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A community-led strategy to save Brazil’s dry forests from desertification

Goat in a communal pasture area, Uauá, Bahia. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

  • In northern Bahia state, 35 communities have come together to conserve and recover close to 100,000 acres of Caatinga dry forest in northeastern Brazil.
  • With the Recaatingamento project, families learn to preserve native vegetation, control the overpopulation of goats, and invest in sustainable sources of income, such as gathering wild fruits.
  • Affected by recurrent droughts, the Caatinga is one of the regions most susceptible to climate change in the world; it’s also Brazil’s third-most deforested biome, which contributes to accelerating desertification — 13% of the soil there is already sterile.

UAUÁ, Bahia, Brazil — In the backlands of northern Bahia state, nobody ever thought about putting up a fence in the woods. According to the tradition that governs fundo de pasto communities, the Caatinga dry forest belongs to everyone: Everything there, from trees to cactuses, should remain freely accessible. That’s what a fundo de pasto (“back pasture”) precisely is: a shared expanse of native vegetation, preserved over generations, where community members collectively tend to their goats, gather fruits and harvest herbs. It has always been like that in Lages das Aroeiras, a community close to the town of Uauá. Until the Caatinga began to die.

“The Caatinga has died a lot,” says Waldemar Cardoso da Silva, 75, under the shade of one of the rare centuries-old imburana trees (Commiphora leptophloeos) still standing in Lages das Aroeiras. Same story for the baraúnas (Schinopsis brasiliensis), the quixabeiras (Sideroxylon obtusifolium), even the aroeiras (Astronium urundeuva), the ones that give the place its name. “You have to walk a lot to find one.” All of them are large trees, “the kinds that hover” as Waldemar defines them, with canopies so lush that spotting one house from another was nearly impossible due to the leafy Caatinga of older times.

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When Waldemar, a resident of Lages das Aroeiras since he was born, speaks of a dead Caatinga, it’s presumed that what existed before was a living Caatinga — which challenges the prevailing logic that this rugged territory in northeastern Brazil is a hostile land averse to life. Proof to the contrary is that this is the most populous semiarid place in the world, inhabited by 28 million people. Not to mention the vibrant culture that flourished here.

It’s also the rainiest dryland region on the planet, although rainfall is poorly distributed throughout the year — just four months; the rest is drought. Plus, the soil is mostly shallow and rocky, which in theory does not favor plant growth. However, the latest count detected the presence of 3,150 plant species in the Caatinga, a fifth of them endemic. That allows around 1,400 species of vertebrates, including 548 bird species and 183 mammal species, to call it home.

Xique-xique (Pilosocereus gounellei) and mandacaru (Cereus jamacaru) cactuses. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.
Umbuzeiro flowers (Spondias tuberosa). Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

That is possible because everyone here — plants, animals and humans — has learned to coexist with an adverse climate, where the sun easily evaporates every drop of water running on the ground. To avoid dying of thirst, plants have developed ways to store water in the dry months, improved their roots to capture maximum moisture from the soil and lost their leaves to avoid transpiration — which, in drought times, gives the Caatinga the grayish hue that gave it the original Tupi name, “white forest.” Come the first rains, everything is green again.

If the local human population has been dying of thirst — and hunger — for more than a century, it’s due to what is conventionally called the “drought industry,” the diversion of federal funds intended for climate impact relief to the construction of wells and reservoirs on the lands of large landowners. If it weren’t for that, universal access to simple but effective water capture, storage and reuse systems (such as cisterns) would be enough to keep everyone alive. And the understanding that the vocation of these backlands, like in other dryland spots worldwide, is more about herding than farming.

“Cows die, crops end, but the goat always survives,” says José Moacir dos Santos, president of the Regional Institute of Appropriate Small Farming (IRPAA), a key player in Bahia focused on coexistence with the Caatinga, founded in 1990. Moacir explains that, since the beginning of colonization in the Northeastern backlands (an area called sertão), all focus was on cattle breeding and its role in providing meat to the cities and mills on the coast: “The goat was there just for the maintenance of the cowboy’s family. It was the poor man’s cow. But then the drought killed all the cows, and the goats survived.”

