By Karla Mendes
RIO DE JANEIRO, Sept 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An ambitious Amazon restoration effort could help cut forest losses in Brazil - but only if it is combined with stronger policies to curb logging and agricultural expansion in forest areas, environmentalists and scholars say.
Conservation International, an environmental protection organisation, announced late last week a project to add 73 million native trees to Brazil's Amazon by 2023.
The effort, aimed at helping Brazil meet its goals under the 2015 Paris Agreement to limit climate change, would be the largest tropical reforestation effort in the world, the environmental group said.
Tree protection and planting is widely seen as one of the cheapest and most effective ways to hold the line on climate change.
"Every tree we plant works as an air conditioner," forest engineer Carlos Rossetti, a researcher at University of Brasilia, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
But the effort comes as Amazon deforestation continues to surge, rising by 29 percent last year compared with the previous year, according to government figures.
The increase has been widely attributed to weakening environmental regulation, dryer conditions in the Amazon and the continuing expansion of farmland and pastures, as well as continued illegal logging.
Under the Paris climate accord, the Brazilian government has committed to restore 12 million hectares of forest by 2030 - but such a move only will be meaningful if losses of existing forest are also slowed, experts say.
The Conservation International initiative involves sowing additional native tree species in areas that were cut and now are regrowing, and planting new native forest on as much as 30,000 hectares - the equivalent to 30,000 soccer fields of land.
"We want to make this ball move forward in order to achieve the Paris accord target," said Rodrigo Medeiros, vice president for Brazil of Conservation International.
Medeiros said the project will help curb deforestation in part by providing jobs beyond farming or timber cutting in local communities.
"Many people deforest due to a lack of income opportunities. The restoration process will generate jobs and income for local communities not only during its implementation but also once it's done, through sustainable management of the area," he said.
Conservation International has launched the initiative in partnership with Brazil's Ministry of Environment, the Global Environment Facility (GEF), the World Bank, the Brazilian Biodiversity Fund (Funbio) and Amazonia Live, the environmental fundraising arm of Rock in Rio, a music festival.
Backers warned, however, that the effort was ambitious and achieving its aims might be challenging.
"Large-scale forest restoration is a great idea, but it's tough to put into practice," said Aurelio Padovezi, forest manager for the World Resources Institute in Brazil.
Largely that's because about 60 percent of wood sold in Brazil comes from illegal deforestation - and such cutting could endanger replanted areas as well, he said.
Deforestation has been a problem in Brazil since colonial times, when Portuguese settlers cut native "Pau Brasil" trees that yielded red ink and helped give the country its name, Rossetti said.
Even from early days, forested areas were replaced with farm fields and grazing areas - land that today remains more valuable than forest, he said.
"From an economical point of view, the native forest has no value to counteract other economic activities," he said.
"The major challenge is to preserve native forests (but) there is a lack of public policies to preserve what exists," Rossetti said.