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Extreme drought in western Pará pushes family farmers into agroforestry

  • Lost crops, reduced fish numbers, low water levels in rivers and difficult access to potable water have all led to a state of disaster declared in many municipalities in the state of Pará.
  • Severe drought, the result of increasing climate changes and El Niño, is resulting in a more flammable Amazon rainforest. Farmers and technicians are seeking out more sustainable alternatives to the traditional slash-and-burn system.
  • Agroforestry systems (AFS) and native honeybee apiculture cooperatives are increasing in the region.

JURUTI, Pará — As we approach the airport in Santarém, Pará, astonishment echoes loudly throughout the plane as its passengers see the extent of the drought below. Through the tiny window, we see the immense waters recede, leaving sandbanks exposed in the landscape.

Beneath a sky that has not brought rain in months and walking through the dried-out backyards of family farmers, the skeletons of young trees are frequent reminders of the drought.

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“We don’t irrigate here — we always expect water to fall from the sky,” says Raimundo Nunes from beneath a dead cupuaçu tree (Theobroma grandiflorum). “Aside from the fruit trees, some native species like andiroba [Carapa guianensis] are also having a hard time,” says the agricultural engineer from his home located in the Jará Environmental Protection Area in Juruti, in western Pará state.

Since May, most of the western part of Amazonia has seen below-average rainfall. More than just the natural and cyclic variation that characterizes the region’s flood and dry seasons, this year’s severe drought is caused by increasing climate changes coupled with interferences by El Niño, the meteorological phenomenon that normally raises temperatures and intensifies drought in Brazil’s north and northeast.

In the rural zone of Juruti, in Pará state, agroforestry farming is being used to try and recuperate degraded land. Younger seedlings are not withstanding the drought. Photo by Julia Lima/Mongabay.

Lost crops, shrinking fish populations, complicated logistics due to low river levels and difficult access to potable water led to a notification in the “Diário Oficial” federal gazette that a state of disaster had been declared in Juruti, Santarém and other municipalities in Pará. The Prosecutor’s Office also suggested a plan to reduce damages from the water crisis in Juriti, including recuperation of forest vegetation on the rural properties located along the Amazon River and its tributaries.

“We used to have 200 farmers registered, but very few come to sell at the market these days. It’s so hot that there’s no produce. The plantations are dying. It’s too dry; we dig up our cassava root, and it’s already cooked! We harvest a lot of yucca root and it makes very little flour,” says Zeires Andrade Faria, coordinator of the Juriti Family Farmers Market. “There’s still no one helping us out.”

Forest fire outbreak on the horizon: a common scene during this drought in western Pará. Photo by Julia Lima/Mongabay.

Dry well, low river

José Maria de Sousa Melo is regional superintendent of INCRA (the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform) in western Pará. Along the banks of Tucunaré Lake, she shows us avocado, cacao and coffee trees wilted from the lack of water, saying the farmers most affected will be those in the low wetlands.

Family farming is important in the western part of this state: Half of the territory is composed of land zoned for this use, including but not exclusive to integrated colonization projects, settlement projects, conservation units and sustainable use units.

Tucunaré Lake in Juruti: overheated water and low river levels are not inviting to swimmers. Photo by Julia Lima/Mongabay.

“We are responsible for 29 municipalities, which are home to nearly 240 traditional settlements. Some of them are in Juriti,” comments Melo. “There are families who carry on the tradition of growing watermelon, pumpkin, maroon cucumber and other lowland products at this time of the year, but they are having a hard time with logistics. Because the water level of the [Amazon] river has dropped so much, the boats can’t come in this far and many people are losing their produce because it’s too far.”

In his free time, Melo works in his family’s produce garden on a piece of land on the banks of Tucunaré Lake. Mongabay’s reporters saw an alligator, two turtles and a number of birds during their visit. It was a hot November afternoon and the temperature had passed 40° Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), but the people living there said taking a dip in the lake wasn’t a good idea — not because of the alligator, but because the water had been too warm for some time to be refreshing. And like in other places, the well from which they had drawn their drinking water for years had run dry. All these factors are increasing concerns about food safety in the region.

“On higher ground, people who raise cassava root are losing money. People are even quitting planting because everything is so dry that they are telling us not to do any burns,” states Melo. “It is very worrisome because these people depend on this produce to feed their families. Not farming means they will have problems in the coming months.”

José Maria de Sousa Melo, regional superintendent of INCRA for western Pará, looks at avocado trees hard hit by the drought. The mango trees are still doing well. Photo by Julia Lima/Mongabay.

In this part of Brazil, the slash-and-burn system traditionally used by Indigenous people is still in use. In this system, forest is knocked down and burned on a patch of land up to a hectare (2.5 acres) in size, producing a large amount of ash that makes the soil more fertile. After a few years of use, the soil loses its fertility and the farmer repeats the process in a new area of forest.

The problem is that with accelerated climate changes and the current drought, the rainforest has become more flammable. Any fire set for deforestation, for cattle farming management or even family farming can easily get out of control and spread to the forest, resulting in enormous wildfires. In October, one such wildfire spread across thousands of square kilometers in the Santarém region.

For this reason, “we have been encouraging people to change from slash-and-burn to agroforestry,” says Lucieta Martorano, a meteorologist and researcher in Eastern Amazonia with EMBRAPA, the country’s agricultural research agency.

Cassava root, a staple food for the people in Amazonia, is also feeling the effects of the drought, resulting in smaller tubers or dried-out plants. Photo by Julia Lima/Mongabay.

