Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Agroforestry in the Amazon

Maria Viera

”The two first years, while we cleared the land, we survived on rat, palm heart, the flour from the babassu  palm and other wild plants,” Maria Viera says when she receives us in her home in the small settlement Nova Esperança, where the road ends and the vast Amazon takes over. 

She is just 57 years but looks older, and that is no wonder when we hear her story. Nine children she has carried, of which six are still alive. She has diabetes, a wound with emerging sepsis and just three teeth in her mouth. But she is full of life, just like her husband Luis. He can’t sit still for a second; he talks incessantly and is excited that we have come all the way from Sweden to visit them and their farm. 

It was twenty years ago that Maria and Luis left their life as poor farm workers in the poverty ridden Northeast and settled here on the fringes of the Amazon, where the government gave them land. Of the twenty four families that settled here, only seventeen are left; the others perished from malaria or other diseases, or they simply gave up. The colonization of Mato Grosso is part of a policy that gives settlers land for free. Maria and Luis got a barrack to live in when they came here.

Brazil is infamous for its high inequality, and in particular the unequal land ownership. Many millions of the rural population have no land; they work as farm labourers. Since the 1990s, they have occupied land in many places. Some of the occupations ended in blood, such as the one in 1996, in Eldorado de Carajas in the state of Pará, where 19 persons died and 40 were wounded. A land reform has always been on the political agenda, but it has been easier for the government to let the landless have land in the Amazon than to make reforms in conflict with the interest of the mighty land-owners. During the presidency of Lula, the colonisation gained momentum and between 2003 and 2008, 519,000 families got land. 

Maria and Luis think their life is good now and their farm is an example of how you can have a decent life with small means and a small ecological footprint. Solar panels produce enough electricity for a few lamps, a TV and a radio, not more. They have their own well water from the mountain, led by gravity into the house; the sewage water goes into the fish pond. Even though there is a gas stove, most of the cooking is done on the wood stove – they get firewood  from their own forest. Today there is a road. Even if that is not passable in the rainy season, it is a great improvement compared to the mule path that was there when they came. 

We are offered a simple but good and nutritious meal of beans, rice, meat and lettuce – all from the farm. It is a typical meal, according to Maria. For breakfast they drink home-grown coffee and bread made from the wheat that they buy.
Luis showing us sweet potatoes from the agroforestry.

Luis proudly shows us the agro-forestry cultivation that covers around a fifth of their hundred hectares. Here they grow coffee, cacao, bananas, papaya, and mango, alongside trees such as teak and eucalyptus. In all, there are 83 different species, an impressive variety. Luis taps a trunk of teak.
“This will give me 1,000 reais (around 500 dollars) and I have four thousands of them. I am a millionaire,” he says with a content smile.

Under the shade of the trees, smaller bushes, herbs and vegetables grow better than in an open field. Luis and Maria also raise various animals and sell calves. But the calves are now fourth in economic importance, taken over by coffee, cocoa and palm heart from the pupunha palm, all crops from the agro-forestry. Luis and Maria farm organically, but they are not certified. They sell their crops locally and there is no special organic market available. 

Agro-forestry can contribute with another possible stream of income. At least one ton of carbon per year can be bound in growing biomass and in the soil as increased organic matter. This gives opportunities for selling so called carbon credits to those that emit carbon dioxide. Consumers can compensate their air travel and companies can compensate their carbon foot print by paying for carbon credits. In this way, they can claim to be carbon neutral. Therefore, Petrobras, the parastatal oil company of Brazil, supports the project in Nova Esperança. It is in their interest to find ways to compensate for the greenhouse gas emissions from its operations.

The carbon credits could be worth more than 100 dollars per month for the participating farmers, a considerable increase on the average income of around 200 dollars. In this way, it could constitute a strong incentive to plant trees and manage the land in the best way possible. But there are also some snags with this business idea. It is complicated and expensive to measure how much carbon is actually stored in the ground. Therefore much of the money will go to consultants and certification bodies involved in the verification. The income is also very fluctuating. Between 2009 and 2010, the price of carbon credits fell by 90 per cent on the Chicago exchange. While it does create new income opportunities for farmers, it also creates new dependencies. By participation in the carbon market, farmers are obliged to manage their land in a particular way for long periods of time. Critics mean that carbon credits and climate compensation amount to a new form of colonization, albeit with an eco-friendly veil.

“We don’t emphasize the carbon credits but rather the economic and environmental advantages of agro-forestry,” says Paulo Nunes, coordinator of the NGO Poço de Carbono Juruena.

(this is an extract from The Earth We Eat, a book for which we (Gunnar Rundgren and Ann Helen Meyer von Bremen seek a publisher).

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