innovative planting technique developed by Brazilian farmers that combines a gunky mixture of seeds from native trees, fast-growing legumes, and sand to quickly reseed deforested land. By planting up to 200 species of seeds in one square meter, muvuca is designed to allow natural selection to weed out the strongest forest, while also preventing soil and roots from being dried out and sun-scorched as new growth takes hold. As a crepuscular connoisseur of young, tender growth, it also sounds quite delicious.
Unlike other forests—many of which go through a natural cycle of wetting, drying, and sometimes fire—the Amazon is home to one of the wettest ecosystems on earth. Despite the misinformation campaign perpetuated by Bolsonaro and the Brazilian government, the Amazon’s fires aren’t the result of some stray kindling or environmental activism gone wrong; they’re largely the result of systematic extraction by logging, mining, ranching and agriculture companies that slash and burn the forest to make way for business.
Its effects on the forest floor, mapped by both human hands and digital models, are devastating. With trees gone, nutrients wash away and the soil degrades into a dense, brick-like layer inhospitable to many plant roots. Without native shrubs or trees, symbiotic soil organisms die, further decreasing fertility. Heavy rains and intense sunlight at the equator leach nutrients from the soil, tripling the impact. Animal species crucial to pollination, seed processing, and seed dispersal disappear.
“It really only takes a couple of those events and the forest will basically just die,” says Moorcroft. Models show that in the years after a major burn, damaged root systems open up even the most resilient, 1000-year-old canopies to erosion, wind damage, pathogens, and termites. “Those large trees simply won’t survive.”
Computer models, fed by field observations, remote sensing, and increasingly sophisticated satellite, microwave and LiDAR data, also show us how climate change could affect the rainforest and vice versa, helping to align researchers and organizations on a common goal as they race to regrow what’s been lost. For example, they’re doing whatever it takes to achieve the 1.5 to 2.0 degree Celsius (2.7-3.6 Fahrenheit) temperature targets established by the Paris Agreement and pushing to stop the current rate of rainforest destruction that releases an estimated 9.7 billion metric tons of carbon into the atmosphere in the process.
As for the worst-case scenario, Moorcroft is not hedging his bets. “The question is, does it get warmer or wetter or warmer or dryer? If the answer is warm and dry, that’s when you tend to get devastating impacts.”
In fact, a 2007 projection found that if the Amazon reaches about 40 percent of forest converted into pastureland, the eastern Amazon could see a nearly 20 percent decrease in rainfall. More recent studies argue that this level of devastation could happen with as little as 20 to 25 percent deforestation. The potential result of that is a phenomena known as savannization, characterized by drastic changes in vegetation structure, soil aridity, and canopy coverage that computer models predict could unalterably transform the rainforest into a much more open ecosystem in the future.
This race against time, predicted by several climate models, is now beginning to see its first biological evidence as well. A 2019 study published in Perspectives in Ecology and Conservation found that abandoned pastures affected by fires in the Brazilian Atlantic showed similarities in vegetation structure and plant functional traits to a savanna-like ecosystem — traits predicted to significantly impair its recovery.
“Ongoing climate change is likely to exacerbate the observed savannization and indicate that its transformation into savanna-like might be a matter of time,” study authors wrote. “A time that would be particularly short under the most likely climate scenarios.”
Meanwhile, scientists on the ground are learning more than ever about what it takes to regenerate a rainforest from the ground up. Just as an architect might begin by studying the basic material units required to create a structure, many researchers in the Amazon are starting simply, then adding complexity in a mind-numbingly difficult endeavor to figure out the basic building blocks of Amazonian ecology — the second step in any reverse-engineering process worth its salt.
Since this is the Dirt Issue, it should come as no surprise that this part of the story starts in the soil. Back in the 15th century, when early colonists first set foot in Latin America, they believed that the incredible lushness of the rainforests was due to their super-fertile soils. In fact, over two-thirds of the world’s rainforests are considered “wet deserts” — inhospitable to even the most hardy of plant pioneers.
