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Betting on agroforestry in Brazil’s Atlantic Forest

Brazil bananas agroforestry

  • Guapiruvu is a rural neighborhood in the Vale do Ribeira, home to the largest remaining stretch of Atlantic Forest in Brazil, and listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
  • The area has implemented a sustainable development plan, with many farmers opting for organic agriculture and agroforestry since they can sell their produce at a 30 percent premium.
  • This system grows bananas in combination with “pé de ata” (Annona squamosa) and juçara, an endangered species endemic to the region.
  • This is the second feature in a year-long series on agroforestry, an increasingly popular solution to challenges like climate change, food insecurity, and the biodiversity crisis. Agroforestry systems cover over a billion hectares of land worldwide.

GUAPIRUVU, Brazil – To reach Guapiruvu one has to drive 20 kilometers (12 miles) on a gravel road. The first houses are big, solid, holiday homes for the wealthy people of Sete Barras. Farther away from the city, though, the houses become smaller and scattered. Every now and then, birds of many shapes and colors swiftly cross the road. From the passenger seat, Gilberto Ohta  names them as we pass them by.

It’s hard to know you’ve reached Guapiruvu because there are no signs and the neighborhood lacks a center. In some places, two or three houses form what locals call a vila, but most of the time houses are isolated. Between them, banana plantations extend in all directions. To get around, people drive motorbikes — always without helmets and more often than not without shirts. Everyone passing by casts curious glances inside our car. Once they recognize Gilberto, they greet us and smile.

Gilberto Ohta shows off his neighbor Geraldo’s agroforestry system. The soil is always covered to prevent the loss of water and provide organic matter. Image by Ignacio Amigo for Mongabay

There’s nothing opulent about Guapiruvu, but farmers here don’t look as poor as in many other places in Brazil. As I found out during my visit, there are many reasons why this could be. A strong sense of solidarity, cooperation and environmental consciousness among locals are perhaps some of them. In this scenario, it’s not surprising that many farmers are turning to agroforestry — a system of growing trees, shrubs and crops together in a way that diversifies production while sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, providing habitat for wildlife, and increasing food security for farmers.

As we visit the neighborhood and some of the agroforestry systems there, Gilberto shares with me the recent history of this land and how they managed to better divide its wealth among all its residents.

Guapiruvu’s agenda

Guapiruvu is a rural neighborhood of Sete Barras, a municipality of 13,000 in the Vale do Ribeira, in the state of São Paulo. Flanked by two state parks, the neighborhood sits at the heart of Brazil’s largest continuous remnant of Atlantic Forest, one of the richest biomes in the world, of which only 15 percent of the original extent remains today.

In the 1980s and early ’90s, farming was a profitable activity in Guapiruvu — at least for those who owned land. Gilberto was one of the lucky few. His father was an influential man who bought cheap land here in the ’60s, and was even mayor of Sete Barras from 1982 to 1992. At the time, Gilberto was following his footsteps.

“My father exploited many of the people in Guapiruvu. Even I exploited them,” Gilberto admits.

Bananas from Gilberto’s agroforestry system. Image by Ignacio Amigo for Mongabay

Today, he is one of the community leaders, and it’s difficult to imagine him as an unscrupulous businessman. Small, talkative, with the tanned skin of someone who spends many hours outdoors, his energy and enthusiasm are contagious as he uses words like “solidarity”, “trust” and “collaboration”. By his own account, personal change came about at the end of the ’90s, at the same time the soil was becoming exhausted and the economic boom of the region was coming to a halt. His family and 30 others from Guapiruvu joined forces with the NGO Vitae Civilis and created a local Agenda 21 action plan — an initiative from the Rio Earth Summit in 1992 under which sustainable development programs can be carried out at the global, national and local levels — which sketched out a sustainable development plan for the region for the coming years.

The creation of the plan was a watershed. A neighborhood association and a co-op were created, strengthening community ties. Concerned about the environmental impacts that their farming practices were having on the land, Gilberto and seven other farmers turned to agroforestry. They contacted Ernst Götsch, the Swiss farmer and researcher often credited with introducing modern agroforestry to Brazil. Götsch taught them the basics of his model, which he calls “syntropic agriculture” and which is based on the principle of “going along with nature instead of against it,” creating conditions that mimic the natural events of ecological succession.

