Brazilian startup Nucleário has developed an innovative device – inspired by nature – to protect tree seedlings and give a boost to reforestation projects in the country.
Forests are a hugely stabilising force for the climate. They provide a habitat for animal and plant biodiversity, regulate ecosystems and play an integral role in the carbon cycle. Each tree is a microenvironment, providing a perch for birds and a shelter for small mammals and insects. Planting trees creates biodiversity exchanges and nurtures environmental recovery. A recent study showed that our ability to reforest huge amounts of the globe is one of the most effective weapons we have against climate change, with the potential to remove two thirds of global CO2 emissions from the Earth’s atmosphere.
In Brazil, huge areas of forest have been devastated in recent years – in particular in the Amazon fires of 2019 (which are on track to repeat in 2020 too) and the 2015 dam breach in Minas Gerais which destroyed thousands of acres of forest. Fighting deforestation requires active tree-planting initiatives, but many well-intended reforestation schemes fail due to a lack of follow up and maintenance, with the trees never becoming fully grown.
Land designated for reforestation is often hard to access and highly degraded, with the soil low in nutrients. Keeping young trees healthy in such rough environmental conditions is a logistical challenge. Skilled field workers who can maintain the seedlines are in short supply as the work is often difficult and dangerous, with field workers exposed to extremes in temperature and weather and exposure, toxic agrochemicals, and forced to transport heavy equipment through remote terrain. As the co-founder of Nucleário Pedro Rutman told RESET, “While large-scale forest restoration is a critical global need, it’s more arduous and complicated than many people recognise.”
Nucleário’s research into reforestation projects in Brazil showed that newly planted trees require an average of three years of maintenance to make it past the seedling phase – including regular check ups by skilled labourers, irrigation strategies, and insect- and weed-control – which is expensive and resource-intensive. The Nucleário team’s objective is to assist labourers with tree maintenance by providing these maintenance services in one single device. As Pedro explains, “Our motivation was and continues to be to create new technology to help the incredible people that are planting trees every day.”
The design of their tree seedling protector, called the “Nucleário” is inspired by biomimicry – a process in which the tried and tested strategies and patterns of the natural world are incorporated into design to create solutions to human challenges. Nucleário provides three critical functions to protect tree seedlings. Firstly, the structure emulates the function of forest leaf litter, which stops invasive weeds from taking nutrients away from the tree. This lessens the need for herbicides in the project area, provides better soil protection and consequently less soil erosion. Secondly, it controls the release of rainwater, which is useful in areas with drought and high solar radiation where water often evaporates before it can seep into the tree roots. Finally, it acts as a barrier from leaf cutting ants – which can destroy young seedlings – and eliminates the need for insecticides. Nucleário also helps with the visual monitoring of the seedlings after planting, reducing the danger of the seedlings accidentally being destroyed. Because of the device’s size and colour, seedlings are easily identified and monitored by drones or satellite images.
The first version of the Nucleário was made of biodegradable materials, but the team is now launching a new version which although it is, unfortunately, made from plastic, is both reusable and durable in harsh conditions. The Nucleário should remain around the tree for three years, after which the seedling can survive by itself. After the tree becomes self-sufficient, a fieldworker can disassemble the nucleário and reuse it on another seedling.
Nucleário is designed with large-scale tropical forest restoration projects in mind. Brazil has proven to be a good testing ground, as it has a variety of biomes where Nucleário could test the product in different landscapes. “Forest restoration is a very complex science involving a huge number of variables, especially in biomes with a high-level of biodiversity,” says Pedro. In order to test their product’s effectiveness within the many variables of reforestation, Nucleário has been conducting research with universities around Brazil since 2016. Their data has shown how Nucleário enhances many aspects of the growth and health of seedlings. “We have plans to develop specific solutions for particular species and for particular biomes around the world. Our long-term vision is to provide solutions globally for restoring native forests, forestry and fruit tree production,” Pedro explains.
While Nucleário is still in its early commercial phase, the team is working on scaling up production to meet the customer demand they already have. The product is not yet available for purchase, but can be pre-ordered on the Nucleário website.
To anyone involved in reforestation projects anywhere in the world right now, Pedro gives us the following advice: “Forest restoration projects are very challenging anywhere, but for a successful project, understanding the native biodiversity, landscape, and local people is the first step.”