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

  • In northeastern Brazil, the model known as Agrocaatinga has proven to be the most productive and effective in increasing food security for families, generating income and preserving native vegetation.
  • Previously degraded lands now produce around 50 types of food, thanks to the combination of an agroforestry system with rainwater harvesting techniques.
  • Agrocaatingas emerged from the commercial demand for wild passion fruit, a native fruit that today yields up to $600 per harvest for families — four times the local per capita monthly income.  

UAUÁ, Bahia, Brazil — Everything is growing in Perpétua’s grove now. “Can you see? This is avocado; over there, papaya. This year I already got acerola. We plant a little bit of everything here. Carrots, beets. Here, I planted coriander. This is a pigeon pea; we make a very tasty farofa with it. This row is for passion fruit; we also plant corn on it. Here in the middle, when it rains, I plant cassava. But not much lettuce — we feed on it first, and if there’s any left, we take it to the market. First us, right?”

The proudest producer in the Serra da Besta community, in northeastern Brazil, points out each plant, fruit and tree as if they were trophies. Not on a shelf but outdoors, all planted in the ground, side by side, like in a forest, but one you can eat.

Where once lay barren land that caused anything planted on it to wither now grows a prosperous and diverse farm in a space measuring just 30 by 40 meters (100 by 130 feet). So rare in these rain-deprived backlands that it earned a sign at the entrance: “Agrocaatinga,” it says.

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In other words, an agroforest adapted to the Caatinga, the Brazilian dry forest biome. “We thought about agroecological solutions that included techniques that allowed coexisting with the semiarid climate,” explains agronomist Egidio Trindade, general coordinator of the Agrocaatinga project, implemented by a local cooperative, Coopercuc (the Family Agricultural Cooperative of Canudos, Uauá and Curaçá).

Essentially, this means maximizing rainwater harvesting in a region where it rains only for four to five months per year. In drought years, not even that.

“Last week, the relative humidity was 14% here in Uauá. To give you an idea, it’s the relative humidity of the Sahara Desert. It’s not possible to think of an agroforestry model for a humid area,” says Egidio.

Even more so in a land like Perpétua Barbosa’s, which, before the Agrocaatinga, was practically devoid of organic matter. Almost zero carbon — the result of a combination of scarce rainfall and decades of misguided exploitation of an already unfavorable soil.

Perpétua Barbosa, Agrocaatinga producer in Uauá, Bahia. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

“We planted crops here, but they didn’t thrive. Nothing grew. Why? Because we didn’t know how to work,” says Perpétua. For years, they cleared and burned the same land over again, usually planting a single crop — corn, cassava, or beans — until the soil was exhausted. All this without cisterns or dams. If it didn’t rain, they had to buy water from a tanker truck.

Egidio recounts that in the first Agrocaatinga that Coopercuc implemented, the soil was so acidic that it was no longer able to produce. “It was practically dead land, in the process of degradation. Today, there are cashew trees, mangoes, beans, corn, pumpkin, cassava. …”

This in a theoretically poor land; in more favorable areas, he says, the number of food species now exceeds 50. Not to mention the quantity of plants. “In some areas, we managed to plant 500 seedlings.” In Perpétua’s, there are already at least 300.

Perpétua’s Agrocaatinga field. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

And what if the umbu trees run out?

According to Egidio, the Agrocaatinga idea was born from two demands. One was from L’Occitane, the French cosmetics company, which in 2018 approached Coopercuc — already a partner in the production of cactus-based moisturizers — wanting to invest in a social project focused on cultivating maracujá-da-caatinga (Passiflora cincinnata), a wild passion fruit endemic to the Caatinga.

The other was from the cooperative itself, and more than a demand, it was actually a concern: What to do when the umbu trees run out?

Coopercuc is a pioneer in Brazil in large-scale production of umbu (Spondias tuberosa), also a native fruit, with which it manufactures and sells sweets, jams, beers and liqueurs throughout the country. The issue, as Egidio explains, is that “there are no more young umbu trees in the Caatinga.”

