An interview with Karimeh Moukaddem, a part of our on-going Interviews with Young Scientists series.
Typical farmhouse outside of Parauapebas. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
The city of Parauapebas, Brazil is booming: built over the remains of the Amazon rainforest, the metropolis has grown 75-fold in less than 25 years, from 2,000 people upwards of 150,000. But little time for urban planning and both a spatial and mental distance from the federal government has created a frontier town where small-scale farmers struggle to survive against racing sprawl, legal and illegal mining, and a lack of investment in environmental protection. Forests, biodiversity, and subsistence farmers have all suffered under the battle for land. In this, Parauapebas may represent a microcosm both of Brazil’s ongoing problems (social inequality, environmental degradation, and deforestation) and opportunity (poverty alleviation, reforestation, and environmental enforcement).
“[Parauapebas] is currently the fastest growing city in Brazil with recent annual growth rates oscillating between thirteen and eighteen percent. Its pattern of unorganized and unplanned growth and sprawl has left the local government scrambling to provide sanitation, schools, and basic infrastructure,” explains Karimeh Moukaddem, a U.S. Fulbright Scholar in Brazil, who spent nine months studying subsistence farming in the region.
Karimeh Moukaddem in Brazil with pet parrot. She says she does ‘not condone keeping parrots.’ Photo courtesy of Karimeh Moukaddem.
By interviewing a wide variety of farmers growing food on what were once the outskirts of the town, Moukaddem found that many viewed the future of small-scale agriculture in the region as “bleak.”
“They cited an almost complete absence of interest among the youth, the lack of government support, and increasing land sales to non-farmers. They know the economic base in this area is mining, and believe significant investments in agriculture will not be forthcoming. Unfortunately, many view themselves and their way of life as backwards and, if they recognize their roles as land stewards, do not believe this is valued,” she said in a recent interview with mongabay.com.
Subsistence farmers often lose land to wealthy urbanites who are buying it up at skyrocketing prices for weekend homes, even though its been officially designated as agricultural land. Meanwhile the mining industry, the dominate players in Parauapebas, often works to purchase land from under farmers and, according to Moukaddem, “[has] a vested interest in the failure of small farmers in the area.” Land issues are exacerbated by environmental damage, both from mining and massive deforestation.
Ongoing deforestation in the region. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
“Almost all lowlying, flat areas have been cleared [of forests] either for housing or for pasture. Southern Para is characterized by high hills and mountains, and within Palmares these areas are both the only remaining forested places and the site of ongoing deforestation as some farmers are attempting to expand their pastures into the hills. Others are very critical, pointing out that rain quickly erodes such steep slopes and this poses a danger from mudslides. I often see trucks piled with logs leaving the community, and along the entire highway between Belem and Parauapebas,” Moukaddem explains.
While Brazil has many good environmental laws on the docket, Moukaddem says they are rarely enforced here.
“Government policy feels distant in this area. Farmers say government employees almost never come to their farms—even those paid or mandated to like veterinarians, agricultural technicians, or IBAMA (Brazil’s agency in charge of environmental law enforcement) or INCRA representatives,” she explains. “The implementation of laws and programs already in place, plus policies to provide excellent technical advice and payments to support the labor and opportunity costs of reforestation could encourage better environmental stewardship.”
Corruption and a fear of reprisal in reporting environmental problems have pushed many locals to remain silent, a problem that occurs across Brazil, where those who speak up are often harassed and sometimes even face violence or murder.
“Many farmers are unhappy with [ongoing deforestation] and other environmental crimes, but do not want to place themselves in the confrontational situation of calling the officials on their neighbors, particularly as IBAMA is frequently paid off in the community,” says Moukaddem, who was told repeatedly that IBAMA would take bribes in the region while turning a blind eye to “egregious” crimes, such as illegal mining in riverbeds.
In order to survive, small-scale farmers require education on agriculture in the tropics, access to mechanization, and assistance with utilizing sustainable practices.
“Quite a few are interested in agroforesty but do not have the technical knowledge, money, access to seedlings, or labor to begin. Others would like to have forest because they like nature or want to combat climate change,” Moukaddem says, noting that farmers are the region’s best hope for environmental restoration efforts given their direct access to the land.
Farmland sold for weekend house. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
As it is, Parauapebas, with its booming population, is a symbol of many issues plaguing Brazil: widespread poverty, huge gaps between the rich and the poor, environmental destruction, and tension between industrial exploitation and sustainable community development.
