Planting footprints of hope in Uruguay

The first birds awaken as a winter morning fog covers the coast of Punta del Diablo, a small coastal town in eastern Uruguay.

The town sits between the Atlantic Ocean and the 17,500 hectare Black Lagoon, and the ocean breeze shapes the dunes where the psamófilos or ‘sand friends’ live; trees, shrubs, and herbs that are particularly adapted to this environment.

Native trees such as the Arrayàn, Chal Chal and Curupì, are increasingly threatened by alien species, unplanned urban development, and unsustainable tourism.

Only 4.8 percent of Uruguay’s land is now covered by native forests.

A group of local people decided to reverse that trend, and despite the winter’s cold, gathered in a local park in August to start work.

“The restoration of native forests is very important for Uruguay. Most people don’t know about our native trees, they have no idea,” says Katherine Muller, a local entrepreneur.

She and the other volunteers cleared the land of remains of black acacias and maritime pines, invasive exotics that displace native species and are quickly reborn when fires sweep through.

Native forests are home to the majority of reptiles, and a large number of native birds, amphibians and mammals, including threatened species. They are essential to protect biodiversity, the environment, and water quality.

And Ms Muller says they have another role to play in protecting the unique environment of Punta del Diablo.

“Because of the fire issues, acacias and eucalypts are very flammable and our native trees are not,” she says.

Although the volunteers saw small signs of hope almost immediately — some native plants survive under the branches of invasive trees — they knew that the present level of loss cannot go on.

“You can see, year after year the alteration,” says Victor Pereyra. “We are already in a situation that can’t continue. There are fewer and fewer birds, bees.”

Their concerns are shared by UNDP Uruguay’s Accelerator Lab, and Plantatón Uruguay launched an initiative to encourage individual commitment and collective financing through crowdfunding to restore Punta del Diablo’s native forest. The goal: to plant 1,000 native trees.

Uruguay was inspired by experiences from other countries such as El Salvador, where the Plantatón initiative helped plant 35 million trees between 2017 and 2018, Uzbekistan, which is bringing life back to the Aral Sea, and Costa Rica’s Huella de Futuro, which is planting 200,000 trees in the country’s North Zone.

“This crowdfunding campaign is more than a fundraising tool to raise awareness about native trees. It is an enriching process that has united our country office, the government and local organizations with a common goal.’ It has also helped to spread the word about UNDP and its Accelerator Labs, to share knowledge and experiences from all around the world,” said Francisco Pons, UNDP Accelerator Lab Head of Exploration.

A few months after starting the campaign 1,111 trees of more than 20 different native species were planted. They came from local nurseries, many of which were created with the support of the GEF Small Grants Programme.

“Many children know that these species [of trees] were donated by people from Uruguay and other countries, and that they are precisely their guardians from now on,” said Cinthia Toledo, from Vamola!, a local organization.

Restoring forests means saving the future of native forests, but also that of future generations.

Adriana Pezzolano, an entrepreneur, had no doubt the project would succeed. She believes its about more than just the environment, but a step towards helping Uruguayans more deeply identify with their land. “I think it’s the connection one has with the origin of this country,” she says. “The forest was before us. And it is a way of being able to reconnect with that part. And unfortunately the city, the asphalt makes you lose it. It is genetic. I think we all have it. You just have to be willing to bet that, yes we can.”

Each tree represents the people, countries and companies committed to Uruguay’s ecosystem, and a footprint of hope.

“We want to regenerate the psamófilo forest which is being rapidly lost,” says Claudio Taroco. “It’s ours. It’s what we have. It’s our identity. It’s our soil and it’s our indigenous flora. It’s what’s been here for a long time, and what must be recovered.”

Please click here to learn more about this initiative.

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