Diverse crops

Agroforestry systems (AFS) are not exactly a new thing in Amazonia because the people here have been using diversified planting systems for some time.

But in recent decades, the use of these systems has been expanding in a more structured manner: Different species are planted, combining native trees with agricultural crops. The system also involves spacing between seedlings, shade, pruning and species management. Aside from eliminating fire from the process, agroforestry increases biodiversity and holds the potential for restoring degraded agricultural land.

Robust initiatives such as the Tomé-Açu Mixed Agriculture Cooperative and Consortium and Densified Economic Reforestation Project have brought promising results to Amazonia because they are more productive than slash-and-burn farming for family farming communities.

It is estimated that in 2017, 430,000 workers, 90% of whom were family farmers, used AFS on 200,000 farms in the North region. They represent an 8-million-hectare (19.8-million-acre) area of land.

A recently implanted Agroforestry Project in Juruti. Photo by Julia Lima/Mongabay.

“Will the large trees that we plant take too long to grow? Will we live long enough to actually see them?” questioned Adeílson da Silva when he began practicing agroforestry on his land. “First we planted jerimum [pumpkin], then we planted watermelon and we also planted peppers on the land.”

Silva tells how the papaya grew beautifully, then came the graviola seedlings. He lives in the rural region called Batata in Juruti with his six children. Before, he only planted cassava and raised a few chickens for the eggs.

Silva received technical help and incentives from the Sustainable Jurti Institute (IJUS), which estimates that it has supported the creation of 60 hectares (148 acres) of AFS farming in the municipality. IJUS is currently helping set up new AFS sites with the Ingá Project, which is funded by USAID (United States Agency for International Development), Citi Foundation, the Amazonia Partners Platform and the Alcoa Foundation.

Adeílson da Silva makes cassava flour in his backyard. Before, he planted only cassava, but today he uses AFS on part of his land. Photo by Julia Lima/Mongabay.

But Silva’s AFS plantation is young and is being hit hard by the drought. Even though he irrigates for a few hours each week — restricted by high fuel costs to keep his generator running to pump water from a small stream near his home — some of the plants are not surviving the dry stretch.

Lucio dos Santos Moraes is considering creating an AFS plantation on his land as well. He no longer only plants cassava and coffee, and he has begun experimenting with açaí palms interplanted with coffee trees. But the effects of the drought are evident. “This time of year, we are usually already selling pupunha [palm hearts]. There would already be plenty to sell, and it’s a nearly permanent crop; you keep harvesting. Now, after this summer, we had no production,” he says.

“We grow coffee, pupunha, avocado and small plants. The açaí is holding up better this summer because there’s an unirrigated area and it didn’t die, unlike the pupunha, which is nearly 100% dead,” he says. “We didn’t used to need irrigation. Now, even with the precarious irrigation that we have, it’s not enough.”

Lucio dos Santos Moraes began to use intercropping techniques and is doing research about creating an AFS plantation on his land. Photo by Julia Lima/Mongabay.

Aside from killing the crops that had already been planted, the drought is expected to delay short-cycle crops — such as beans, corn and pumpkin — that would normally be planted in December at the start of the rainy season. But the rains aren’t expected until February.

“An important way to minimize the impact of the drought would be if family farmers had access to government-subsidized irrigation and low-cost irrigation,” says Lucieta Martorano, who has already worked with irrigation projects in Santarém.

Other persisting issues in the region are the lack of logistics infrastructure, sales and public policy that favors family farmers such as government purchasing policies focused on food and nutrition safety.

“We need integrated public policies,” says Joice Ferreira, biologist and researcher for EMBRAPA in the Eastern Amazon. “The example of the Food Acquisition Program and the National School Feeding Program is the sort of thing that we need to have created to deal with the problem. In other words, you have a purchasing program that increases demand. You have to favor initiatives in which the farmers themselves are protagonists and leaders.”

Seedlings grown by Adeílson da Silva that he will transplant to his ASF during the next rainy season. Photo by Julia Lima/Mongabay.

Pollinating backyards

One alternative that is helping family farm production is planting along with native bees like jupará (Melipona interrupta) and canudo bees (Scaptotrigona postica).

Raimundo Nunes is a specialist in beekeeping and raises bees in his backyard. He has led projects and gave a course to 20 beekeepers in the Juruti region. “Using these bees to pollinate backyard crops helps increase productivity.”

The apiary in Raimundo Nunes’ backyard AFS, located in the Jará Environmentally Protected Area in Juruti. Photo by Julia Lima/Mongabay.

The native bees help the farmers because they pollinate native Amazonian species, help fruit to grow more uniformly, aid in keeping the forest standing and are a source of extra income. At the same time that they leverage farm production, they also produce honey that can be sold.

“One farmer using the bees to pollinate his watermelon crops noticed that not only was he ending up with honey to sell, his watermelon production increased,” says Raimundo Nunes as we taste the delicately flavored honey from jupará bees right out of the hive.

But he reminds us that, in times of climate change, improving crops will depend on keeping forest standing. “There is the El Niño issue. But preserving nature, especially the rainforest, would help ameliorate the effects of drought, right? And it helps us not lose biodiversity as well,” he concludes.

Banner image: The region’s typically sandy soil is heavily affected by drought. Image by Julia Lima/Mongabay.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Dec. 21, 2023.

See related coverage:

In Brazil’s Caatinga, adapted agroforests are producing food from dry lands

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