02. Mycorrhizal Inoculants
A fungal vector added to rainforest soil at the time of seeding to help expedite the restoration process. Known colloquially as “soil super glue” the inoculant helps restructure dirt into living soil, allowing for better flow of moisture and air, assisting root development, and preventing erosion from the ground up. The technique hinges a growing body of research showing the importance of the rainforest microbiome. New research also shows mycorrhizae can also act as a kind of underground internet that allows different plants to chemically communicate and help each other out. Talk about a wood wide web!
The reason for this lies within the rapid nutrient cycle within the rainforest, where decaying matter like dead wood, leaf litter, fecal matter and even human perspiration are recycled back into the carbon chain so efficiently there’s not much left by the time it gets to the ground. The abundance of bacteria, fungi and insects that call the Amazon home are critical to young growth, leaching out minerals like potassium, phosphorus, calcium and magnesium. The high temperature and moisture of the rainforest also cause dead organic matter in the soil to decompose more quickly, further enhancing nutrient degradation. As a result, most rainforest plants are incredibly shallow-rooted, perfectly adapted to take advantage of the thin, nutrient-rich compost layer that makes up the first 15-20 centimeters of the rainforest floor.
How to tap into this complex, precarious ecosystem and reverse-engineer it is a monumental task, one that thousands of scientists around the world are trying to tackle. One of the most compelling of these projects is happening at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, where researchers have access to a 700-hectare open air laboratory with conditions that parallel the Amazon. This controlled environment allows them to conduct long-term experiments on rainforest health.
“We focus on how to restore ecosystem function, nutrient cycles, water cycles, and plant population and are trying to figure out how to do it most efficiently,” says Jefferson Hall, staff scientist at the facility and director of its reforestation-focused Agua Salud project. “We have hydrologists, we have soil scientists, we have microbiologists, we have accountants — all working together to address different aspects of that.”
Their goal at the institute is to use science to investigate and settle big debates around forest ecology and hydrology. Agua Salud is also majorly invested in understanding how once-disturbed forests recover and grow, both aided and unaided by humans or technology.
On an even more microscopic level, the institute is measuring and quantifying the different interactions between plants, soils and different levels of human activity to see how they directly affect rainforest health. They’re modeling potential solutions in real-time to reveal what exactly is happening above and below the ground in different stages of regeneration. Hall says the institute is perfectly positioned to do this kind of research because it’s not beholden to the rules or regulations most scientists face in the field.
“Typically, scientists are pretty pleased to find themselves getting three-year national science projects and grants,” Hall explains. “Our Agua Salud project will be a 40-year-plus project. We have the privilege that we have the land, purchased by donors, and have the ability to do very long-term experiments.”
For example, growing 50,000 trees and just seeing what happens on different soil types across the site — from fertile and wet to intfertile and wet to infertile and dry environments. Hall’s team is also measuring the effects of rainfall across various habitats, using what the scientist describes as a high-tech five meter by three meter “rig” that can “dial up any kind of storm you want.”
The site is also conducting large-scale fertilization experiments showing how targeted additions of minerals like phosphorus and nitrogen can affect fungal and bacterial viability in the soil, and how that can affect long-term growth. Experiments in forest-friendly farming, sustainable cattle ranching techniques and harvestable hardwood forests are also being tested for their viability and effects in instances where regrowth proves biologically or sociologically impossible.
Depending on the technique “you can see the vast differences in growth and which species have specialized,” says Hall. “To the extent that you’re interested in how we can ‘reboot’ a rainforest, it depends a lot on the historical legacy as well—what happened at that site and also on landscape content.”
As in the actual Amazon, researchers at the institute measure their progress through a variety of markers, from tree height to number of native species to the proportion of animal-dispersed seeds and shade-loving trees that mark a healthy rainforest succession. So far their findings have been both promising and deeply reflective of the complex task at hand.
For example, one study published by the institute found that even after being given 32 years to regrow, selections of formerly disturbed rainforest were never really the same, no matter what technology was put into them.