“Brazil is notorious for socioeconomic inequality and higher levels of poverty and deep poverty than other countries with similarly sized economies,” says Moukaddem. “Inequality in the Parauapebas area is particularly stark. Because of its vast mineral wealth, Pebas has a municipal GDP equal to or surpassing all other municipals except Rio and Sao Paulo. The poverty and even misery in an area so rich in natural resources is as astounding as it is obvious that the exportation of raw material is partly responsible.”
While her research in the region has produced a snapshot of the struggles facing farmers and environmental restoration in the area, Moukaddem says future studies would benefit from collaboration.
“I recommend students and scholars put together teams of (at least) one social scientist and one natural scientist. My research would have benefited greatly from collaboration with a biologist, conservation ecologist, or soil scientist, and I am sure that the benefits of such a partnership could only run both ways,” she says.
In a December 2012 interview, Karimeh Moukaddem (who interned with mongabay.com in 2011) discussed the challenges facing farmers in the Brazilian Amazon, the barriers to reforestation and better environmental practices, and the struggle over land in the nation’s fastest growing city.
INTERVIEW WITH KARIMEH MOUKADDEM
Subsistence farmer with their cow. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
Mongabay: What’s your background?
Karimeh Moukaddem: I am a 2012 U.S. Fulbright Scholar to Brazil and a graduate of Sewanee: The University of the South, where I double majored in Environmental Policy and International Development. I studied abroad in the Brazilian Amazon in 2009, returned on a grant in 2010, and currently am wrapping up my Fulbright research. I have been studying urban transformation, rural development, spatial planning, and agrarian reform in Palmares 2, a Movement of Landless Rural Workers’ (MST) settlement that is part of the city of Parauapebas, Pará. I focus on strategies for subsistence farmers to maintain viable farms in periurban contexts, and I am interested in how urban-rural interactions affect environmental and land use strategies in the Amazon.
Mongabay: What led you to Parauapebas, Brazil?
Karimeh Moukaddem: My study abroad group visited the area for three days in 2009, and I was struck by the rapid urban growth in such a newly opened area of the Amazon. I also was fascinated by the Movement of Landless Rural Workers’ attempts to claim space and act out a subaltern vision of development in a place where non-indigenous forms of organization are so new.
FARMING VERSUS SPRAWL
Construction for weekend home in the countryside. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
Mongabay: Will you set the stage for us? How has Parauapebas changed in the last few decades, what does this mean for smallscale, subsistence farming?
Karimeh Moukaddem: Parauapebas (Pebas) is a twenty-four year old city in Southern Para. It exists because of the vast mineral wealth in the region—high grade iron ore, gold, bauxite, copper—and mining is the city’s economic base. The private, Brazilian-based multinational mining firm Vale is the principal company operating near Parauapebas, but several others have substantial claims and interests in the area.
Parauapebas was conceived of as a worker’s city and was planned for five thousand people. Since its founding, the city has grown from under two thousand people to roughly one hundred and fifty three thousand residents. It is currently the fastest growing city in Brazil with recent annual growth rates oscillating between thirteen and eighteen percent. Its pattern of unorganized and unplanned growth and sprawl has left the local government scrambling to provide sanitation, schools, and basic infrastructure. The local Secretary of Urbanization in Parauapebas legalizes entire neighborhoods after they are built and can not keep up with the growth, let alone plan it.
Parauapebas has grown as surrounding rural lands have been occupied. As urban residents push their occupations (carving out 10×30 meters plots) further into the countryside, they are beginning to occupy space officially designated as farmland by INCRA, Brazil’s National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform. As the city prepares to annex the formally autonomous MST settlement, speculation, rising land prices, and removed or absent agricultural supports threaten the land base needed for agrarian reform and the farms of the rural poor. On a positive note, the growth in Parauapebas has ensured a strong and growing market for farm products.
Mongabay: You found that farm land is primarily being purchased for other uses? What are these?
Palmares, a settlement about 22 kilometers from Parauapebas, is about to be annexed as a neighborhood, or suburb. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
Karimeh Moukaddem: Land in agrarian reform settlements technically is managed by INCRA, which formally does not allow land sales and is supposed to manage for poverty relief, meaning that absentee ownership or failing to use land for agricultural purposes can be grounds for expelling one occupant and installing another. However, INCRA appears to exert no influence in Palmares and is not preventing illegal land sales. The general opinion in the area is that INCRA is weak, corrupt, and an institution of the past.