Recently harvested umbu fruits at Perpétua’s house. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

And that’s a problem because all the umbus that Coopercuc uses in its products are collected directly from nature, given that the umbu tree is difficult to cultivate. “It’s a very slow plant. If it doesn’t have the complete rainfall cycle, it won’t develop,” says Egidio, giving examples of umbu trees that Coopercuc planted 20 years ago and have not yet borne fruit.

Hence, the entire cooperative’s production depends solely on extractivism, which involves competition with goats, who have the umbu leaves as their favorite food — precisely the younger plants within reach of their mouths.

Combining both demands, Coopercuc technicians thought about creating cultivation areas that would have as an immediate focus the wild passion fruit — which bears fruit in less than a year — but with umbu trees in mind in the long term, cultivated in a controlled environment.

And, in between, as much organic food as possible to grow to keep families’ refrigerators full and provide them with extra income.

There are now 33 Agrocaatingas spread across northern Bahia state. Moreover, a cooperative in Rio Grande do Norte, way up north, is already implementing the system there.

Agroecological cassava flour produced in an Agrocaatinga system. Image by Xavie Bartaburu/Mongabay.

‘It’s as if they were in paradise’

The success, and the secret, of an Agrocaatinga lies in the ability to keep the field always moist — what Egidio calls techniques for coexisting with the semiarid climate.

The basic technique is contour planting: parallel rows of land that rise a few centimeters above the ground, where a hose drips the rainwater it received, watering the plants. This same water flows into the hollows between the contour lines, accumulates there and slowly infiltrates the soil. In practice, a microlandscape of valleys and ridges that never lets the farmland dry out.

And if it dries up, due to the lack of rain, they resort to so-called salvation irrigation: Every Agrocaatinga has a 36,000-liter (9,500-gallon) cistern, also fed by rainfall, which ensures water during the long dry months.

“For the plants, it’s as if they were in paradise,” Egidio summarizes. Because, in addition to never dying of thirst, they are also continuously nourished by organic fertilizer.

And by themselves: In an agroforestry system, it is essential to prune the plants so that leaves and branches are returned to the soil in the form of organic matter — this helps fix carbon and also covers the soil, protecting it from the harsh sun of the backlands.

Perpétua Barbosa with the regular passion fruits she also plants in her Agrocaatinga. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

Usually implemented as a collective effort, Agrocaatingas take a maximum of three days to be ready; sizes vary from 1,200-2,000 square meters (13,000-21,500 square feet).

Then, in two months, it’s possible to harvest vegetables; in three, corn. Wild passion fruit, in six months. And in one year, acerola trees begin to bear fruit, paving the way for guavas and soursops. In 10 years, it’s expected that the first umbu trees will be ready for harvest.

All plants grown together — the taller ones providing shade to the shorter ones and all nourishing each other, strictly following syntropic agriculture guidelines. As Taiane Souza Costa, a social educator at Coopercuc, explains, “In nature, you don’t see two species in a row. Within these systems, we try to mimic nature.” Egidio adds, “Nature likes diversity.”

Umbu tree in bloom. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

This includes nonproductive species of the Caatinga, generally large trees such as angico, imburana and aroeira. Their role in an Agrocaatinga is to help soil recovery, act as a barrier against the wind and, above all, repopulate the region with native vegetation — even more crucial in a biome that has been severely affected by deforestation and desertification.

It’s no coincidence that many Agrocaatingas are located in communities that also practice “Recaatingamento,” an initiative that seeks to reserve areas of native vegetation to allow the Caatinga to recover on its own. In Serra da Besta, where Perpétua lives, nearly 400 hectares (1,000 acres) are preserved.

Passion fruits closer to the sky

No endemic species, however, is more important in these agroforests than the maracujá-da-caatinga. First, due to market demand, as its purchase is guaranteed by L’Occitane, which uses its seed oil to make shampoos and conditioners. From the remaining pulp, Coopercuc makes sweets, jams and a beer called Maratinga, a recipe invented right there in Serra da Besta by a community member.

But this wild passion fruit has also proven to be an excellent alternative to the adverse semiarid climate. Smaller, sweeter and more acidic than the common passion fruit, it is also more resistant to pests and, above all, to drought.

