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New technique used to reforest Brumadinho

The innovative experimental technique uses hormones and grafting to reproduce native trees and speed up their flowering time in areas of socioenvironmental disasters

Aerial view of the area affected by the breach of the dam at Vale's Córrego do Feijão mine, in January 2019

Douglas Magno/AFP via Getty Images

A new approach to the reforestation of native trees developed by researchers from the Department of Forestry Engineering of the Federal University of Viçosa (UFV), in Minas Gerais, is being tested in the area impacted by the socioenvironmental disaster caused by the breach of the tailings dam, of mining company Vale, in Brumadinho, in the Metropolitan Region of Belo Horizonte, in 2019. A further three areas close to tailings dams in the state are already being assessed for experimental implementation of the technique. The same occurs around the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Dam, in Altamira, in the state of Pará.

Named “DNA rescue and early flowering induction in native forest species,” the technique uses grafting and hormones prepared specifically for each species of tree. Its patent application was filed three years ago in the Institute of Industrial Property (INPI) and led to an article in the scientific journal Annals of Forest Research, in March 2020. “Trees such as yellow ipê [Handroanthus albus] or jequitibá [Cariniana legalis], which take between eight and 10 years to become adults, take one year to flower using the technique,” explains forestry engineer Gleison dos Santos, professor at UFV and responsible for the research. A tree is considered adult when it reaches reproductive age, meaning when it flowers, and creates flowers, fruits, and seeds.

The work begins with an inspection of the impacted area by forestry engineers to survey the native species and identify examples of trees that could not survive the damage—in the case of Brumadinho, created by the mud with iron-ore tailings. The next step is collecting branches from the tree tops and taking them to the nursery at UFV, where they are grafted onto the root or stem of another tree of the same species or same tree family, producing a copy of the grafted tree, a clone.

In this process, the plant is subjected to a set of growth-regulating hormones, specifically prepared by UFV for each family of native trees, which accelerates the transition from young plant to adult stage. “This is the most difficult stage of the process, because it requires an adjustment of dosage and application periods. Each species has a recipe,” explains forestry engineer Luis Eduardo Aranha Camargo, of the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture at the University of São Paulo (ESALQ-USP), who did not take part in the research.

VALEResearcher from UFV collects a sample of jequitibá-rosa for cloning in the laboratoryVALE

The next step is the introduction of the clones to the reforestation location. Flowering trees attract insects, bees, hummingbirds, rodents, and other pollinators and dispersers of seeds that in time will bear fruit. “From this moment, the ecosystem can be considered as restored,” says Santos.

Grafting, a method that joins parts of a plant to another in order to achieve better development, is common in agriculture, with widespread application in horticulture, fruticulture, and the production of trees with strong commercial appeal, such as pine and eucalyptus. The aim in such cases is generally to propagate genetically superior individuals so they can flower early, accelerating the crossbreeding.

The work of UFV, however, is innovative as it uses the technique in species of native trees at risk of extinction, which requires studies to understand the affinity between the rootstock and the branch of the tree that is being cloned, which is called a scion. This is how botanists, farmers, and forestry engineers call the parts from the trees that they wish to preserve. The tissues of the rootstock and scion are unified and, therefore, the transmission of water, mineral salts, photosynthesized compounds, and physiological characteristics take place normally.

Traditionally, forestry engineers prefer planting native tree seedlings as a form of recovering ecosystems impacted by human activity, fire, or other disasters. The tree seedlings are often obtained from nurseries in other regions in which the species is also native. However, these plants bought from outside need to adapt to the new ecosystem, something which is not free from risks, including premature death.

Forestry engineer Raul Firmino dos Reis, environmental analyst at Vale, points out that by introducing a clone created from genetic material recovered from trees that inhabit the impacted area, the technique developed in Viçosa has the potential of reducing the new plant’s risk of adaptation. “The clone carries the genome of the parent tree, which has a history of adaptation to that specific ecosystem. It is more apt at defending itself from the pests and parasites of the micro-region and is used to the local cycle of rains and droughts,” says Reis.