Other studies on environmental engineering in the rainforest have found that replanting with quick-growing trees like eucalyptus and acacia may be able to help solve immediate problems like soil erosion and elevated carbon levels in the short term — but could eventually make the land unsuitable for rainforest cultivation because they change the soil’s original characteristics in such drastic ways.
The most agreed-upon number scientists like Hall have reached so far when it comes to the median time it takes for a forest to reach 90 percent of its biomass is around 66 years. For the remaining 10 percent, however, it’s estimated to take nearly 4,000 years to get anywhere near what could be considered a reverse-engineered reality.
In the interim, researchers tasked with studying and reforesting plots outside of carefully-protected landscapes are trying to figure out the best ways to work with the resources and information they’ve got. Experiment, iterate, fail, try again — the third step in our hypothetical reverse-engineering process. “When you’re dealing with a natural ecosystem, we should not have the expectation that we can go in and control everything, and engineer it so that it works exactly how it did, like a machine,” says Robin Chazdon, a former professor at the University of Connecticut, current research professor at University of the Sunshine Coast and member of Brazil’s Tropical Forest and People Research Center, who has spent nearly 40 years of her career regenerating rainforests IRL. “I realize that we are getting much better with AI, and computer modeling and technology, but my experience studying the recovery of forests on the ground over time is that there’s a lot of unpredictable things that can happen.”
For that reason, in areas with low levels of degradation, simply protecting the land and letting the forests grow back on their own is largely seen by conservationists as the best, most cost-effective strategy when it comes to regeneration. This should sound familiar to those of us who have ever seen a Greenpeace ad or studied rainforest conservation in primary school in the early ‘90s—as the argument goes, the rainforest is sacred, complicated, irrevocably wild and must remain untouched to be truly protected.
03. Seed Drones
Is that incessant buzzing in my ear a spotted lanternfly — or is it an army of drones coming to replant this barren, post-industrial landscape? Seed-planting drones carry pressurized canisters of germinated seed pods immersed in a nutrient-rich gel, then fire them into the ground from a height of 1-2 meters before flying off to their next bio-target. There are several drone-planting initiatives going down in the Amazon today, the largest by U.K. start-up Dendra Systems, which hopes to plant 500 billion trees by 2060 with the use of "precision forestry."
But that’s not always possible in a world where borders constantly change and legal protections shift like the acidic, clay-rich sand beneath the rainforest floor. Unassisted regeneration is also not possible scientifically or sociologically in certain sites for a number of reasons: from soils being too far degraded to support natural succession, to the needs of the people who have been living off the rainforest for centuries.
“We need to really look at this from interdisciplinary backgrounds,” says Chazdon. “When you’re dealing with a landscape that has productive agriculture on it, or grazing lands, people are living there, they are using the land. You can’t wall to wall bring that back to a natural ecosystem like you can within a natural park or nature reserve.”
Many scientists in today’s conservation debate also say the drawing of boundaries between “natural” and “unnatural” in the rainforest is inherently limiting, drawing a false dichotomy between protecting ecosystems and protecting human prosperity. Instead of reverse-engineering, they suggest, maybe we should start thinking about where we can start redesigning the rainforest all together.
Already, there’s a sort of classification system in place for differentiating between man-made and nature-made rainforests. Primary forests, also known as “old-growth” “primeval” or “late seral” forests are those that have attained great age without significant disturbance. To be fair, there is no single definition of the term—some rely on human interference as their marker; others, acknowledging that human interference is everywhere, from the CO2 in the atmosphere to the microplastics in the bottom of our rivers, rely on minimum age (i.e. 150 years) to mark their distinction.
And then there are secondary forests. Those that have regrown after major human impact, and recovered just enough so that the effects of disturbance are no longer immediately evident. With only 21 percent of the earth’s original old-growth forests remaining, these are the Anthropocene creations that may one day help knit together the remaining fragments of ancient nature into a more contiguous, constantly changing system. New growth also helps protect watersheds and prevent erosion for forests that have higher mitigation potential and makes the forest as a whole less susceptible to disease.
