Addressing Food Security and Water-table restoration with the Landless Movement in Brasília

By on

This last September (2018) I visited 4 families in a Landless Movement settlement in the outskirts of Brasília, Brazil. They have joined the Água Brasil, a program supporting initiatives designed to conserve hydrologic resources in the country. This partnership between WWF and the Banco do Brasil Foundation focuses exclusively on solutions for water-related problems. Osmany was invited to co-write and implement a project in partnership with Igor Aveline and Fabiana Penereiro from the Mutirão Agroflorestal. The project they wrote, however, implemented an interdisciplinary approach so that they could address these families’ food security and economic issues while reforesting the Descoberto watershed.

The project’s first stage took 8 families from the Gabriela, Graziele and Canaã Landless Movement settlements on-board, has been running for 8 months, and implemented an area of approximately 4 hectares. The second stage is about the begin with the rainy season and will scale up the area to 17.8 hectares occupied by 37 families. For the implementation of the first stage two training courses were offered in the settlements and working bee days organised to establish the systems. The participation in both was a pre-requisite for any family willing to join the program.

All participant families were heard in a participatory diagnose process that guided an equally participatory designing exercise addressing these families’ needs and contexts. In spite of this specific and contextual approach, the great majority of these plots were established with the creation of 3 distinct implementation areas in each plot. These 3 areas were of: enrichment, intensive and soil improvement (‘soil fattening’ in the original in Portuguese).

In areas where there were fruit trees, native trees, and horticultural production already managed by the families, enrichment areas were created. In these areas the main goal was to diversify the system’s species and stratification.

A soil enrichment area to the left and an intensive area with produce to the right.

Intensive areas were created where there were already some fruit trees and horticultural systems and the urgency was to increase production. In these cases intensive systems were planted with fruit and timber trees, and horticultural produce. Generally, these areas were smaller due to being labour intensive, and had a more specific focus on these families’ food security and economic viability.

For heavily degraded and compacted parcels, soil improvement areas were created using the understanding of natural succession and nitrogen fixing, ground cover and grass plants. Pigeon pea, jack bean (Canavalia ensiformis), and crotalaria, for instance, were used for the production of biomass for pruning (chop and drop) and mulching. These plants belong to a group commonly called by those in the agroforestry practice, fertilising plants (adubadeiras in Portuguese).

Each family’s context, as well as each plot’s topography and already established orchards demanded different approaches and techniques in the implementation of each agroforestry system. I summarise below the contexts and solutions adopted in the occupied plots we visited.

Gilberto showing his araticum-de-raposa (Annona cornifolia), a native shrub from the tropical savannah (Cerrado).

Gilberto received us for our plot visited digging holes to plant jaboticabas. Gilberto is originally from a rural and semiarid area in the northeast of Brazil (Piauí). As with many other campesinos, the lack of public policies and access to knowledge that turn him into a productive in the region he was born, Gilberto had to abandon his livelihood in search of jobs in the big urban centres. After a long time struggling to give his children access to education, Gilberto was still suffering with an urban life in poverty. With his wife’s support, he joined the Landless Movement to have access to land where he could produce and live in a rural area.

Gilberto’s plot already had an area dedicated to a roça (the cultivation of annuals) with cassava, beans and corn. There was also an orchard with conventional and native fruits from the cerrado (the Brazilian tropical savannah). After attending the training course, Gilberto chose to implement a new area so that he could learn first and to later diversify the older systems himself. As Gilberto already had other areas producing annuals, the new 3,000m2 system aimed at the production of timber and fruit within a few years, but was designed to boost his vegetable production in the short term.

Gilberto’s 8 months old system.

Prior to attending the agroforestry training course Gilberto did not understand natural succession and how important mulching and the accumulation of organic matter is build a healthy soil. As a consequence, Gilberto kept the soil under his trees immaculately clean of any vegetation. The result was a bare, compacted and poor soil in which the Guinea grass (Megathyrsus maximus) sown to be used as mulch, could not germinate. With the rainy season arriving again, the plan is to sow the Guinea grass again between some of the tree rows. In other areas a combination of cassava, corn, beans and pumpkin will be planted using organic fertiliser in each hole.

A row showing blue spotted gums (Corymbia citriodora) as emergent strata.

The great majority of the settlements in the Descoberto watershed were established in areas heavily degraded by the cultivation of eucalyptus in (mostly E. Grandis) monoculture; which left the species stigmatised in the region. As fast-growing timber trees are used for ongoing pruning to produce mulch for soil restoration in agroforestry systems, Osmany and Igor convinced Gilberto to use blue spotted gum to this end.

Another particular of Gilberto’s context and plot were the erosion risk and the choice of many high strata fruit trees of different heights. The solution was to establish the system’s rows across the slope and to position the highest tree consortiums in the southern parts of the plot. Using permaculture terms, a sector analysis was made to determine the sun’s aspect and flood prone areas. And the positioning of the highest trees in the southern part of the plot (in the southern hemisphere) constitutes a strategy called suntrap.