Goat farming in Uauá, Bahia. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

That’s because the Caatinga vegetation itself provides all the food a herd of goats and sheep needs to survive. Especially in the dry months and in rainfed-only areas, where just the most resistant plants — and the animals that feed on them — survive.

The problem is that there are now too many goats in the sertão. According to IBGE, the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics, there are 11.8 million goats currently grazing in the Northeast region (95% of the national total), in addition to another 15 million sheep (70% of the total). All destined for meat and leather production — for millions of families, the only source of income.

Not only is there overpopulation, but it’s also common for these herds to roam freely, without fences or pens, scattered through the dry forest in search of anything their teeth can reach. That includes low vegetation and the shoots of trees that, if not for the goats, would reach dozens of meters in height. As Waldemar reports, “Take the umbuzeiro [Spondias tuberosa], for example; it’s got no new buds. When it pops up in the Caatinga, the goat eats it.”

Waldemar Cardoso da Silva, a resident of Lages das Aroeiras, Uauá, Bahia. Image courtesy of Rafael Martins.

And we know that sprouting, in an environment with excessive sunlight and scarce soil, takes work. “The recovery of the Caatinga is very slow; it takes 20, 30 years,” informs Moacir. “It’s different from the Amazon: Rain hits again, and in five years the forest is back.”

In the sertão, he adds, not only is there little rainfall, but the soil also doesn’t help, which practically makes any reforestation attempt unfeasible: “At the beginning, we planted a lot of seedlings — about 150,000 plants, of all kinds. But the mortality was almost 100%. And there are the goats, which makes regeneration even more difficult.”

So, since it’s impossible to reforest, the name of the game now is recaatingar.

Fencing the Caatinga

Inverting the logic of corrals, the community of Lages das Aroeiras stretched 1.2 miles of wire around 21 hectares (52 acres) of Caatinga with the sole goal of keeping goats and sheep outside. Another 34 communities in northern Bahia did the same, and now there are 1,500 hectares (3,700 acres) of fenced woods in the area.

That is the core of Recaatingamento (something like “recaatinguing”), a project that IRPAA has been developing since 2009: restoring dry forest areas by allowing nature itself to take care of them, with minimal human intervention. As Moacir defines it, “recognizing that the Caatinga is tired and needs to rest.”

To achieve this, IRPAA relied on a common social arrangement in northern Bahia, fundo de pasto communities, an ancestral form of collective land management where a group of families share an area of native vegetation for grazing and gathering. “It’s in the fundo de pasto communities that a significant part of the preserved Caatinga is found,” says Vanderlei Leite, coordinator of IRPAA actions in the municipality of Canudos. “They are the guardians of the Caatinga.”

A sign in a fundo de pasto area in Uauá, Bahia, saying it’s forbidden to cut trees. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.
Fundo de pasto communal areas in Uauá, Bahia. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

The latest mapping, from 2020, recorded the presence of 966 self-identified fundo de pasto communities across Bahia. Of these, 252 have some form of land regularization. Until 2013, titling was lifelong; since then, families sign a concession contract with the state government, valid for 90 years, extendable.

All the communities involved in the Recaatingamento project are also fundo de pasto. They involve 600 families from 14 municipalities, responsible for mapping the territory and choosing the areas to be “recaatingued.” This includes two strategies: isolating or managing.

The isolated area can be a stretch of preserved or degraded vegetation, and it’s up to the community to decide which one to fence. The one in Lages das Aroeiras is a kind of living museum of the Caatinga, full of ancient baraúnas and imburanas whose branches shade gardens of macambiras (a kind of bromeliad) and xique-xiques. It has been enclosed for only three years, so it’s too early to see the results in this slow-paced biome.