Even more critically, secondary forests are also where the rules of engagement get a bit less precious. Instead of being cordoned off from the world for research or conservation, these new iterations of rainforest ecology can help support native communities, harbor indigenous medicines and even, as some scientists are suggesting, serve as extractive reserves for the limited harvest of timber, game animals, and other forest products to help sustain the people who live there.
“I think the best approach is a systems approach,” says Chazdon. “In many ways, we are trying to reestablish a new system that is going to be able to perpetuate itself given the challenges of climate change, and given that there’s already been a lot of damage that’s already been done. The composition may really not be identical. In reality, it might be quite different.”
That brings us to the final step in any reverse-engineering process: Swap out parts where necessary. In the rush to mitigate the effects of deforestation, researchers, environmentalists, NGOs, corporations and tree-savvy start-ups are flooding into the area, working with and against each other to combat the crisis and claim responsibility for its resurgence in their own ways. As with engineering the ecology of the Amazon, the international race to replant will likely come down to the survival of the fittest.
“Over the past few years, we have seen a massive interest in reforestation,” says Stephanie Kimball, director of climate strategy at Conservation International, one of the four largest conservation organizations in the world and biggest players in Amazon reforestation today. “I definitely would say that it’s the most popular kid in class right now as far as these kinds of climate solutions go.”
In 2017, Conservation International announced it was launching the world’s largest-ever tropical reforestation project, with a plan to plant 73 million trees in Brazil’s Amazon across 30,000 hectares by the end of 2023. The purpose of the project is in part, to revive the 20 percent of the Amazon lost to deforestation over the past 40 years. CI, which has offices in 29 countries and has over 2,000 partners worldwide, is also interested in joining researchers like Chazdon, Moorcroft, and Hall in learning how to track and restore tropical rainforests from the ground up — and have raised money from dozens of massive corporations to do so.
04. Inga Alley Cropping
A novel agroforestry technique developed in Costa Rica that helps protect rainforest soil while allowing farmers to grow crops between rows of trees. The inga, a genus of small, tropical, nitrogen-fixing shrubs known locally as the “ice-cream bean tree” is used to provide shade to crops and prevent soil erosion. Once crops are harvested, the ingas are cut back and their leaves are left there to decompose on the ground, creating a self-sustaining cycle of fertility, growth, and carbon capture on sites that might otherwise be slashed and burned or sold to the highest bidder.
From McDonald’s to United Airlines to Google to ExxonMobil, CI is working with some of the world’s biggest polluters to trade in emissions for ecology. Going back to the climate change conversation, it makes sense that so many are investing their efforts into reforestation right now. Around the world, tropical rainforests store an estimated 471 billion tons of carbon, more than all the carbon ever emitted from fossil fuel combustion and cement production combined. According to estimates by the International Panel on Climate Change, the Amazon rainforest alone can absorb a quarter of the CO2 released each year from the combustion of fossil fuels—making tree planting initiatives like CI’s one of the most popular ways for businesses to reduce their net emissions.
CI isn’t the only big player in the Amazon taking up this industry-first approach either. More recently, the Trillion Trees Project — which U.S. President Donald Trump announced he was signing on to at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos—pledged to plant one trillion trees around the globe (including the Amazon) to help combat climate change over the next decade. The initiative is joined by other environmental giants like the WWF, World Conservation Society and BirdLife International and claims that planting a trillion trees could capture more than a third of all the greenhouse gases humans have released since the Industrial Revolution.
05. Novo Campo
A sustainable cattle ranching pilot project started by Brazilian NGO Instituto Centro de Vida promising “forest-friendly beef.” The technique works by dividing rainforest plots into small units, then asking ranchers to regularly rotate their cattle through them one by one to help optimize grass growth and keep soil fertile over time. Rather than letting their cows have free, destructive reign over their plots, ranchers instead provide cozy tree-lined groves, improving animal welfare, CO2 capture, and productivity, while potentially bringing the world one step closer to a zero deforestation beef product future.