Alexandre Affonso

“In theory, the UFV technique may create an extra gain in the seedling’s process of adapting to the ecosystem. We still need to find out if, in practice, it will make a significant difference,” states forestry engineer Dario Grattapaglia, researcher at EMBRAPA Genetic Resources and Biotechnology, in Brasília. “By cloning a group of genetically related trees and reintroducing them into their location of origin, it is theoretically possible to maintain a genetic diversity profile similar to that which was observed in the region of Brumadinho before the damage caused by the disaster,” he adds.

The experience in Brumadinho
The development of the technique was already in an advanced phase in UFV in January 2019, but lacked testing in the field, when the breach occurred to the dam at Vale’s Córrego do Feijão mine, in Brumadinho, resulting in one of the largest socioenvironmental disasters in the country. There were 270 fatalities, of which four still remain missing. The mud caused devastation to the environment and impacted 297 hectares (ha), equivalent to 275 soccer fields, and affected the Paraopeba river basin.

After the tragedy, Vale made an agreement for indemnities and reparations of the socioenvironmental damage with the state government of Minas Gerais, the Public Defense Office, and the Federal and Minas Gerais State Public Prosecutor’s Offices. The company also promised to eliminate, by 2035, all their 30 upstream tailings dams, like Brumadinho, and until this is done, to strengthen the containment structures of the dams in operation.

The total area of forest affected in Brumadinho was 146 ha. By September, 27 ha had received 70,000 native tree seedlings, including those planted in nurseries and the clones created at UFV. So far, a thousand seedlings have been planted of five species: yellow ipê, jacarandá-da-baía, jequitibá-rosa, braúna, and pequi. The limited number of cloned seedlings compared to those from nurseries is justified as it is a test of a new technology that may, or may not, show to be more interesting than the conventional methods for the total or partial reforestation of an area. The agreement between Vale and UFV forecasts the supply of 6,000 cloned seedlings of 30 different species in 3 years. “We are developing the hormones suitable for the other families of species that will be reforested,” says Santos.

VALESeedling resulting from the process of copying the DNAVALE

According to Firmino dos Reis, the recovery of the region of forest follows the rate at which the impacted areas are released by the Minas Gerais Fire Department. When a new area is available, the restoration process begins with the chemical analysis of the soil fertility and possible corrections. Next, revegetation is encouraged by planting grasses that will protect the soil. The two stages require a total of 30 to 60 days, depending on the cycle of rainfall. Forestry restoration, which begins with the planting of 50-to-70-centimeter seedlings, is the next phase.

The participation of UFV in the environmental recovery of Brumadinho triggered the interest of other mining companies, that are also carrying out decharacterization works and restoration of their dams upstream, as determined by the National Mining Agency (ANM). Anglo American, Gerdau, and Vallourec have already signed agreements with UFV and together they will require 3,000 seedlings.

In Altamira, in Pará, the company Norte Energia, which controls the Belo Monte Hydroelectric Plant, launched a contest for the selection of research and development projects aimed at the implementation of a pilot reforestation project with native trees in the area downstream of the lake of the power plant, on the Xingu river. The aim is to recover the native vegetation and fruit trees typical of the region that make up the diet of the fish and chelonians of the Xingu River.

The winning proposal was presented by the Federal University of Pará (UFPA) in partnership with UFV and the Rural Federal University of Amazonia (UFRA). “The UFV technique will really speed up the achievement of results,” says zoologist Emil José Hernandez Ruz, of UFPA. “And this is fundamental for our objective of ensuring the feeding of local fauna.”

Scientific article
MENDES, G. C. M. et al. Flowering acceleration in native Brazilian tree species for genetic conservation and breeding. Annals of Forest Research. march 16, 2020.