- For over a century, communities in Brazil’s western Bahia have preserved the Cerrado grasslands through a form of communal land management that allows them to raise cattle, harvest native fruits and grow organic food crops sustainably.
- They sell their wide range of produce — from beans to flour — at farmers’ markets in nearby towns, but this activity has been curtailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Major soy, corn and cotton producers are also increasingly present in the area.
- Their massive plantations dry up the rivers used by the communities and contaminate the water with pesticides, threatening their sustainable way of life.
For more than a century, the natural cycles of the Cerrado grasslands have guided the lives of the farmers and cowboys in the deep west of Brazil’s Bahia state. Residents of what’s known here as the Gerais, the native Cerrado areas, and communities that manage common pastureland have long lived in harmony with the planet’s most biodiverse savanna. The Cerrado defines where they raise their livestock, when they will sow their fields, and how they collect their life-sustaining water.
But today, this part of the Cerrado depends on them.
The Community Association of Small Cattle Ranchers of the Clemente Communal Pasture stands out for its work to protect the environment. The group, based in the municipality of Correntina, about 850 kilometers (530 miles) west of Salvador, the state capital, says that its “thousands of peasants have produced a diverse range of foods” for more than 60 years here, with little or no state support. They finally gained acknowledgement for their work when, in July this year, Brazil’s National Bank for Economic and Social Development (BNDES) gave the association an award for their community-based agriculture seen as an example of good rural practices.
“What keeps this part of the Cerrado alive is the way we preserve vegetation, all of us together,” says Eldo Moreira, a member of the association. The exact number of communal pasture communities in the area similar to Clemente’s is unknown. What is known, however, is that that virtually all of them manage common areas of the Cerrado areas — the communal pastures — to harvest native fruits such as baru (Dipteryx alata) and pequi (Caryocar brasiliense), and to raise cattle without devastating the biome.
This agricultural model of communal pasture is the opposite of what’s practiced nearby, where huge cotton, corn and soy farms prevail. There’s an explanation for that difference, says Marcos Beltrão, an environmentalist who was born and raised in Correntina. “Protecting the Cerrado is a matter of national security: if you mess with it, you’ll have an unpredictable domino effect. Here, they are destroying it without any criteria,” he says.
Joint work keeps the Cerrado alive
“My grandparents used to raise free-range cattle in the Gerais: the animals would come and go, people would milk them to feed the children and then leave them free,” says Eldo Moreira. It used to be a common practice throughout the Arrojado River valley, he says, “where more than 2,000 families were scattered” and fences were almost symbolic, made from native wood. “Everything here has always belonged to everyone,” Moreira says.
In the communal pasture model, cowboys, or vaqueiros as they’re known here, gather all the cattle from nearby communities and take them to graze on the chapadões. These are vast plateaus that often stretch more than 10,000 hectares (25,000 acres). “Usually, at least five families take care of each communal pasture bordering large farms; they follow natural Cerrado cycles and preserve it,” says Samuel Britto, a member of the Catholic Church’s Pastoral Land Commission (CPT) in Midwest Bahia.
The method also fosters a sense of community among residents. In the process, they fence off water springs and footpaths to prevent the cattle from trampling on the damp soil. “But the Gerais are increasingly distant now — sometimes, 80 kilometers [50 miles] from where we live — both because of [the biome’s] destruction and the arrival of large agribusinesses that take over our lands,” Moreira says.
Organic Cerrado farmers feed the region
In addition to raising cattle together, communities such as Clemente’s grow small plots of black beans, corn and manioc on the steep banks of rivers, streams and creeks, and also in valleys. Traditionally, they occupy small areas of the Cerrado every three years, allowing time for the biome to recover.
Their family farming is extensive and diverse. They grow rice, banana, sweet potato, coconut, guava, orange, mango and much more. They also raise poultry and swine, and their products feed the population in nearby towns such as Barreiras, Correntina and Formosa do Rio Preto. There, they trade their produce at farmers’ markets along with products they process such as sugar, the traditional sugarcane rum known as cachaça, cassava flour, and brown sugar candy.