“It’s the only way we know of right now — the only technology that can take emissions that are already in the atmosphere out of the atmosphere at scale,” explains Kimball. “It’s like the original carbon capture.” And unlike massive carbon-sucking machines, direct air capture techniques or rethinking the entire global agricultural system to better trap carbon in the soil, this method is also seemingly the simplest. Plant a tree. Reduce your emissions. Create a place where carbon capture, wildlife conservation, agriculture and big business can live together in perfect harmony.
But many have been quick to point out that this all too convenient salve may be too good to be true; there is trouble in paradise. As corporations race to partner with nonprofits who will erase their environmental footprints with massive tree-planting initiatives, so too grows a movement of grassroots advocates who are hoping to stand in their way and swap out a new solution to the crisis.
“Far too often, what we see from a number of large NGOs is this readiness to partner with the very corporations that have been fueling the crisis for so long,” says Sriram Madhusoodanan, deputy campaigns director at Corporate Accountability International, a Boston, Massachusetts-based advocacy group that has called out CI in the past for its partnerships with big businesses like Fiji Water and Starbucks. “I think when we see the profiteers of deforestation attempt to position themselves as the solution, I think at the very least, you have to ask why.”
06. Tapir Army
Go ahead, call my bias, but us tapirs, with our prehensile snouts and fragrant, communal latrines make us some of the best natural seed-dispersers in the Amazon. New research using camera trapping, scat collection, and remote LiDAR sensing suggest we may be an ideal species for reforestation, since we actually prefer dining (and pooping) in disturbed areas of the rainforest, where scavenging for lithe, young shoots is easier. Tapirs also drop 120 times more climax seed species than pioneer species, meaning our scat might help forests achieve a healthier succession—with little need for human intervention.
Instead of placing power into the hands of the highest bidder, groups like Corporate Accountability International want to put reforestation in the hands of local, frontline communities. They also want to force big business to pay for reforestation not voluntarily, but to make it compulsory and trade the emerging conversation about environmental realism and managed expectations with one that holds industries directly accountable for their impacts.
Other groups working on large-scale reforestation projects like the Rainforest Action Network, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, are with them. Though many do work with big companies to reduce their impact, they make a point to not take any consulting fees or donations and share findings from their work, good or bad.
“I mean, this is where the real solutions are,” says Madhusoodanan. “This is where they have always been, and this is where we need to invest in order to stand a chance at staying below what we in the global movement call 'real zero,' not net zero. We need to drastically reduce emissions and ensure that as we do so, we’re centering justice for the communities most impacted.”
When asked about the criticism, Kimball was ready with a quick response. “Every organization has to make their own judgement on who to partner with and we respect everybody’s perspective on that. We made the determination that if companies want to come to the table to invest and make a change and want to do it the right way, then we want to help them do that.”
So, where does that leave us when it comes to the reality of reverse-engineering a rainforest? How can we reveal, test, iterate and agree on what we’re developing in the complex, open-air laboratory of ecology and politics that lurk beneath the forest floor? Most likely, it won’t be an exact replica of the old-growth forests of centuries past. Instead, we’re moving toward an Amazon that acts as a complex network of primary, secondary and bioengineered realities — a reflection of our current ideologies and technical limitations that form a sort of sympoeisis of Anthropocene ecology.
As famed postmodern scholar Donna Haraway writes in her book “Staying With the Trouble” which first coined the term in 2016, sympoeisis is not about reconciliation, restoration or going back in time to change what’s lost. Instead, it’s a complex collective of collaboration, remodeling and interlinking strategies that “interpenetrate one another, loop around and through one another, eat each other and thereby establish sympoietic arrangements.”
Silica, define Sympoiesis
noun A collectively producing system of multi-modal, multi-disciplinary, multi-species collaboration. A network of shared realities that collectively respond to our current environmental and ecological realities.
In this evolving, uncertain future it may well be impossible for us to reverse-engineer the past. Instead, a new system is already at work—from the drone armies dispersing new seeds by the thousands, to the regenerative potential of a single tapir hoof, pressing firmly into once-blackened soil.