Why is Recovery of Degraded Land such a fascinating field

Or what does Shiva and Buddha have to do with land degradation and recovery

Me and the seed collectors in 2015. I should have brought sunglasses.

I get questioned a lot about why I decided to go for Recovery of Degraded Land instead of some other “more prestigious” area. I could answer something like “it is a critical area that is becoming increasingly more critical because we have a lot of degraded land that needs recovery if we want to survive”, or “to help fight climate change”, the list goes on and on.

But the thing is, I love seeing things flourish, especially those “underdog” kind of things, such as a gullet becoming green again and heavily degraded industrial areas turning into parks or filled with trees. Of course, as most of my Forestry colleagues, I love being outdoors and hard work. Yes, I am a tree-hugger (seriously, if you have not done it yet, try at least once. Send me the picture if you do hehe).

I decided to follow this career path in 2013, while I was working as an intern in an environmental consultancy which was assisting a mining company in its Recovery of Degraded Land plan. In Brazil, mining companies are obliged, by law, to recover mined areas and have a plan even before the start of the mining process. So, some of the most common recovery techniques used nowadays stemmed from Mining and Civil Engineering. However, given the very nature of a degradation process, it is not possible to replicate and escalate recovery processes. We can, though, replicate the methodology and the approach to it.

The complexity of degraded lands, to me, is fascinating. Degradation is just the flip side of creation. This is not my idea, by the way. Hindu tradition has this concept translated in its three gods that rule the universe: Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Brahma is the creator, Vishnu the keeper and Shiva the destroyer. As far as I know, Shiva destroys the illusions and imperfections of this world. So, it is not random destruction, albeit it may be unpleasant. I like to draw a comparison of this Hindu cosmology with how forests, which are great at destroying and recreating things. This is also present in Buddhist tradition, in the Wheel of Life teaching: it all ends in destruction. And at the end, there is always rebirth too. To be, this seemingly chaotic disarrangement is the very ground of creation and creative process.

A matrix tree filled with fruits bearing seeds. That yellow blob on the tree’s crown is a person. He was responsible for shaking the branches until the seeds fell.

And why would I bring Hindus and Buddhists into my argument about Recovery of Degraded Land? Well, because this picture was taken when I was living in a Buddhist centre and visited another centre, situated in a Cerrado land (a type of Savannah). A nearby area was being restored and I stood there with the technicians for a week. I was allocated for one week in a house in a mountain peak at the Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park.

Area under recovery process in Chapada dos Veadeiros (Goiás State, Brazil)

Like everything in life, it was amazing and horrible at the same time. In this very day, I slipped from a rock and injured my wrist on the fall, creating a scratch deep enough to leave me a scar which I am looking at right now as I write this. Forest working hazards…

Xixa (Sterculia strita sp.), the tree that knocked me down from a rock. I’m using my left hand to hold it because the right one was dripping blood in the bag. Work hazards…

Anyway, a lot of the recovery plans are basic hand labour. As with many tasks in forests, it also requires someone from the area to know where to find certain tree that can offer seeds to create the seedlings (we call them matrixes). So, also, a lot of the work is talking to people, being a good listener and blending in with the scenario for a while. I really like this last part of the job. I feel like I am having the privilege of being a guest at someone else’s magic land.

Seed rain. Very bruteish

This process pictured here his called “seed rain”. It is a method for collecting seeds from matrix trees which requires the “very subtle” act of actively shaking the tree and positioning a large cloth or canvas to collect them as they fall.

Buddha on my chest and, again, should have brought sunglasses, if only to hide better my mixed feelings hehe…

Looking back at those pictures brought me back to that bittersweet moment in which I felt so good, yet so uncomfortable at the same time. Good because I was doing what I loved, which was to be around nature and people and uncomfortable because of everything else happening on my life. I would need a couple more months to figure things out, but I remember the sight of seed rain bringing some tears into my eyes and making me think “I know it’s hard, but I love it. I don’t know how, but I know why I should work to recover and protect Nature, because literally this is who I am”. I might have tapped into interconnectedness, the undeniable truth about us and nature. Or, as a Zen teacher says, “we are the life of the Earth”.

UX Designer | Forest Engineer focused on sustainability, recovery of degraded land and the human-nature relationship.