Ricardo S. Vilela – Bela Vista Forestry – CEO
When it comes to the introduction and development of new forest species, there is no better example than the eucalyptus. An exotic plant, which thanks to years of research, has high yield and is adapted to different uses and regions in Brazil. Today, the level of this crop’s technological development is a role model for companies aiming at working safely and profitably with any forestry species.
Unfortunately, the success obtained with eucalyptus is the outcome of a number of factors, which cannot always be copied, because of high costs, a need for highly skilled technicians, the time needed for research, or the hostile investment environment we have in the country today. But, there is no other way. The success of a forestry enterprise is directly linked to technology. Those who wish to work with high value-added forestry species (Australian cedar, African mahogany, Calophyllum brasiliense Cambess – Guanandi, teak) have to be willing to invest in research, or be willing to face the risks of a lack of technological security.
The history of Australian cedar in Brazil is a great example, for it reveals facts that came to help in the process, and difficulties that required much persistence to overcome.
Introduced in the country by the former Aracruz Celulose over 35 years ago, the Australian cedar (Toona ciliata) was planted in the north of Espirito Santo state, in the company’s testing grounds, which although not going for its large-scale planting, they saw in the species a high income promise for farmers. Donating seedlings to producers, municipalities and INCAPER, Aracruz started to spread the species. Until then, with the genetic material that was being planted, they aimed at having it adapt to that specific region. Thereafter, it was the cedar producers themselves who continued to spread it through injudicious seed collection and its introduction in other states, some with climate and soil conditions very different from those of the initial region. Thus, a series of mistakes started, which is quite common in enterprises involving new forest species. In addition to disregarding the geographical differences found in Brazil, which is almost a continent in its size, and trying to force the adaptation of the species in unsuitable areas, these early adopters did not seek reliable information on crop management; had they done so, they would have seen no studies on nutrition, pests and diseases, use of herbicides, pruning and thinning, productivity, etc.
In 2002, being approached by professors from the Federal University of Viçosa, Bela Vista Forestry, a company located in Southern Minas Gerais, became interested in it and started to work with the species. As early as 2005, due to the lack of quality genetic material (seeds) and the absence of all the theoretical basis aforementioned, BV realized that to take cedar seriously as a business, it would have to generate the necessary information, because there was no other company in the country doing it; for an obvious reason, research and improvement in forestry requires a lot of money, they are slow and risky processes. Only large companies (pulp and steel) were big enough to endeavor in such enterprises, but due to the very characteristics of their products, they were not interested in working with solid wood.
Bela Vista saw this shortcoming associated with this crop as a business opportunity, and decided to invest in an Australian Cedar breeding and cloning project. The lack of seed quality was a major problem. Years went by and it was not known whether there would be enough quantity or quality available. In the years before the economic crisis of 2008, euphoria gripped the forestry industry, with high prices and a huge demand for all that was produced. In these settings, opportunistic people entered the market, and the quality of seedlings and seeds available in the market went down to a terrible level.
To solve this problem, in 2006 BV went to the source, and started the process of importing Australian cedar seeds, with the help of the Federal University of Lavras and the Australian Tree Seed Center – the renowned CSIRO, providing us with quality material. The company benefited from an extensive species conservation project underway in that country. Since the Australian cedar is one of the most endangered tree species on the planet, and of great importance in the history of Australian colonization, the CSIRO mapped and characterized the best seed trees in the country, and all the information on each tree was recorded.
Bela Vista Forestry’s team then traveled to Australia, and brought back seeds from 100 of the 124 parent trees selected from north to south of the country, along almost 3,000 km of an area where the species was distributed. A diverse genetic basis, indispensable for a breeding project that began with the potential to adapt it to Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul, Goias, Bahia, São Paulo, Espírito Santo, Rio de Janeiro, Minas Gerais, Santa Catarina and Paraná states. The arrays selected were from places ranging from 40 m (seaside) to 1,100 m above sea level, and areas with rainfall rates varying between 900 mm and 2,500 mm, from different Australian climates and biomes, thus contemplating a wide range of genetic materials, environments and climates.
