Reforested area in Santa Cruz do Xingu. Mato Grosso Ricardo Abad / ISA

Muvuca: the restoration technique that is saving forests in Brazil

Near Eliane Righi’s house in an agrarian reform settlement of Bordolândia, a forest grows that she helped to plant. In this transitional area between the Amazon and the Brazilian savanna of Cerrado, species native to the region prosper—a scenario very different from ten years ago, when not a single tree grew in the 56,000 hectares.

Eliane, a farmer, was surprised at how quickly the forest began to sprout. They used a planting technique called Muvuca—which means “crowd” in Portuguese. The technique is a mix of at least 60 kilograms of different seeds, mixed with sand which is then directly planted in the soil.

Looking at the small seeds mixed together, anyone watching the restoration process using this technique would find it hard to believe that a large forest can grow here. But, Muvuca has revolutionized restoration actions in Brazil in the last fifteen years. 

By restoring degraded areas, Muvuca can facilitate more carbon capture. The technique has been successful in Amazonia, the largest tropical forest in the world, as well as in Cerrado. Here, more than 294 tons of seeds using the muvuca technique were planted, which have resulted in the growth of more than 25 million trees, on 7,400 hectares of restored land.  

Preparation of Muvuca seeds, part of a Rock in Rio initiative in partnership with ISA and Funbio, the Amazonia Live Project, which will enable in the next three years at least 1 million trees in the Xingu Araguaia region Mato Grosso Rogério Assis / ISA 20161107

Growing a forest from scratch

In 2007, Eliane’s family along with hundreds of others received the land in a long process of agrarian reform. The place had been a farm, but for years it saw no cultivation and no residents. The area was completely deforested.

Slowly, families arrived to plant and grow their gardens.  But, working in the deforested area was difficult. “The temperatures are very hot here, and there used to be no shade of trees for respite. We spent hours working in the fields, under the sun. Many people fell sick,”  recalls Eliane.

In the following year, residents started to plant some fast-growing native trees, like pequi (Caryocar brasiliense). After a few years, the scenario was better, but far from ideal. What the community did not know is that the trees planted would drive a much greater change than they anticipated.

Seed collectors

Because of the native trees planted, residents of the settlement were invited to participate in the Rede de Sementes do Xingu (Xingu Seeds Network or RSX). RSX is an association of several groups of native seed collectors. The network’s objective is to obtain seeds to promote the restoration of forests in the Cerrado and the Amazon.

In the network,  indigenous communities, rural workers, and traditional communities themselves collect the seeds that will be used in the restoration areas.

Collecting seeds generates income for families. Seeds are sold for restoration projects and also to large landowners who need to restore areas. In Brazil all rural property must maintain an area with native vegetation cover, as a Legal Reserve.

“In the beginning, many people thought it was silly to restore the area here,” says Eliane. “But then they saw that we could also generate income from the forest.” Currently, Eliane’s family and thirteen others dedicate two days a week to collecting seeds.

The collected seeds are then bought by public bodies, associations, NGOs that carry out restoration, as well as monoculture and livestock farmers who, by law, must maintain a part of the native forest on their land.

Today, at RSX, there are 560 collectors, forming 25 collection groups in three Indigenous Territories, 21 municipalities, and 16 family farming settlements. Used for thousands of years by Central American Indigebous people, this technique is now being rescued and adjusted for current times. 

Gilmar preparing Muvuca seeds. Mato Grosso Tui Anandi / ISA 20171125

The Muvuca technique

A specialist in ecological restoration at Instituto Socioambiental, (ISA), Lilla Brokaw, explains that Muvuca mimics the natural growth of forest areas. “We plant species that grow at different rates, and naturally one creates the right environment for the other,” she says.

The Muvuca mix includes native seeds from different ecological groups, sand, and green manure seeds, or seeds that help improve the soil fertilization. These fertilizer-enabling seeds comprise about 60 to 80 kilograms, or roughly half of the total seeds.  

First, the so-called pioneer plants, such as shrubs and vines, begin to grow. In the Amazon and Cerrado, these include coconut beans (Dipteryx alata) and gandu beans (Cajanus cajan), and take three to twenty years to fully grow. They form a transitional canopy.

Then those plants begin to grow, which take 20 to 100 years to reach maturity. They already find the soil naturally fertilized by the first species.

The third type of species in the seed mix are plants that take over a 100 years to fully grow.

“When the species we plant start to grow and form a forest, pollinating animals appear. As a result, they bring other native species that also grow in the area,” says Brokaw.

Muvuca also fares well in the face of the biggest enemy of restoration in Brazil—growth of the invasive brachiaria grass. This invasive species often ends up preventing the growth of native plants.

“In Muvuca, the bean growth casts a shadow on the soil and weakens the brachiaria,” explains Brokaw. Weeding still needs to be done, but only a few times.

Eliane Righi’s selfie

Muvuca versus seedlings

It was the NGO ISA that started to use Muvuca on a large scale in Brazil, for the restoration of forest areas. This direct sowing technique has many advantages over the other way of restoring areas, which requires planting seedlings—the most used form of restoration globally.

Seedlings are often expensive and need to be cared for as they sprout; they need to be transported carefully and they take up space. Seeds on the contrary, are small, light, and easy to store. Including seeds for restoration is at least 50% cheaper than restoration with seedlings. Usually, the savings are even greater.

In Muvuca, the seed is sown directly in the soil. A tractor or other farming tools can be used to plow the land initially. 

There is also a difference in the level of maintenance needed. Each seedling needs constant monitoring as it grows. Often, the seedlings do not grow because of the difference between the soil and the conditions in which it was grown in the nursery. For Muvuca on the other hand, maintenance is less recurrent—just to remove invasive species that are growing. With the seed mix, the genetic diversity is also greater.

Crowd of people

In the expert’s opinion, the great success of using Muvuca lies  in the necessity to create a network of collectors. “It was the first thing that enchanted me when I was introduced to Muvuca”, Brokaw recalls.

Muvuca becomes more effective with the involvement of communities that live within the forests. This is because there is an exchange of knowledge amongst these communities, who know the biome. Moreover, they feel more responsible for the conservation.

“Collecting seeds is a joy for me. It’s great to know that the seed we’ve collected will germinate somewhere and turn into a forest ,”says Eliane.

This story was published with the support of One Earth, through our Local Solutions Journalism Programme.

Marcela Maria Martins de Souza
Marcela is a journalist, based in Brazil, with special interest in the environment and climate change. Currently, she is a reporter and TV presenter at Rede Minas, and a Public Science Communication postgrad student at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. For the past seven years, she’s been covering environmental issues, with a focus on mining impacts, and she’s produced dozens of reports about themes such as traditional and indigenous knowledge and conservation projects. She’s also the director of a short film, “Amazon Rainforest TV”, and a writer, author of the novel “O nome do Lobo” (The wolf’s name).