“You can pass a tractor through a field and leave it. When it rains, it sprouts like coriander. And in the year it sprouts, it’s a lot of passion fruit,” says Perpétua. Moreover, it’s an excellent complement to the umbu harvest. “The passion fruit ripens when the umbu doesn’t,” she says.

Wild passion fruit. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

That’s why every Agrocaatinga has at least one row just for it, the fruits all hanging from a wire that stretches from end to end. While in the forest the maracujá-da-caatinga grows closer to the ground, sneaking between bushes, here it has been elevated to the status of a vine, cultivated like a grape cluster, on an espalier system. Closer to the sky, therefore.

“The native passion fruit provides a good income,” says Egidio. “Some producers make 2,000 or 3,000 reais per harvest.” That’s $400-$600, four times the local monthly per capita income.

He mentions the case of a producer in Uauá who set a record: In two months, he sold more than $240 worth of maracujá-da-caatinga, all with reused water. That is, an entire field irrigated with water used for bathing and washing dishes — a step further in the effort to make the project even more sustainable.

Real juice

Taiane highlights that around 80% of the people who produce in Agrocaatingas are women. “The farms are generally close to home, so it’s strategic work for them,” she says. An activity that, in addition to generating income, allows them to put food harvested and chosen by them on the family table.

After all, in the Agrocaatinga system, the only mandatory products are native passion fruit and umbu. What the producer will plant in between is up to her. “While she’s not harvesting the passion fruit, she’s harvesting for sustenance.”

Perpétua Barbosa in her Agrocaatinga field. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

And it’s organic and diverse food, unprecedented in a region accustomed to a diet based on rice, beans, flour and meat. “Now you have fruits, juices, a variety of greens and vegetables. Not to mention that it’s 100% agroecological,” says Egidio.

So much so that, as the Coopercuc agronomist reports, Agrocaatinga is already becoming a trend in Uauá. “Today we already see neighboring farmers implementing contour planting, intercropping. …”

Now definitively used to a healthy diet, Perpétua says she can no longer consume the food she used to buy in supermarkets. “When I go to São Paulo to visit my daughter, she makes a juice that doesn’t taste like juice. When I come back here and make the juice, it’s a different flavor. Why? Because ours is organic, there’s no toxic stuff in it.”

The food and nutritional security provided by the Agrocaatingas even impacts the city’s population, which now buys agroforestry products at the open-air market that takes place in Uauá every Friday.

It’s there that, every week, Perpétua takes her production surplus — largely made up of the cassava flour that she is now able to produce on a large scale, a result of the efficiency of the agroforestry system combined with the presence of a mobile flour mill, fully mechanized, that now circulates through rural communities.

Mobile flour mill in the Serra da Besta community. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

“Dona Perpétua makes an average of 300 reais ($60) per week at the market, apart from the fruit she sells to Coopercuc. And there are savings on groceries since she no longer buys cassava, corn, beans,” says Egidio.

And now, once again, she sells to the Food Acquisition Program, a government initiative that buys food from family farming and donates it to people in vulnerable situations. The program was reinstated in the first year of President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s government after being practically destroyed during the administrations of former presidents Temer and Bolsonaro.

José Barbosa, husband of Perpétua. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

“Agrocaatinga is the most viable and sustainable project for our region,” summarizes Taiane. “As we encourage families to produce, we’ll have better food quality, income generation and the continued presence of women and young people in the countryside. Moreover, it will help conserve native species of the Caatinga.”

In the case of Perpétua, her presence is quite literal, given how much she enjoys spending the day in the field. “I even forget to go to my neighbors’ houses. My friends are always arguing with me: ‘You don’t come to my house because you’ve become rich.’ The thing is, at the moment I’m there, I’m having a good time. It’s good for health, for the mind. For me, it’s taking care of what is ours. There’s no greater happiness than arriving there, seeing the plants looking sad, me watering them and them perking up. For me, this little project is a therapy.”

Related coverage here at Mongabay: A community-led strategy to save Brazil’s dry forests from desertification

More on agroforestry here

Banner image of wild passion fruit (Passiflora cincinnata), native to the Brazilian Caatinga. Image by Xavier Bartaburu/Mongabay.

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