Reforestation in the mining industry: Current situation and innovative approaches

reforestation in brazil with drone technology
June 15, 2023

On June 15, MORFO organized a webinar addressing the most important questions on the topic of reforestation in the mining industry, as well as the current landscape and innovative approaches. In this article, you'll find a full summary of the discussions that took place during this virtual conference.

The speakers were :

Regional Environmental Director, ALCOA, Brazil.

Doctorate in forestry from the Federal University of Viçosa, specialist in the restoration of degraded areas, VALE.

Professor and specialist in soil and plant nutrition, Federal University of Viçosa.

CEO of MORFO in Brazil.

In a nutshell

To make progress in the restoration process and achieve the set objectives, it is essential to take certain steps. First of all, it is necessary to acquire a thorough knowledge of the environment to be restored, both above and below ground. Lack of understanding of the environment can lead to projects that fail to achieve the desired success. Soil plays a crucial role in this context, particularly in mining areas where the original soil may no longer exist. In such cases, it is essential to identify the appropriate materials to build a new substrate, which requires in-depth knowledge of the environment in question.

Soil is the fundamental support for the entire ecosystem, and restoration in mining areas presents unique challenges due to the differentiated destruction that occurs. What's more, it's essential to involve people in the process, through environmental education and raising awareness of the importance of preserving and not compromising restoration efforts. While there is no single recipe for recovery, there are solid foundations to follow, including proper species identification, the use of appropriate techniques and scientific monitoring, which is fundamental and mandatory.

Further research is essential to identify which species are invasive and to gain a better understanding of the characteristics and needs of the species to be used for restoration. This ongoing, in-depth research will provide a solid foundation for the development of effective, sustainable restoration strategies, guaranteeing success in achieving the set objectives.

The restoration potential of Brazil's mines

As far as reforestation is concerned, Brazil has immense potential both for the rehabilitation of mining-related areas and for the reforestation of other degraded zones. Latin America's largest country is strategically important not only for its own country, but also for the world as a whole, as it represents a major part of the global mining industry.

The mining sector was the first to be forced to restore degraded areas. As a result, it has pioneered the development of research, practices and technologies aimed at restoring land degraded by mining activities.

Choosing species for forest restoration

Choosing the right species for complete ecosystem restoration is a complex task, for a number of reasons. Firstly, precise studies must be carried out on the characteristics of the area (topography, ecosystem, etc.), as these are specific to each environment. This enables us to determine what is best suited to each environment.

To increase the chances of success in the area to be restored, it is necessary to look for local species with high diversity and genetic variability.

But it's not just a question of planting. The world's second biggest cause of forest degradation is the presence of invasive species, and the choice of species is essential to restore balance in these degraded ecosystems. Soil is also an important carbon sink, second only to the deep ocean, with vegetation third.

Rehabilitation of mining areas

  • The soil after mining undergoes changes, acquiring new characteristics (called technosols). The soil will determine what will grow in this new environment. Consequently, the results of soil analysis must be taken into account when choosing species.
  • Since the soil has changed, it is likely that the native forest will not be restored to its former state.
  • The use of exotic species can and should be used to rehabilitate and colonize soil, providing initial cover (until 50% of exotic species can be used). However, it is necessary to increase our knowledge of exotic species, as some of them have invasive behaviors that affect the growth of native species.
  • When using exotic species for initial colonization, it is important to monitor whether the number of exotic species decreases.

The importance of partnerships in scaling up

To achieve healthy, sustainable restorations, partnerships and the use of new techniques and technologies are essential. Partnerships with local communities offer many advantages for all concerned:

  • Developing and increasing efficiency.
  • Provides reforestation service providers with unrivalled knowledge of the ecosystem, which must be integrated into projects.
  • Better, more frequent follow-up.
  • Communities receive tools for restoration projects.
  • They also receive help with their own planting, jobs and continuity.
  • Give visibility to the work of these populations without distorting it.
  • Adds value not only to the environment, but also to the value chain.

Without the commitment of local populations, reforestation projects either fail to materialize or run into numerous problems.

MORFO shares
  • Collectors were unable to carry out this activity due to a lack of projects and partnerships.
  • Thanks to our projects, collectors can become active again.
ALCOA shares
  • They use the nucleation approach and manual methods.
  • Partnership with local cooperatives. Alcoa provides technical support and purchases plants from local nurseries.
  • Restoration with the aim of adding value to the region, integrating other cultures, implementing ecotourism, etc. Example: Votorantim Group - Legado das águas.
  • At Poços de Caldas, for example, the area was not a native forest before logging, so rehabilitation aims to add other values to the area.
VALE shares
  • 500,000 protection actions and 100,000 recovery actions, with communities in remote areas.
  • Agroforestry system implemented in the Amazon region (adding value to the region).
  • Example of the Senai project in Minas Gerais: development of micro-caving technology on embankments to reduce the risks to human beings when digging by hand in these difficult-to-access environments.

Monitoring is crucial to reforestation evaluation

Monitoring plays a crucial role in evaluating the effectiveness of reforestation, and different indicators are used at different times throughout the project. Although initial planting can be quick and relatively easy, the reforestation project really begins after this stage, with long-term monitoring as the trees grow. Monitoring is used to track the progress of the reforestation and anticipate any problems that may arise.

There are various approaches to monitoring, including periodic field visits and annual data collection for visual assessment. Technology also plays an important role in this process, with the use of drones and satellites to obtain different visualizations and information. Monitoring indicators can vary according to specific reforestation objectives, requiring more detailed analyses such as species diversity and land cover. These indicators are essential for evaluating the success of the project and will influence the techniques and approaches used throughout the reforestation process.

Safety through technology

To ensure safety during the restoration process, it is essential to rely on technological development. New technologies and prototypes can play a key role in eliminating the human element from hazardous, at-risk or restricted areas. Automation and operationalization through these technologies help minimize potential accidents or environmental damage. What's more, technology can be an ally in the recovery and appropriate use of native species. Thanks to technological tools and resources, it is possible to promote restoration in a safe, ecologically correct and efficient way, guaranteeing the preservation of ecosystems and the well-being of the communities concerned.

In conclusion

Environmental restoration is not limited to forest ecosystems alone, but also encompasses biomes such as the Cerrado, which requires specialist expertise in grasses. In Brazil, there are only two or three experts in this field, which opens up opportunities for studies and restoration in this context. What's more, in some cases, restoration is not limited to tree planting alone, but mainly involves the elimination of invasive plants, which represent the second biggest cause of biodiversity loss in the world. Concentrated efforts to eliminate these undesirable species are therefore of paramount importance in promoting ecosystem recovery. In addition, it is essential to establish partnerships and involve society throughout the restoration process, as this collaboration is key to achieving successful results.

Image source: Pedro Abreu & MORFO
Lorie Louque
Environmental Content Manager
- Paris, France

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