Timber wood
Rolex Awards Laureate Laury Cullen Jr is not only restoring Brazil’s once-mighty Atlantic Forest, but also helping locals earn livelihoods

“When we first arrived in the Pontal region, and seeing the landscape from satellites, we realised that most of the remaining wildlife had zero chance of survival in the long term,” says Brazilian forestry engineer Laury Cullen Jr.

In 1990s, the 56-year-old travelled and moved to Pontal do Paranapanema in São Paulo state to study and save the black lion tamarin monkey. The endangered primate species was found in his home country’s Atlantic Forest.

Historically, the forest on Brazil’s south-eastern coast used to cover over 1.2 million sq km, or 12 per cent of the country’s land area.

But by the time Mr Cullen Jr arrived to study and protect the monkeys, farmers had cleared over 80 per cent of the forest for timber, plantations and ranches. Its removal had come at a price to many native animals and plants, most of which are not found anywhere else on Earth.

The forest’s remnants were small, fragmented and isolated from the remaining parks, trapping the remaining wildlife in little green “islands”. This put the species at high risk of being wiped out because there was a chance that nature’s food chains might be disrupted.

Determined to give the fauna, including the monkeys, a lifeline, Mr Cullen Jr racked his brain and came up with a plan – one that would link commerce to conservation and rope in local landless people to regrow the forest.

He began working with the locals to plant crops that were both forest-friendly and lucrative, such as shade-grown coffee that could thrive under the canopy of trees.

This way, the farmers were helping to develop green corridors that were not only reconnecting the forest’s fragments and enable wildlife to move freely, migrate and re-populate, but were also generating income for themselves.

Inspired by his project, dubbed the Dream Map, and his dedication towards it, Swiss watchmaker Rolex selected Mr Cullen Jr as one of its five Laureates for the Rolex Awards for Enterprise in 2004. The Award supports his project of restoring 60,000ha (about the size of 84,000 football fields) of vanishing flora and fauna in the Atlantic Forest.

“Every single tree we plant is produced by local people in the community-based nurseries,” he says. “They are the ones who do the planting and monitoring, so it is a good opportunity to provide jobs and food security for the rural poor.

Their eyes are bright, their eyes are shining, they are having a better quality of life – and that has to do with food security. So there is a very great sense of gratitude, pride and realisation of success.”

So far, the Dream Map project has planted four million trees, restoring 2,000ha of forest, and generated US$2 million (S$2.7 million) for the local economy. It is reaping major dividends for the rest of the world too: The renewed expanse locks up about 800,000 tonnes of carbon every year, contributing to the fight against climate change.

He has also achieved his original purpose in going to the forest. With greater freedom to roam across the green corridors and the growing forest, the black lion tamarin monkeys have replenished their ranks. They are currently endangered instead of critically endangered, although their status remains precarious due to continued deforestation.

Timber wood A game-changer for conservation

Mr Cullen Jr notes that the Rolex Awards for Enterprise has been crucial to his goal of restoring 60,000 ha of the forest along with its animals.

With its support, he could involve local landless residents, who were moved to the region in a land resettlement scheme, in the reforestation work.

It also gave him the means to establish the first of now 12 community tree nurseries – many of them run by women – that produce the seedlings of over 100 native tree species used for the regrowth.

The support for his project comes as no surprise though: Rolex has supported pioneering explorers pushing back the boundaries of human endeavour for nearly a century.

The company has moved from championing exploration for the sake of discovery, to protecting the planet, committing for the long term to support individuals and organisations using science to understand and devise solutions to today’s environmental challenges.

This engagement was reinforced with the launch of the Perpetual Planet Initiative in 2019, which initially focused on the Rolex Awards for Enterprise, as well as longstanding partnerships with Mission Blue and the National Geographic Society.

The Initiative now has more than 20 other partnerships in an expanding portfolio. These include, Cristina Mittermeier and Paul Nicklen, who are the founders of Sea Legacy, Rewilding Argentina and Rewilding Chile, offspring organisations of Tompkins Conservation, the Under The Pole expeditions, Monaco Blue Initiative and Coral Gardeners.

Rolex also supports organisations and initiatives fostering the next generations of explorers, scientists and conservationists through scholarships and grants, such as Our World-Underwater Scholarship Society and The Rolex Explorers Club Grants.

Mr Cullen Jr’s novel approach of combining landscape restoration with new income sources for farmers is one of Brazil’s most celebrated community-based conservation accomplishments. It is also a model for humanity to live in harmony with the natural world.

Even after decades, he is still amazed by the forest’s biodiversity – it is home to about 2,200 animal species and 20,000 plant ones – and his farming partners’ commitment to restoring it. He emphasises: “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.”

“We have the people, the forest, the landscape and the species. We have to combine all of these in the same conservation equation,” he explains.

“We are extremely proud to see how our activities on the ground effectively changed the landscape, and contributed to additional cover in the Atlantic rainforest.”

We The Earth is a partnership between The Straits Times and Rolex and its Perpetual Planet InitiativeRolex Awards for Enterprise Laureate Laury Cullen Jr is a stellar example of the many individuals who are doing their part to solve the issues earth faces.