Rebuilding a Rainforest

Laury Cullen Jr. developed an innovative method—combining conservation science and community engagement—to safeguard one of Brazil’s most precious ecosystems.

This article reports on the impact of Rolex’s Perpetual Planet initiative, which supports outstanding individuals and organizations that are implementing novel solutions to the world’s most pressing environmental challenges. The initiative includes the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a program that for over four decades has recognized changemakers from around the world, including Laury Cullen Jr., who is featured in this story.

Laury Cullen Jr. came to the Atlantic Forest—the massive biome that stretches along Brazil’s southeastern coast—to save a monkey. The black lion tamarin is both endemic to a portion of the forest in São Paulo State and exceedingly rare. For much of the 20th century it was thought to be extinct, before being rediscovered in the 1970s. When Cullen began his work in the region in 1990, after graduating from forestry school, the population was in the hundreds, isolated primarily in a single state park. Then, curiously, Cullen began to find more.

In a single year, the young Brazilian ecologist documented eight new groups of black lion tamarins living in small forest fragments outside of the park. But while the sightings were promising, they hardly solved the preservation challenge at hand. The groupings were geographically divided—a consequence of severe deforestation of the Atlantic Forest—with no way to migrate and intermix, which would be necessary for the species to repopulate.

It was then that Cullen had an idea—one that would not only shape the trajectory of black lion tamarin conservation but also the young environmentalist’s entire career. The forest itself, which is characterized by sequestered islands of tree coverage, had to be reconnected if wildlife were to ever flourish again. “I knew we had to bridge these isolated patches,” he said.“We had to find a way to ensure the long-term survival of endangered and endemic species.”

The black lion tamarin is endemic to Brazil’s Atlantic Forest.
In the three decades since, Cullen has dedicated his life to restoring the Atlantic Forest. And he’s done so using particularly innovative methods. Cullen, who was honored as a Laureate by Rolex through the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, blends modern forestry science with grassroots economic development initiatives. This imaginative multidisciplinary approach has not only been effective in addressing his narrow original mission—the black lion tamarin is officially no longer critically endangered; it has been essential to an entire habitat’s very survival.
“Forest corridor” © Rolex/ Diego Bresani

Portrait of an environmental pioneer

Meet the forest engineer helping to restore one of Brazil’s most vibrant ecosystems.


It takes a village to save a forest

Five hundred years ago, the Atlantic Forest spanned about 330 million acres—more than three times the size of California. Slowly, however, the ecosystem began to shrink. European settlers who flocked to Brazil cleared the land for agriculture and urban development. The deforestation then accelerated in the mid-20th century, when the Brazilian government began awarding large-scale forest plots to private owners; they cut down trees, transforming the land to support lucrative businesses such as coffee plantations and cattle ranches. By the 1970s, 80 percent of the woodland had been lost, leaving numerous small, scattered fragments of rainforest. Today, farming and other activities continue to put stress on the ecosystem—as well as the 2,200 species of animals and 20,000 species of plants that call the forest home.

Cullen was convinced he had to address these prevailing challenges directly. To realize his ambitious goal, he knew he needed to persuade some of the exact people who were encroaching on forest land—the area’s local growers—to join him. “When it comes to the issue of fragmentation, the local farming communities are key stakeholders,” Cullen said. “They have to be part of the conservation equation.”

Cullen collaborates with local farmers to create corridors between forest fragments.

Cullen’s roadmap for reforestation relied on the concept of agroforesty, a land management system that integrates areas of farming with the natural environment. For this to work, however, he needed to make it worth it for the growers. He began working with locals to introduce crops that were both “forest friendly” and lucrative, such as shade-grown coffee, which can thrive under the canopy of trees.

Yet introducing forest-friendly crops only protects the trees that are already intact. In an effort to literally rebuild the Atlantic Forest, Cullen and his team develop corridors—created out of native trees—to reconnect the habitat’s isolated fragments. Those corridors not only expand forest coverage; they also allow native animal species to migrate and repopulate.

Together, these tactics have had a profound impact on the habitat. In recent years, Cullen and his partners finished creating a 3,200-acre link between two core Atlantic Forest remnants in western São Paulo State. The restoration required planting 3 million trees. Efforts like these have also fundamentally reframed the relationship between local farmers and the forest. The new sources of income generate upwards of 60 percent more financial yield for families. And this economic empowerment creates a personal sense of responsibility and care for the environment that provides it, Cullen argues.

“We involve all the local communities, not just in relation to income-generation, but also in terms of protecting the biodiversity,” he said. “This engagement is at the heart of the vision that we have for the landscape.”

Cullen’s reforestation efforts require the planting of millions of trees.

Reforestation projects from around
the world

The threats facing the Atlantic Forest are hardly unique. Over the past three decades in fact, an estimated 1 billion acres of forest have been cleared by humans. Yet thankfully, Laury Cullen Jr. isn’t alone in his mission to reverse this trend. All over the globe, environmental leaders are leveraging new technologies and ideas in the effort to regrow trees. We spoke with British zoologist and conservation biologist Lara Jackson to learn about some of the most innovative reforestation methods being used today.

Lara Jackson

Zoologist and
conservation biologist

The charcoal casing technique
“Kenya has one of the worst deforestation rates worldwide. But a few companies put their heads together and came up with a way to reforest the country’s inaccessible barren areas by using a small aircraft to drop seeds. The seeds are encased inside charcoal dust balls, which protect them from anything that might eat the seeds before they germinate. When it rains, the charcoal washes off, allowing the seeds to grow. In a twenty minute flight, more than 40,000 seedballs can be distributed, of which, 10-20 percent are predicted to grow into mature plants. That’s as many as 8,000 new trees!”
The drone drop technique
“There’s a project in Myanmar that uses drones to spread mangrove seedlings. The original flight occurred last year and there’s evidence that those seedlings have grown. It’s quite an amazing way to reduce costs and also just access remote places, which are difficult to plant seeds in otherwise.”
The community nursery technique
“In Borneo, a conservation group has provided training and resources to help rural villagers establish tree nurseries. What’s more, the organization has also pledged to buy 25,000 seedlings a year from community that will be used to reforest surrounding areas. It’s given people a way to earn some kind of income and given them ownership over local conservation efforts.”

Reforesting through creative collaborations

In 2004, Cullen was recognized by Rolex through the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a program honoring exceptional individuals whose pioneering initiatives seek to uplift humanity and improve the state of our world. The honor was instrumental in supporting new protection efforts. “It's a very important endorsement, a seal of approval. It opens doors, and has given us a lot of visibility,” he explained.

The support enabled Cullen to increase staff and scale operations. Notably, it also introduced him to other conservationists with complementary interests. Cullen and his team have recently started to work with fellow Rolex Associate Laureate Topher White on an initiative to use audio recording devices to track restoration efforts. The duo placed these devices on trees in different pockets of the forest. They can then listen to the noises that are picked up, using an extensive library of forest sounds to identify different animal species. To Cullen and his colleagues, those detections can signal the successful migration into a new forest fragment, or a notable increase in an existing animal population.

The project is indicative of the forestry leader’s career-long approach to conservation initiatives—a mix of deep collaboration, innovative thinking and purpose. All of these are necessary to make an environmental impact, Cullen argues. He added that individuals looking to take part in this effort should seek out and support tree planting organizations.

“Preservation takes passion, determination, vision, relationships,” he mused. “And pride, loving your land. I think pride is the engine that really moves us.”

Cullen works with local farmers to introduce crops that are both forest friendly and lucrative.

“Preservation takes passion, determination, vision, relationships,” he mused. “And pride, loving your land. I think pride is the engine that really moves us.”