Wealthy residents from Parauapebas are purchasing farmland parcels (under half an acre) in Palmares and building weekend homes, transforming working rural lands and increasing absentee ownership. Farmers have different motivations for selling: many are elderly and ill, others are in need of money, one wants a buffer between his dairy farm and a recently built preschool on the edge of town, and several others near the urban boundary fear that their land may be occupied in the next few years if they do not sell first.
Finally, Vale and other multinational firms are said to have purchased the subsoil rights to land in Palmares. Several farmers reported that mining representatives came to their farms to do core samples and otherwise survey the property, and one said he and nine neighbors were waiting on offers from a Canadian company. These mining firms have a vested interest in the failure of small farmers in the area.
Mongabay: Are people able to make enough from smallscale farming to earn a living?
Movement of Landless Rural Workers (WST) event. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
Karimeh Moukaddem: Yes, although the majority also receive income from off-farm farm labor, jobs in town, remittances from children, or government retirement salaries. What they don’t make in money, they grow in food: freedom from hunger and a dignified existence are considered the main benefits of having land.
Living standards vary among the farmers I know and spoke with. In Brazil, families with children are eligible for federal assistance if they make less than R140 a month as this is considered extreme poverty. The minimum salary (similar to the minimum wage) for 2012 is R$622. A dairy farmer I know with one dependent child sells close to 2,000 liters of milk a month and makes nearly R1,000 in addition to income earned from selling a calfs or cows and a significant salary earned by his wife, a successful Avon saleswoman. Most live simply, but they are undoubtedly better off than many in Brazil. Dairy farmers, cattle ranchers, and those raising fish tend to be the best off as their products are in demand in Parauapebas and they do not face competition from grains and fruits produced more efficiently in other parts of the state and country.
Mongabay: What do small-scale farmers still need to be successful in the area?
Karimeh Moukaddem: Farmers I spoke with believe mechanization is the only way forward. Their sons have almost all left the farm with no intentions of returning, hired labor is difficult to find given the area’s strong economy, and most farmers are older and unable to take on the physical work they once could. Without physical capital and with little labor, they are pushed into extensive forms of farming such as cattle ranching or kept at a subsistence level. The government technically supplies tractors to farmers in the area, but nearly all said they hadn’t had access to a tractor once in the eighteen years they have had land, while others related that tractors show up months after requested and when it is too late to plant.
Mechanization brings up the issue of soil compaction, and farmers admit that they need to mechanize because the soil is weakening. Technical advice, particularly regarding soil conservation and restoration, is desperately needed if farms are to remain viable. Hardly anyone in the Parauapebas area is originally from the Amazon, and almost all of the farmers are from the arid northeast. Technical assistance related to the specifics of tropical agriculture and teaching agroforestry would be welcome. The challenge is that these farmers require sustainable agricultural projects that are not labor or capital intensive.
However, access to machinery would still be beneficial as many farmers want to construct ponds because fish are selling very well in Pebas.
Mongabay: Has environmental degradation hurt farmers in the long run in the area?
Typical interior of farmhouse in the area. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
Karimeh Moukaddem: Yes, particularly a lack of soil conservation. Some regret having put in as much pasture as they did because it is almost impossible to now use that land for other purposes. However, almost no one in the Brazilian Amazon has as much direct ability to reverse environmental damage than small farmers living on and from their land. Farms in agrarian reform settlements are side by side and present the possibility of reforesting a continuous area. As this land is further subdivided into lots for weekend homes, however, absentee ownership and small properties would complicate this effort.
Mongabay: How do the farmers you interviewed view the future of agriculture in the region?
Karimeh Moukaddem: The majority considered it very bleak. They cited an almost complete absence of interest among the youth, the lack of government support, and increasing land sales to non-farmers. They know the economic base in this area is mining, and believe significant investments in agriculture will not be forthcoming. Unfortunately, many view themselves and their way of life as backwards and, if they recognize their roles as land stewards, do not believe this is valued.
Those who were positive pointed out that their products have never sold better or at higher prices.
Deforestated hillsides. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
Mongabay: Does deforestation remain a problem in the area?
