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Brazil teen's tree-planting efforts begin to branch out 14 years later

MIGUEL PEREIRA, Brazil -- First came the coffee growers. Then the charcoal makers. And finally, when the last trees had been cleared, there came the cattlemen, who grazed their cows on the denuded hillsides.

Several centuries of human activity have left a deep scar in the Atlantic rainforest north of Rio.

Between patches of primary forest which are a haven to rare birds and mammals, hill after hill has nothing but thin grass and eroded soil.

Reversing this loss would seem like a lost cause, yet another defeat in the long battle to preserve the environment.

But nothing appears to deter Mauricio Ruiz, whose encounter at the age of 15 with a Brazilian poet made him resolved to bring the phantom forest back to life.

He invested every cent in his pocket — 20 reals, around US$10 — to start a tree-planting initiative.

Fourteen years later, his organization, the Instituto Terra de Preservacao Ambiental (ITPA), is beginning to see the rewards of struggle.

Spades and seedlings in hand, its 130 employees and army of seasonal workers are marching across the hills.

In their wake, they have left 670,000 young trees, drawn from 55 native species.

“We hope to reach the million mark by the end of 2012. Our goal is to plant 18 million trees covering 18,000 hectares (69.5 square miles),” Ruiz said.

To green activists and journalists attending the U.N. Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio, he proudly showed off a stretch of the banks of the Santa Ana river, which supplies the city with much of its water.

“This was all grass three years ago. Now look at this alligator tree,” he said, his hand on a rough-barked sapling that was already 2 or 3 meters high.

Flourishing nearby were pepper trees, lapachos, guapuruvu trees, ingas and umbaubas. A few birds chattered in the top branches, several trees had vines that had started to entwine their youthful trunks, and one had a platoon of caterpillars in its leaves — all encouraging signs of biodiversity.

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Bianca Jagger, left, plants a King tree beside Terra Institute of Environmental Preservation (IPTA) environmentalist Mauricio Ruiz on Saturday, June 16 in the framework of the ...

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