The import of 5 grams of seed from each of the 100 seed trees was immediately negotiated with the CSIRO, with all the documentation needed to introduce it in Brazil. Even so, the approval process by the Brazilian Ministry of Agriculture took one year. Also, after much negotiation, we got a great discount on seed price – AU$ 50,000.00 down to AU$ 20,000.00 equivalent to R$ 35,000.00. However, when the time came to collect the material at Brazilian customs, we had to pay PIS, COFINS and ICMS taxes (in addition to insurance, customs, DHL). Adding the cost of quarantine at Cenargen, the final sum paid amounted to impressive R$ 80,000.00 (values of the time) for half a kilogram of seed.
In 2007, after the quarantine released the seeds, the company produced 30,000 seedlings and implemented two genetic tests on the sources and families of the plants imported (origin/progeny tests) in different bio-geographical regions. One test was implemented in the cerrado (savannah-like) biome in João Pinheiro (northwest of Minas Gerais), 670 meters high, in a drought and sandy low-fertility soil; the other was implemented in a cerrado/Atlantic forest transition area in Campo Belo (Southwestern Minas Gerais), 850 m high, in medium fertility red latosoil, with 1730 mm of rain a year without drought. From the studies and analyzes of these two tests, Bela Vista Forestry began selecting materials that would become cultivars (clones), starting with 1,600 plants and arriving at 39 promising genetic materials. After this phase, multiclonal tests were ran in four municipalities of Minas Gerais: Jequitaí, João Pinheiro, Piumhi and Campo Belo. After seven years of research and dozens of other clonal plantations in different states, the selection narrowing reached 6 cultivars or clones, which adapted well to all tested areas and yielded productivity gains higher than 200% over the Australian cedar variety existing in Brazil. The average productivity of forests arising from regular national seeds is around 12 m³/ha/year, while the materials selected reached an average of 30 m³/ha/year, and some clones tested reached 44 m³/ha/year. More recent data from plantations in Bahia, São Paulo and Paraná confirms this adaptability and productivity.
The selection also took into account the resistance to major cedar pests and diseases, such as the white psyllid, the phylacora leaf fungus and mites. The studies led to mastering how to handle the species with a series of gains. Pruning branches was greatly facilitated. Planting needs were reduced from 1660 to 800 trees per hectare, as the selection requirement is much lower due to plant homogeneity.
Our partnerships were paramount to reaching such outcomes. We spent nine years investing in research, with support from the Federal University of Lavras (UFLA). At times we also had the participation of the State Forestry Institute (IEF) and Sebrae. UFLA’s participation generated many academic and scientific studies, including monographs, dissertations, theses and papers. There are currently seven new lines of research underway; involving quality, timber use, pests and plant diseases, nutrition, drought resistance, handling and genetic improvement. The second selection of cultivars is already happening, based on plant hybridization. During the project development we counted on the participation of professors Edson Pozza teachers (Phytopathology); Antônio Eduardo Furtini (Soils); Sebastião Rosado (Breeding); Fausto Weimar Acerbi Junior and Natalino Calegário (Forest Management); Tarcisio Lima and José Reinaldo Moreira da Silva (Wood Quality and Technology), among others, showing that with this initiative, UFLA has also become a center of excellence in Australian cedar, and the interaction between the academia and the private sector is always beneficial for the country.
The information generated in these years of research is freely available at the Bela Vista Forestry website for everyone who may be interested in it, through technical essays, quotes and links to existing scientific literature, handouts on cultivation, among other information about the crop.
Today, by opening the market to the Australian cedar wood, Bela Vista Forestry complements and closes the cycle started nearly 40 years ago, showing that the species has its place as one of the main alternatives for timber production for sawmills in Brazil.
Before starting to plant a forestry species available on the market, first find out whether it offers similar prerequisites, so that your expectations can be confirmed in the future.