Sometimes the interests of an endangered or degraded environment can run contrary to the interests of the people who live among it. Rolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Laury Cullen Jr’s genius has been to get those two things working in harmony, allowing everyone to benefit.
Pontal do Paranapanema, a rural area of São Paulo state in Brazil, is home to the magnificent Atlantic Forest, a semi-deciduous rainforest which hosts a spectacular profusion of wildlife, much of it unique to the region, including jaguars, ocelots, pumas, tapirs and maned wolves. Formerly completely covering the area, the forest was mostly cleared for farmland, with the remaining sections reduced to little more than fragments. That meant the animals that live in them, many of them belonging to endangered species were unable to travel between sections, further threatening those populations.
Such was the situation when Cullen arrived in the area in the 1990s. He went there to study an endangered species of monkey, the black lion tamarin, but soon became preoccupied by the main reason it was endangered in the first place: environmental devastation. His solution was the Dream Map, a plan to link the remaining areas together with passages of restored forest—some 60,000 hectares of it. So far it has resulted in 2,000 hectares being restored, with four million trees planted, locking up 800,000 tonnes of carbon a year.
However, he was also keenly aware that there are 6,000 families living in the area, and that the plan couldn’t be considered a success unless it was also in their interests—and probably wouldn’t work without their help anyway. That’s why, when he was given the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2004, he used his winnings to build the first of what has since become a network of 12 community tree nurseries. They further Cullen’s mission of helping local ecosystems to flourish, producing the seedlings of more than 100 native species. But equally importantly, they are mainly managed by local women—one of a number of ways in which Cullen’s programme tries to help local people make a better living working to conserve the forest than they could before, and removing the incentive to clear more forest for farmland. So far, the scheme has raised about US$2 million for the local economy.
“We could not save this last remaining forest if people were not a key component of the long-term conservation and community-based conservation approach,” says Cullen. “Every single tree that we plant is produced by the local people in the community-based nurseries. They are the ones who do the planting and all of the monitoring, so it is a great opportunity to provide jobs and food security for the rural poor.”