Namaste Messerschmidt and how the Landless Movement inspired the successional agroforestry revolution in Brazil

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Last month I recorded a podcast with Namaste Messerschmidt, one of the most engaged young Brazilians teaching successional agroforestry internationally. Namaste, who had a solid and early beginning attending one of Ernst Gotsch’s workshops at the age of 12, ended up being one of the most active consultants for the MST (the Landless Movement) in Brazil. The MST is demonised by mainstream media and consequently hated by a large part of the Brazilian population. In recent years, however, they became the largest exporter of organic rice and one of the main drivers of the successional agroforestry revolution in Brazil, more recently also known as Syntropic Farming. Namaste is at the centre of this change as a consultant and supporter of the movement.

While still living in the intentional community where he had bought a small property, Namaste got involved with the CooperaFloresta, an association of small farmers that descended from Marooned slaves in the South of São Paulo. Their cooperative grew in numbers with MST members joining in and Namaste once again met important mentors and was part of a movement that transformed the culture and the agriculture of South São Paulo. Successional agroforestry was the foundation for this paradigm revolution. “The best thing that has ever happened”, one of the campesinos told Namaste, “was the wedding of MST with agrofloresta [successional agroforestry]. Because MST has this technology to bring people together and organise them while agroforestry has this technology to organise and put plants together”.

Before being part of this project Namaste shares that he was a good example of how Brazilian people in general do not understand the magnitude and importance of the MST and often vilify it. “I had a vague idea from what I saw on mainstream media or elsewhere.” The proximity with the movement, however, has profoundly changed Nasmaste’s opinion of it.

When you get to meet them in person, sleep in their houses, experience their daily lives in the settlements, you see a very beautiful proposition. One of repopulating the rural areas, bringing people back, of looking after the land in a different way, of seeking to practice an agriculture that is not input and herbicide dependant. To me this is fantastic!

The movement is demonised, Namaste shares, because it disrupts the ruling system’s big project of driving people off the rural areas while turning these areas in one of the greatest consumers of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and big machinery and implements. “The problem with the big scale agribusiness model we see everywhere is that it comes with big problems. It causes deforestation, fires and it drains the water tables”.

In spite of the movement’s directive of only producing using organic or agroecological methods, Namaste reveals that it’s still possible to see a few of what people in Brazil pejoratively call “little agribusiness” every now and then. These are small plots of land where poor farmers try to copy the mono-cropping rationale, techniques and practices of the corporate agribusiness. But the problem with the little agribusiness, according to Namaste, is that it “has everything that the big agribusiness has – people getting cancer due to the use of chemical fertilizes and pesticides, environmental damage… but it’s not profitable for the small farmer.”

For Namaste, “to do agroforestry it ins’t just an ideological thing. It’s not ‘just’ because we’ll do an agriculture that improves the soils, recovers the water tables, that sequesters carbon into the soil… It’s also a practical matter”, he says commenting on the economic viability of the method for poor and small farmers in Brazil.

… In the Mario Lago settlement we have done an study with 80 families. We guided the implementation of 500m2 plots for each family according to their needs and inclinations. The average investment for each 500m2 plot was approximately R$1000 in seeds, seedlings, amendments, machinery hire, etc. Then we kept track of their profit for the next 6 months. There were families making between R$4,000 and R$6,000. Zé Ferreira, or Paraguaio as he is known, had a R$8,000 profit from that 500m2 in 6 months. But this was just a pilot study, we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of families in these settlements throughout the whole of Brazil.”

The common believe amongst campesinos in Brazil was that it was not possible to be profitable in small plots of land. It was this believe that led many to copy the corporate agribusiness. However, they did not receive the same subsidies from the government, do not have the agribusiness’ economic power or machinery. Neither do they have the ability to degrade one area and move on to another like the agribusiness have. The more the MST learned about successional agroforestry, the more they realised that the yields in those systems could not be assessed in economical terms only. One of the most profitable members of the movement in the settlement revealed to Namaste that the difference he appreciated the most was not being profitable, it was the quality of time and the community bonds he began to have.

Namaste ended up selling his small property in the intentional community and buying another one adjacent to the CooperaFloresta project. The settlements that succeed in securing land through the agrarian reform receive plots that may vary from 1 to 10 hectares depending on the state they are in and on how dense or sparse the local population is. Such small size when compared to the agribusiness’ latifundios, along with values and believes inculcated by the corporate propaganda kept many still questioning the economical viability of this rural plots. The fact that successional agroforestry was highly productive but still labour intensive, also propped up questions about whether or not such system could be scaled up. When answering these questions Namaste usually says:

We’re all for big scale agriculture! But we need to revise what this ‘large scale is. … a settlement with 500 families producing in agroforestry systems is a large scale. The biggest large scale agroforestry system in Brazil today is in São Paulo with the CooperaFloresta. These are areas of small farmers, but when they come together they become a large scale.”

In this cooperative model, Namaste explains that while part of each plot’s yields cater for the family’s needs, other parts can focus on the production and value adding of specialty crops and produce grown in successional agroforestry systems that are marketed through their cooperative. “The use of and development of new machinery, is important for us that are working with the agrarian reform”, Namaste explains. “Often times we work with areas that have been completely degraded by the agribusiness, so to have a small machine that will help prepare the soil, that will help in the management of the system is important”. Namaste also explains that “this model of small farmers organised in networks make much easier to buy and share tractors, trucks, tools as well as to market their produce in small farmers markets”.

Since 2011 Namaste have been working with 1000 families in 50 different settlements, mainly in the Southeast part of Brazil. Throughout this period we have seen significant results.

We’ve seen families that did not make a living from agriculture, that had to sell their labour in towns or other people’s farms, making a living from successional agroforestry.

In one of his final remarks about his involvement with the MST, Namaste says that

The MST has this great potential to bring people back to the rural areas.

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.