Deusimar Rodrigues da Silva checks the wire fence that protects the Caatinga area under recovery in the community of Lages das Aroeiras. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

“After 10 years of isolation, you notice changes in the landscape,” says Moacir. “The first one is the size of the existing plants.” Free from goats, new shoots become trees, which drop their seeds on the ground and germinate other plants. “We also see more ground cover plants, which are important for keeping the soil covered and preventing water loss through evaporation. That allows new plants to develop in that environment.”

Every drop counts in the Brazilian dry forests, and that’s why, in the isolated areas, IRPAA teaches how to carry out actions that enhance rainwater capture. One is stone dams, which keep streams running longer when it rains. “Water that stops, infiltrates. Over time, a groundwater source may be formed,” explains Waldemar. “A lot of organic fertilizer accumulates too, and many trees will grow there.”

Then there’s scarification, which involves creating several cuts in the ground in a sloping area, acting as contour lines. Vanderlei lays it out: “The water used to come quickly, with a lot of force. With scarification, it hits a contour line and slows down the speed. In each cut, you can plant macambiras, which help retain the water.”

Caatinga flowers. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

Fewer goats, more umbus

Knowing what to do with the goats and sheep that continue to graze in open areas is as important as isolating a portion of dry forest. This is where the other Recaatingamento conservation strategy comes in, the back pasture management plan. According to Embrapa, the Brazilian official agricultural research center, each goat or sheep needs 1 hectare (2.5 acres) of Caatinga to live well and remain productive. “So, we’ve been doing the math,” summarizes Vanderlei.

This calculation is called “carrying capacity of the area”: how many animals the community has, how big the territory is where they graze and whether there is enough food in that stretch. Another area, without fences, is then designated for the sustainable use of the Caatinga, with the exact number of animals that the place supports.

In Lages das Aroeiras, for instance, of a total of 258 hectares (637 acres) declared as fundo de pasto, 189 hectares (467 acres) were reserved for management (in addition to the 21 hectares under recovery). Adding up the 35 Recaatingamento communities in Bahia, there are close to 40,000 hectares (100,000 acres) of Caatinga conserved in these terms, where goats and plants coexist in gentle balance, one not compromising the survival of the other.

Moacir dos Santos, president of IRPAA, the institute responsible for the Recaatingamento project. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

And what about the goats that don’t fit in these areas? Since shrinking the herd in the sertão means shrinking the income (often the only source), there are two options: finding new sources of money or new sources of food for the animals.

One practice that the Recaatingamento project encourages is making goats and sheep food fodder from exotic plants, especially prickly pear (Opuntia cochenillifera), a cactus native to Mexico. Lages das Aroeiras has had a community Feed House installed close to the management area for 10 years, where the forage that feeds the community’s approximately 1,800 animals is made.

“We grow all the fodder ingredients here: prickly pear, pigeon pea, sorghum. And we don’t use anything chemical, just manure and water,” says José Rodrigues Cardoso, known as Carlinhos, president of the Community and Agropastoral Association of Small Producers of Lages das Aroeiras (ACAPPLAS). “The animals now all come here to feed. They even come on their own.”

Fodder production at the Lages das Aroeiras Ration House. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.
A goat in a fundo de pasto area. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

The same forage that feeds the herds and relieves pressure on the Caatinga also serves as food for a select group of goats, all white, brought from outside, living in the corral next to the Feed House. With an eye on a new income stream, Lages das Aroeiras is now investing in goat’s milk.

In a region with such a large goat population, it would be expected that the production of milk from these animals would be commonplace, but Moacir explains that the goats that now live in the dry forests, descendants of the original ones brought by the Portuguese, had to adapt to the environment and lost the ability to provide quality milk. Any dairy production here, therefore, means bringing in less rugged animals from another place: “The milk goat needs more care, more food. If I let a white goat like that loose in the Caatinga, it won’t produce.”