According to the Clemente association, their techniques “produce food for the domestic market, since modern mechanized agriculture produces only grains for the international market.” Organic agriculture prevails in communal pasture areas.
But the COVID-19 pandemic has changed that scenario and made it difficult for them to switch to another sales model to avoid farmers’ markets. “We produce a lot of beans, eggs, starch, flour, brown sugar candy. But [the pandemic] has undermined our work and we had to avoid the markets for safety. Today we sell a lot less,” Moreira says. It’s a dramatic situation they share with other rural communities across Brazil.
Family farming has faced increasing difficulties in recent months, partly as a result of the federal government’s policies. On Aug. 24, after a long and frequently stalled debate in Congress, President Jair Bolsonaro crushed a bill aimed at supporting small-scale farming. He fully vetoed 14 of its 17 items; one of the few items retained will oblige small farmers to pay a new tax.
The custodians of the Urucuia aquifer
The land in western Bahia owes its fertility in part to the vast Urucuia aquifer. Most of the 12.5 million hectares (31 million acres) of the aquifer lie in this state, where it sustains rivers such as Arrojado, Corrente and Preto. In Correntina and neighboring areas, at least 343,000 people depend on the aquifer, including the communal pasture communities. But the encroachment of agribusiness has dried up the local rivers.
The water crisis compromises the gullies known as regos, small irrigation channels made by traditional peoples when they first settled in the area. “When I was a teenager, there was a channel here that supplied water to more than 35 families — and very large ones,” Moreira says. “That’s where my friends and I learned to swim. It’s almost dried up now; the water flow is low, and those who pass by can’t even imagine what it used to be.”
Keeping the Cerrado standing, will strengthen its biodiversity and the Urucuia aquifer, experts say. The soil will absorb more rainwater, keeping streams and creeks alive, in addition to the main rivers and gullies. “Without native forest, the soil will assimilate less water,” says says Mercedes Bustamante, an ecology professor at the University of Brasília (UnB). “And all that is taking place while irrigated agriculture gains ground: satellite images show center pivots multiplying in large soybean plantations.”
Bustamante has studied the Cerrado for decades and criticizes the fact that major traders and landowners are taking over the territory. “Big companies bring their hallmarks with them: fences. They install gates and guardhouses — symbols of the end of common land, the end of joint, less impactful management,” she says.
Threats from pesticides
The recognition of the value of communal pastures comes at an important time. Brazil is in the hot seat as a result of the Bolsonaro administration’s environmental policy. At the same time, agribusiness giants such as Amaggi, Bunge and Cargill, all of which operate in western Bahia, are under increasing pressure to adopt more sustainable practices.
“These are very critical times that will shape companies’ discourses on environmental defense and conservation,” Bustamante says. “Much has been discussed about the topic when it comes to the Amazon, but how about the Cerrado in western Bahia?”
Large corporations are often embroiled in territorial disputes with traditional peoples in this region, and that struggle has consequences. The agribusiness industry uses large-scale irrigation with huge pivots in cotton, corn and soybean plantations. Pesticides come with the package.
Measurements carried out by the Ministry of Health in 2018 found at least 15 harmful substances in rivers near communal pasture areas, which also supply towns such as Barreiras and São Desidério. “You do the math: what is the cost of producing 1 kilogram of soy in the Cerrado?” says Beltrão, the environmentalist. “Changes in rainfall, more pesticides released, and government spending to treat people who get ill.”
Chemicals such as atrazine and glyphosate have been found in the region’s water supply. Both pesticides have been associated with chronic diseases such as cancer and with birth defects. “We are talking about loss of water in terms of quantity and quality,” Bustamante says. “We have to think about contamination, and we may face even more impacts such as forced migration, exodus of young people, and poor living conditions on the outskirts of large cities.”
Banner image of a child swimming in a river in Bahia’s Cerrado. Image by Marizilda Kruppe.