Gilberto shared that he is healthier, more active due to the work with the agroforestry system. He notes that the quantity as well as the quality of his fruits and vegetables improved significantly. He also noted that it is very interesting to see these systems evolving and very gratifying to be part of a life-optimizing management that his sons are becoming more interested in a rural life.

Our next stop was at Tânia’s and Silvano’s plot. They have a big family and to generate income from the agroforestry systems was urgent. In their case, then, a larger area of approximately 4.000m2 was established, and the 3 enrichment, intensive and soil improvement approaches, was essential.

An existing orchard with mango and a few other fruits was diversified. In this area, other trees were planted to compose all 4 strata, and corn, jack bean, pigeon pea and guinea grass used to produce crops, but also to organic matter to cover and fertilise the soil. A degraded 1,500m2 area was planted using a soil improvement approach. This time short lived nitrogen fixing plants were used in the tree rows and guinea grass between these rows to be used as mulch. An intensive area of 1500m2 was established for the production of vegetables for consumption and selling of the surplus.

A proud Silvano showing his banana trees.

Tânia shared that the family’s diet improved considerably. She also noted that the abundance of food produced in agroforestry systems requires knowledge to value add the produce. Tânia and Silvano that have already expanded the systems on their own, were producing plenty of chilli peppers and cabbages that they would like to value add in jams and preserves. The infrastructure to value add produce surplus is not available in these settlements as yet, but the participant families are already working to start a cooperative enterprise.

Andréia showed us around the third plot visited. Andréia and her brother, Alexandre, came from a conventional background using chemicals to produce food. Andréia attended the training course with Alexandre and her son, Mateus. Together they made the transition from a chemically dependant to an agroecological approach in an area of 3.000m2. The agroforestry systems were implemented using large portions of the intensive and soil improving approaches.

Osmany and Mateus assessing the plot.

Andréia, Alexandre and Mateus designed their systems so that they had areas where they could save seeds and propagate cuttings from in order to start a nursery. Another particular of their systems was to alternate high and low strata trees in one row, with medium and emergent strata in the next. This strategy was adopted in order to allow more sunlight between the tree rows so that they could produce vegetables in the mid-rows for longer with less time spent pruning.

Eurico and Ms Maria’s son-in-law talking about the guinea grass (behind).

At last we visited Ms Maria’s plot. Ms. Maria is older and is assisted by her daughter and son-in-law to manage a 4.000m2 area. Because the whole family works away from the property and can only spend about 3 days a week to manage it, they decided they would not produce vegetables in the mid-rows. Instead they used a combination of guinea grass and millet. They were also very resistant to use eucalyptus, and chose the Acacia mangium to replace it in the tree rows. Pigeon pea was planted to nurse young tree seedlings, to fix nitrogen, and to be used as biomass in the early stages. When they could not use pigeon pea for whatever reason, they replaced it with jack bean. The combined use of these strategies allowed for the implementation of a relatively large area that is maintained by a small number of people dedicating 2 or 3 days every week for the task.

Final notes

Almost all plots were implemented at the end of the rainy season, which was not ideal. In some cases large areas had to be watered by hand by one person until an irrigation system was installed. All families ended up using drip-line irrigation due to the need to save water and to be cost-effective. Yet, with the exception of Gilberto’s guinea grass poor germination in his mid-rows, all systems had great germination rates and development. Meanwhile new areas are implemented with the coming of the rainy season, the 8 families that participated in the pilot season will develop their pruning-based management.

A healthy cabbage from Tânia’s intensive plot.

As a way to complement the help these families are receiving from the project, Osmany has been helping them market their surplus produce at Fazenda Bella’s delivery point and market stalls in Brasília. This approach was not planned in the original project, but because it is turning out to be important for the project’s success, it will be scaled up in new stages.

Generally speaking, and in special because I am familiar with the reality of poor people in Brazil, I was amazed with the work these families are developing. They belong to the Landless Movement, much vilified by the elite and mainstream media for pushing a land reform agenda for the country. Without exception, they live a difficult life, marginalised for not being able to participate in the consumerist society. Yet, and even though often working two jobs and under a dire financial stress, they zealously look after their occupied plots and learn to produce food in regenerative ways. Yet, they refuse to loose their generosity. There were not a single visit in which we were not offered coffee and snacks, in which we were not asked to stay chatting for longer. Their dedication, under such challenging circumstances, shows that it is possible to produce food while restoring the water tables, the local biodiversity, and above all social justice. Congratulations Igor, Osmany, Fabiana and the 8 families who embraced agroforestry systems to show the world what is possible when we have hope, drive, knowledge and good company!

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 runon the 9th and 10th of February, 2019, at the Holos Regenerative Design learning site in Brunswick Heads, Northern New South Wales.