Karimeh Moukaddem: Yes. Almost all lowlying, flat areas have been cleared either for housing or for pasture. Southern Para is characterized by high hills and mountains, and within Palmares these areas are both the only remaining forested places and the site of ongoing deforestation as some farmers are attempting to expand their pastures into the hills. Others are very critical, pointing out that rain quickly erodes such steep slopes and this poses a danger from mudslides. I often see trucks piled with logs leaving the community, and along the entire highway between Belem and Parauapebas. Many farmers are unhappy with these and other environmental crimes, but do not want to place themselves in the confrontational situation of calling the officials on their neighbors, particularly as IBAMA is frequently paid off in the community. Their hands are tied by their need to maintain decent and peaceful relationships with their neighbors, and several stressed that it was the government´s job to ensure compliance with the law, not theirs to report environmental crime as is often encouraged by the Brazilian government and media.
Mongabay: The Brazilian government has long pushed for reforestation efforts. Are areas being reforested in this region? What are the obstacles?
Karimeh Moukaddem: Reforestation lacks definition among small farmers, who consider it anything from a mono crop of non-native mangoes to a single planting of a native tree. Quite a few are interested in agroforesty but do not have the technical knowledge, money, access to seedlings, or labor to begin. Others would like to have forest because they like nature or want to combat climate change. Those interested in agroforestry or reforestation mentioned the following obstacles: To plant trees, land must first be cleared and tilled and they do not have access to tractors. Secondly, trees require labor-intensive care for the first two or three years, and they do not produce any income-generating products during expensive time. Because the immediate area is deforested, any native trees planted are set upon by wildlife. There is also a high risk of fire in the area.
One family said they would reforest two acres of their five acre property if the government provided technical assistance and payments that would allow them to hire labor to care for the trees the first few years. The willingness is there; the assistance is not.
Vale is responsible for reforesting areas affected by mining. According to a man who worked on a reforestation labor crew hired by the company, this land is reforested with at most two species of trees. Because the crew received little training and most of the men were sick with malaria and understandably wanted to finish as quickly as possible, the quality of these plantings is doubtful. I am unsure if Vale measures tree survival rates over time or only the original plantings.
Mongabay: Is poaching or trafficking in wildlife an issue?
Poached armadillo. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
Karimeh Moukaddem: Poaching of animals from the capybara to small armadillo is common. This suggests there is enough forest remaining nearby to support these populations, but undoubtedly under increasing pressure. Several people I spoke with think it is wrong to eat wildlife. Others look a bit guilty but insist the animal at hand is delicious. These people do not ever eat fast food or indulge in large amounts of chocolate—American guilty pleasures often harmful to the environment—and wildlife seems to be an occasional treat for people on bland and fairly innutritious diets. I do sense that educational campaigns about protecting biodiversity have already and will continue to make some inroads in changing people´s perceptions about consuming wild animals. The capture and sale of parrots for the pet trade is also not uncommon.
Mongabay: Are there any other environmental threats in the area?
Karimeh Moukaddem: The river that runs through Palmares is being mined for a cement-like substance. Large truckloads are taken out daily. This activity is clandestine, and residents who oppose it explain that the process causes large sections of the riverbed to cave in. These people say the river is “finished.” The extensive mining operations near Parauapebas are undoubtedly linked to this and other environmental degradation.
Mongabay: What do barriers to farming mean for conservation efforts? Are any farmers involved in reforestation or agroforestry or other sustainable initiatives?
Karimeh Moukaddem: Small and subsistence farmers in agrarian reform settlements who are not ranching have high agrobiodiversity on their farms. Because they do not rely on any one crop, they are willing to experiment with new varieties or cross species simply to see if the plants will take and be tasty. They let things grow that they think look nice, and the women’s system of trading plants for their home gardens constructs an agricultural matrix with positive implications for wildlife. They are also wary of agrotoxins and their production is largely organic. The majority also feel a strong connection to nature and do not consider the profit margin over what they like to do or look at on their farms.
The landless rural poor are losing the opportunity to gain sufficient land for farming within the settlement as land prices and sales have increased, and they are the ones with the skill set and incentives to polycrop. One family has planted over thirty varieties of edible plants on an urban plot, but it is not enough to subsist on—these are the people who should have access to land under agrarian reform and no longer do in this area.