Of the eight initial farmers, only two remain: Gilberto and his friend Geraldo Oliveira. But the effort paid off. Today, 20 years later, Geraldo’s land has the best soil in Guapiruvu: dark, deep and full of life. Beneath the canopy of banana trees and other plants, the temperature is a couple degrees lower than outside. And as we stand in silence, the sound of wildlife emerges. In less than a minute, Gilberto names seven or eight different bird species by their songs and calls.

The soil in Geraldo’s agroforestry system is full of life, decomposing organic matter and enriching the soil. Image by Ignacio Amigo for Mongabay

Gilberto’s own land is also richer today than it was 20 years ago. According to him, many animal species returned after he abandoned conventional farming. Walking through his field he points to different native trees and explains: “A bird planted it,” and sometimes, “A bat planted it.”

The examples of Gilberto and Geraldo have encouraged others over the years. That’s the case with Dito, a farmer of few words and melancholic glances, who started his own agroforestry system three years ago. He says bad weeds don’t grow as much as they used to, and that he’s seen his profits increase, mainly because of the money he saves on chemicals and fertilizers.

A major challenge remains finding channels for the other crops and fruits produced by the agroforestry systems. For the time being, everyone in Guapiruvu still relies for their living on banana and the heart of the palmito pupunha, or peach-palm tree (Bactris gasipaes). The co-op markets the conventional and organic produce separately: while conventional farmers are able to produce larger amounts, organic farmers can sell their produce at a 30 percent premium. In both cases, the main buyers are public entities, such as state and city governments, that use the produce for school meals or food banks.

To Sidenei Carlos França, an agricultural engineer who works for the state of São Paulo, the experience in Guapiruvu has been important for the region.

“We need to generate local knowledge in Brazil,” says França. “And Gilberto has a great merit for having acted as a guinea pig.”

He has a good opinion about the work being done in Guapiruvu, but argues that agroforestry systems should include timber resources to be profitable in the long term. A passionate supporter of agro-ecology and an agroforestry farmer himself, França has little doubt that this is the way to go.

Gilberto stares at a juçara palm tree (Euterpe edulis), an endangered tree from the Atlantic Forest, in his agroforestry system. Next to the juçara there’s a banana tree (Musa sp) and a “pé de ata” (Annona squamosa). Image by Ignacio Amigo for Mongabay

“To me, agroforestry is the agriculture of the tropics,” he says. “Monoculture is the European model. Here, if you walk into the forest, you see hundreds of species in a square meter. We have to mimic nature in agriculture.”

Local land reform

One of the problems cited in the Agenda 21 plan was that many farmers lacked sufficient farmland. For many years, locals occupied lots within a large property that didn’t have a clear owner. After years of conflict and evictions, in 2005 an agreement was reached with the INCRA, the National Institute for Colonization and Land Reform, through which the central government acquired the land and rented it for life to 61 farmers.

This move was a boon for the region. The lack of economic alternatives was pushing people into the woods to poach juçara (Euterpe edulis), an endangered tree species of the Atlantic Forest prized for its heart of palm. The agreement gave these outlaws a legitimate way of earning a living.

Dada used to log palmito illegally before he got a piece of land in Guapiruvu’s settlement. Image by Ignacio Amigo for Mongabay

One of them is Dada, who is now thinking of dedicating part of his land for agroforestry. Originally from northeastern Brazil, the poorest region of the country, Dada moved to Guapiruvu with his father in 1982, at the age of 9. For years he worked for others, and, when work wasn’t available, poached juçara, even spending time in jail for it.

A few weeks ago, Dada was cited by the Environmental Police after they detected, through satellite images, that he had illegally cut down a few trees within his land. He was issued a fine and the area was placed under embargo, so now he can’t use it. Dada’s intention now is to make the best of a bad situation. He wants to negotiate with the authorities to set that area aside for agroforestry in exchange for them lifting the embargo. This way, the trees he logged, which he hasn’t moved, could be put to a good use, as their decomposition will enrich the soil beneath.

Dada’s conversion didn’t come overnight, but he now talks about solidarity, cooperation and becoming more environmentally sustainable, using many of Gilberto’s words. Guapiruvu will have to overcome many challenges in the years to come, but its residents seem to be on the right track. Because, as Gilberto put it, “Guapiruvu’s GDP might be lower today than a few years ago. But our wealth is more [evenly] distributed.” And agroforestry might just be part of the reason.

This feature is part of a yearlong series on agroforestry worldwide, see the whole series here and view previous features that concern agroforestry here.

Ingnacio Amigo lives in São Paulo, follow him on Twitter via @IgnacioAmigoH.

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