Successional Agroforestry Systems and Family Agriculture in Brazil with Dr. Walter Steenbock

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Early March I had the pleasure to chat with Dr. Walter Steenbock for an interview at the Impacto Positivo podcast, a project I’m producing and hosting for the Brazilian audience. Walter is an agronomist and edited and written books such as Agrofloresta: aprendendo a produzir com a natureza, Agrofloresta, Ecologia e Sociedade, and Agroflorestando o Mundo de Facão a Trator; all very important references for those working with successional agroforestry to produce food, timber and fibre in Brazil. During our conversation Walter shared a huge quantity of concepts and knowledge acquired during years of close connection to both scientific research and small and most frequently poor farmers using these systems in Brazil.

Note: From the 24th to the 26th of August, 2018, I’ll be holding and introductory course to successional agroforestry based on Syntropic Agriculture. For more information please visit our FB event’s page.

Walter began our conversation saying that in hindsight it is clearly possible to spot the beginnings, the development and fall of many civilisations that practice a kind of agriculture that degrades its surrounding environments. The fact that we now live in a civilisation that to a great extent is globalised and practices an even worse kind of agriculture indicates that we are indeed in danger. Only that this time if such fall happens it will be in a global scale. Walter calls attention to serious research been done every where indicating that the health of the planet is in decline and that we are well advanced into the Anthropocene, the 6th biggest mass extinction in the planet’s 4.8 billion years of history. The gravity of the Anthropocene, according to Walter, it is the never seen before speed in which our civilisation is depleting resources and extinguishing habits, species and rural areas. Another difference between the Anthropocene and the other 5 mass extinctions that happened before is that this one is being caused by a culture of selfishness and anxiety to consume inculcated by the Western ruling system, Walter explains.

In the last years, especially the last 30 to 40 years with the advent of the green revolution, the agricultural paradigm has been transformed in a paradigm of total domestication of everything by the human beings. Humans have totally domesticated the species to the point that they became totally reliant on humans to survive. Humans have domesticated the landscapes to a point in which only the chosen species can thrive in it.

Such culture, Walter goes on explaining, is the major cause of the planet’s terrible social and environmental health conditions. This culture causes a negative state of things that in turn affects both the physical and mental health of humans, creating a never ending loop of negativity. These species and landscapes domestication processes, according to Walter, bring high costs to small farmers, as well as to the cultural, social and biodiversity.

When we think about the hundreds of kilometres of soybean fields, where nothing else grows, we realise that behind these fields there species and landscapes processes of domestication at the expenses of using huge amounts of chemical fertilisers, herbicides, pesticides, machines as well as much contamination and depletion of ground waters… And a whole series of problems that are directly linked to this agricultural paradigm.

On the other hand, Walter explains that “the production of food in successional agroforestry systems work with a landscape domestication process that, in turn, works tandem with the valorisation of nature’s forces to create a productive system”.

“This practice” Walter continues

looks at the Brazilian Rainforests and Amazon Forest and see the amount of timber, fibre, animals and food produced and aims at learning from the processes that rule these environments to mimic them in agriculture. In this case, understanding these strong natural processes such as photosynthesis, forest stratification (the many canopy layers), and nutrient cycling that take place in the forest becomes part of the technology used by small farmers in their daily lives”.

To understand and work with these natural processes is important, Walter remarks, because

If we manage to work with these natural processes, strengthening and even guiding them, then we will be working with nature contributing to process of abundance, a process that reiterates the system’s own evolution. So, to practice [successional] agroforestry is to practice agriculture with the forces of nature.

Walter explains that on one end of the spectrum we have the consumerist society’s processes and globalisation that brought us to the Anthropocene, but on the end we have the communication media developed by this same globalisation (internet being one of them) being used to globalise a plethora of regenerative agricultural knowledge, ways of thinking and living with nature that are still alive in some parts of the planet. This counter-hegemonic plethora of knowledge, attitudes and practices can be used to transform the human’s leading role in degrading the planet to a leading role in restoration.

However, this leading role in restoration agriculture requires a paradigm shift. Technological evolution brought us the possibility to domesticate species and landscape which, in turn, gave us a mistaken sense of disconnection from nature. This is the-men-against-nature, men-against-pests-and-weeds mentality. And this is the same mentality that create preservation areas and environmental laws in which the exclusion of humans, sometimes even of traditional and indigenous societies, is meant to bring regeneration. In a counter-hegemonic and ecocentric paradigm, Walter shares, conservation is done by the inclusion of conscious and ecologically literate human beings in degraded areas, not by the their exclusion. Using an analogy from Primack, reference author in the field of Conservation Biology, Walter describes human beings as conductors of an orchestra formed by biodiversity’s instruments.

I played the devil’s advocate and asked Walter if successional agroforestry systems are a viable option to produce all of our food pyramid, including grains, starchy food, oils, greens, protein, etc. and feed the growing Brazilian and world’s population. Walter called attention to the fact that there are serious research being done indicating that between 40 to 75 tons of food per hectare per year can be produced in these systems. In comparison, Walter added, the best yields of the agribusiness for soybeans and potatoes can only produce from 11 to 15 tons respectively. Such data makes evident that successional agroforestry systems are actually more financially viable than the agribusiness model. Even more so when we realise that food produced in these systems also provide unfathomable restorative ecological services such as the recharging of groundwater and re-humidification of the atmosphere. These services are essential to all life in the planet and are being destroyed by the green revolution agribusiness model.

But according to Walter, the counter-hegemonic socio-cultural and environmental possibilities, not the financial viability, are the main factors brought up by the poor small farmers that take part in his researches. Zezéfredo, a small farmer involved in the Cooperafloresta movement in the country side of São Paulo, for instance, shared with Walter his relationship with the agroforestry system he established in his small plot of land in the following way:

I work from 8am to 5pm, but I have partners that keep working even when I’m resting. The toucan eats and spreads many palmito (an edible palm tree) seeds. At night the bats come and they too eat and spread many seeds. So this area here (pointing to his agroforestry plot) was established by the toucans, the bats and myself.

“In a more urban analysis”, Walter considers,

perhaps by someone that understands the educational processes as concepts that do not belong to nature, such statement might not bear much weight, however, Zezefredo is a person that lives with his culture underpinned by mutualism and in symbiosis with toucans and bats that are his working mates. He is deeply involved in teaching processes, that build up a kind of knowledge that can only exist in agriculture if such agriculture is syntropic, regenerative and mimicking forests.

To learn more about Dr. Walter Steenbock’s work listen to the interview (in Portuguese). During the interview Water shares more about the Cooperafloresta movement and questions the trend to scale up and industrialise successional agroforestry practices. He also shares more about the positive impact these systems have for small and poor farmers and their communities in Brazil.

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Upcoming Agroforestry Courses

Forestry in Practice – With nearly 30 years of experience and literally thousands of farm plans under his belt, Darren J. Doherty comes to the Northern Rivers (NSW, Australia) to teach the course “Forestry in Practice“. The course equips farmers to holistically integrate trees in their landscapes and enterprises. Darren, who also works closely with livestock producers, has been an adamant promoter of tree integration for all farm enterprises. The course will run on the 9th and 10th of February, 2019, at the Holos Regenerative Design learning site in Brunswick Heads, Northern New South Wales.