The milk from the new goats of Lages das Aroeiras now goes to the headquarters of the most relevant agroecological cooperative in the region, the Agricultural and Livestock Cooperative of Canudos, Uauá and Curaçá (COOPERCUC), which recently opened a dairy in Uauá to produce goat cheeses and yogurts. It’s also where the umbu (Spondias tuberosa) and licuri (Syagrus coronata) fruits picked in the woods end up to be transformed into the juices, jellies, liqueurs and sold throughout Brazil.

Edite Rodrigues de Santana, a resident of Lages das Aroeiras, and a licuri fruit popsicle made in the community. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

“Recaatingamento encourages other activities that will generate income and make the family not depend 100% on goats roaming in the Caatinga,” says Moacir. “In the medium term, it can reduce the herd size without losing income because it has developed other economic activities.”

If this income comes from gathering wild fruits, even better, as keeping the Caatinga standing is the only way this is possible. As Carlinhos says, Lages das Aroeiras even had its own fruit derivatives factory, part of a COOPERCUC initiative to spread small processing units in rural areas. But as of 2016, since the impeachment of then-President Dilma Roussef, we lost our main market, the Food Acquisition Program”, in which the Brazilian government bought food products from small producers, and then several units shut down.”

Today, various communities in the region sell fresh fruit to COOPERCUC’s central factory, but Lages das Aroeiras decided to switch things up: It revamped the unit to produce umbu and licuri popsicles, now distributed in neighboring cities. “It’s been working,” sums up Carlinhos.

The next move is diving into honey production from native Caatinga bees, and Lages das Aroeiras already set up a bee yard right in the middle of the fenced area — unproductive for now, but already with a hive full of mandaçaia bees (Melipona quadrifasciata), specialists in pollinating umbuzeiros and aroeiras. And, then, the Recaatingamento cycle comes full circle: more income at home, more trees in the forest.

A carpenter bee (Xylocopa suspecta) pollinating flowers in a fundo de pasto area. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.
Carlinhos Cardoso in the Lages das Aroeiras bee yard. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

A biome at stake

It would be easier if the Recaatingamento communities had an element in their favor: time. In a world afflicted by global warming, however, climate change comes faster and fiercer to a fragile biome like the Caatinga.

Recurrent droughts have always been part of the sertão dynamics, but residents have seen increasingly extreme and long-lasting episodes. The last major drought, from 2012-17, was the longest in recent history — records of something similar date back to the 19th century. According to MapBiomas, the Caatinga lost 54,000 hectares (133,400 acres) of its natural water surface (not counting hydroelectric plants and reservoirs) between 1985 and 2022, equivalent to 17% of the original total.

And it tends to get worse: the “First National Assessment Report on Climate Change,” a pioneering study on the impacts of global warming in Brazil, predicted an increase of 0.5º Celsius (0.9º Fahrenheit) to 1ºC (1.8ºF) in temperature and a reduction of up to 20% in rainfall by 2040. By the end of the century, projections indicated temperatures 4.5ºC (8.1ºF) higher and rainfall reduced by half. In other words, the evaporation rate will increase even if more reservoirs are built.

Dry bed of the Bendegó River, municipality of Canudos, Bahia. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

Moacir tells what is happening in northern Bahia: “Rain comes in shorter periods, and the plant has less time to flourish. And, as the temperature increases, evaporation grows, making it even more difficult for plants to survive. The more sensitive ones tend to disappear, and the more resistant ones tend to occupy new areas.”

Indeed: According to IBGE, 294 Caatinga plant species are already under some degree of threat — almost 10% of the total. And a study concluded that, by 2060, 99% of the plant communities in the biome will have lost species; that is, a more homogeneous dry forest landscape is expected in the coming years.

Human presence only adds to the challenge. And it’s not just the overpopulation of goats and sheep — the Caatinga is already the third-most deforested biome annualy in Brazil. According to MapBiomas, the number of deforestation alerts identified there increased by 2,500% between 2019 and 2022, a year in which 140,000 hectares (346,000 acres) of native vegetation were cut down.