I know only two farmers involved in significant reforestation efforts or sustainable agriculture. One has planted close to 2,000 native castanha trees, and a significant number of ipe and acai trees. His land is on the edge of the town and one of the most sought after and thus threatened properties. These initiatives have not been profitable: he is simply very stubborn and likes trees. The other is perhaps the most financially successful farmer in the area and practices agroforestry. He started very early on, nearly eighteen years ago, when there were few opportunity costs. Unfortunately, few have followed his example.
Mongabay: Are there any governmental policies that encourage better environmental stewardship in the area?
Fish dinner from a local river. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
Karimeh Moukaddem: There is a municipal government program that provides free tree seedlings to farmers. However, it is underutilized because the bureaucracy farmers must first wade through to get the seedlings is costly in terms of time and transportation costs. One man also complained that the quality of the seedlings was so poor they were hardly worth planting.
Government policy feels distant in this area. Farmers say government employees almost never come to their farms—even those paid or mandated to like veterinarians, agricultural technicians, or IBAMA or INCRA representatives. The implementation of laws and programs already in place, plus policies to provide excellent technical advice and payments to support the labor and opportunity costs of reforestation could encourage better environmental stewardship.
Recently, a farming family told me they had heard that an existing reforestation initiative was supposed to, “leave paper and actually happen.” I asked if they’d heard about the program through neighbors or a visiting agent of the program. They said no, they’d seen it on the national news. Government policies are that removed from daily life.
Mongabay: Are there any local conservation initiatives in the region looking at the land use issue?
Karimeh Moukaddem: I am not aware of any. Environmental NGO and effective government involvement through the public universities is concentrated largely in Northern Para as these institutions are based out of Belem. Moving some of these initiatives to the south by opening offices in Maraba or Parauapebas would likely be more effective in promoting sustainable agriculture and conservation than the government. However, some government and even private workers receive hardship pay for working in and around Parauapebas: the corruption, violence, weak infrastructure, and undesirable living conditions in Southern Para seems to discourage NGO involvement or formation.
Mongabay: How well are environmental laws enforced in the area?
Karimeh Moukaddem: Very poorly. It is impossible to think IBAMA (Brazil´s agency in charge of environmental law enforcement) could not be aware of at least more egregious and visible environmental violations, such as riverbed mining, given the agency´s technical capabilities. Residents told me again, and again, and again that IBAMA is corrupt and accepts bribes. Frankly, that´s the only conclusion that makes sense.
Mongabay: How do these issues in Parauapebas (i.e. economic gaps, farming versus sprawl, or environmental degradation) point to larger problems across Brazil?
Aquaculture is an important livelihood for farmers in the region. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
Karimeh Moukaddem: Brazil has a serious problem across the country and in all areas with excellent laws not being implemented or enforced due to corruption or institutional inefficiencies. I do not believe it will be possible to curb Amazonian deforestation without effective rule of law. Pressure on the federal government can do little without reform at the local level, particularly as regards corruption.
Brazil is notorious for socioeconomic inequality and higher levels of poverty and deep poverty that other countries with similarly sized economies. Inequality in the Parauapebas area is particularly stark. Because of its vast mineral wealth, Pebas has a municipal GDP equal to or surpassing all other municipals except Rio and Sao Paulo. The poverty and even misery in an area so rich in natural resources is as astounding as it is obvious that the exportation of raw material is partly responsible.
Mongabay: What advice would you give to students interested in studying similar issues in rural Brazil?
Karimeh Moukaddem: I recommend students and scholars put together teams of (at least) one social scientist and one natural scientist. My research would have benefited greatly from collaboration with a biologist, conservation ecologist, or soil scientist, and I am sure that the benefits of such a partnership could only run both ways.
Those who have the opportunity to study abroad should do so in order to make contacts and become familiar with health and safety concerns in a more secure setting before proposing independent research. At least an intermediate level of Portuguese is essential for field work in rural Brazil.
Mongabay: Now that you’ve finished your Fulbright Scholarship, what’s next for you?
Karimeh Moukaddem: I’ve applied to graduate programs in rural development and in spatial planning for sustainable development. I’m looking forward to spending time with family and friends in the States!
The city of Parauapebas. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
Farmer in their field. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
Cows in the deforested Amazon. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.
Children bathe in a river that is being used for aquaculture on a farm, surrounded by acai plantings. Photo by: Karimeh Moukaddem.