Most of this deforestation has been happening in the transition areas with the Cerrado savanna, particularly in the region known as Matopiba, a major front of agricultural expansion between Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia states. But the Caatinga itself has also been impacted, especially in areas where new irrigation technologies have spurred the commercial production of tropical fruits and castor beans.

Another recent trend is the growth of renewable energy facilities, such as wind and solar plants. However clean the sources may be, locals speak of numerous impacts, including loss of vegetation: at least 4,000 hectares (10,000 acres) in 2022, according to MapBiomas. It’s worth noting that 50% of primary energy in the Northeast comes from wind.

And so, the Caatinga is inching toward desertification. “Which is not a desert, right?” clarifies Moacir. “A desert is also a biome. It’s a whole life cycle in harmony with the climate. Desertification is soil sterilization and the impossibility of life in that environment. The desert is a natural cause; desertification is a human, artificial cause.”

Desertified area in Uauá, Bahia. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

Let’s look at the numbers: 126,336 square kilometers (48,778 square miles), or 12.85% of the Caatinga, are already in the process of desertification, according to calculations by the Satellite Image Analysis and Processing Laboratory (LAPIS) at the Federal University of Alagoas. It’s an area equivalent to that of Portugal, scattered across patches throughout the biome — the largest chunk is right between southern Pernambuco state and northern Bahia, where Lages das Aroeiras is located.

However, despite the discouraging scenario, “In 10 years, this community practically tripled the number of houses,” says Moacir, referring to Lages das Aroeiras. “The young people didn’t leave.” It’s the same trend seen in other Recaatingamento communities, proof that it’s possible to reverse the climate exodus if communities see a reason to stick to the land.

“Coexisting with a semiarid climate is a question of concept, of perceiving the environment. We didn’t foster a culture of thinking about local development because we set our minds on the idea that it’s no good here, that we had to leave,” Moacir says.

Waldemar Rodrigues da Silva in the community of Lages das Aroeiras. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.
Macambira (Bromelia laciniosa) fruits. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

That’s why IRPAA’s initiatives, which go far beyond Recaatingamento, also focus on fixing families to the land — by improving rainwater harvesting methods, encouraging food production and investing in sustainable technologies like biogas production from animal manure. All of this while keeping the Caatinga standing. Currently, 3,000 families are benefiting from IRPAA projects.

Moacir is an optimist, the kind who sees the glass half full: “If 50% of the Caatinga is in a state of degradation, then 50% is in conservation. Much more than the Atlantic Forest, right?” The exact number is 57.9% of native vegetation, according to MapBiomas, making the Caatinga the third-most preserved biome in Brazil. “The degraded half has two paths: desertification or recovery. If we stop deforestation and start conserving what has already been degraded, there is indeed a possibility of recovery. The tendency is for plants more adapted to climate change to emerge.”

Waldemar, shaded by the century-old imburana tree in front of Lages das Aroeiras’ Feed House, seems a bit less confident: “We know that, no matter how much we do, we can’t fully restore the Caatinga to what it was.” But that doesn’t mean he’s throwing in the towel. Wearing a T-shirt featuring two mandacaru cactuses crowned with the phrase “Defensores da Caatinga” (Caatinga Defenders), Waldemar concludes: “We have to do something. We came here for this, not by chance. Each one with a mission. We must do something in this life, for ourselves and for others.”

Luis Gustavo da Silva, a resident of the community of Lages das Aroeiras, Uauá, Bahia. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

Banner image: Goat in a communal pasture area, Uauá, Bahia. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay


Niemeyer, J., & Vale, M. M. (2022). Obstacles and opportunities for implementing a policy-mix for ecosystem-based adaptation to climate change in Brazil’s caatinga. Land Use Policy, 122, 106385. doi:10.1016/j.landusepol.2022.106385

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