Humpback whales put on a spectacular show as we sail south along the Brazilian coast to Rio de Janeiro. After some sightseeing, we travel inland to learn from prof. Irene Cardoso how agroecology can help tackle issues of deforestation, soil degradation, poverty, and human health.
Ilhéus (BRA) – Rio de Janeiro (BRA) “What’s that high-pitched sound?” Floris asks. “It sounds like a whimpering dog.” Moments later a humpback whale surfaces right in front of the boat, followed by a second one. “Grab the camera!” Ivar shouts in excitement. For the next thirty minutes, we are treated to a whale sing & dance performance. Their songs resonate in the cabin and every now and then they show themselves, flapping their fins or revealing their tails before a deep dive. The spectacle reaches its moment suprême when two whales breach in unison. We’re in awe. Throughout our trip from Ilhéus to Vitória we observe these magnificent sea mammals. It softens the pain of not stopping at the Albrohos islands, where the underwater world is said to be spectacular and there is a large colony of boobies. A frontal zone followed by strong southerly winds is expected, so we need to continue sailing and seek shelter in the harbor of Vitória. forest farm in Bahía, we are eager to learn more about agroecology at a conference to which Professor Irene Cardoso has invited us. We cross the coastal mountains and drive for hours through rolling hills before we arrive in Viçosa. We are staying with Marluce and Jenner, Irene’s neighbors, who pick us up from the bus station and take us to their beautiful home just outside town, amidst small farms and green hills. We meet Irene at the university during the opening of the conference. Just how big a star she is becomes evident when the audience cheers as she takes the stage. Authority and wisdom radiate from her opening speech. Rhetorically she asks: “Would you rather rely on nature or on large chemical companies to grow your food?” We are all ears. “We’re here to exchange knowledge on how to accelerate the transition to a future-proof farming model” Irene continues. Relying on nature sounds fantastic to us, but could it really be the future of farming? According to Pablo Tittonell, an agroecology professor from Argentina, it can. He tells us that the vast majority of the world’s food is produced in non-western countries and globally 97% of the world’s farms are smaller than 2 hectares. Applying agroecology principles offers many benefits to them, Pablo explains. “The most important benefits are lower input costs, better yields, and healthier soils. Family farms also contribute to more biodiversity because they grow different crops, which they can also use for their own consumption.” Food in the Community The next morning at breakfast we learn just how small-scale and familiar agroecology can get. As we indulge on sweet mangos, papayas and bananas, Marluce mentions that these delicious fruits come from a neighboring organic farm. When Irene takes us there, we find a family home surrounded by a vegetable garden and fruit trees. The young couple and their daughters are giving us a tour of the farm they started only recently. “When I was breastfeeding my first daughter”, the mother explains, “I didn’t want to feed her poisons from the food we used to eat, so I started my own garden. That way I could be certain that everything would be poison-free.” What started out as a home garden has grown into an organic community food hotspot. “Our neighbors buy most of the fruits and vegetables. The rest I sell at the weekly organic market.” She and the community are happy. The income helps to support her family and the community can eat fresh, locally grown food, free of poisons. Coffee Forest Our next field trip with Irene and the conference participants is to a coffee farm in Araponga. Irene’s Dutch husband Arne Janssen, a professor in ecology specialized in biological pest control, also joins us. On the way there, Irene explains that the University of Viçosa collaborates with the local coffee farmers. “We helped them find the natural production system that would generate the highest yields. In return, the farmers let us do research based on their practices.” At the plantation, farmer Edmar tours us around while Irene and Arne provide translations and background information. We learn that the diversity of plants and trees between and around the coffee shrubs make for a healthy ecosystem and are therefore essential to the farm’s success. The forest next to the coffee plants has multiple purposes. The trees provide the right amount of shade for the coffee beans, fix nutrients in the soil, and some bear fruits for consumption. Edmar collects their leaves and branches to use as fertilizer for the coffee plants, which not only saves money, but also allows him to grow “natural coffee”, meaning that no other fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are used, not even organic ones. Arne picks a leaf from a coffee shrub. “Do you see these tiny caverns in the leaves? They function as homes for insects that are the natural enemies of a common coffee pest. All we have to do to harvest healthy food is to create a balanced ecosystem where pests are controlled by the plants themselves, like Edmar has achieved. Nature is so much more intelligent than most people realize!” he says, smiling. Irene adds that the farm is even more special. “The model of land ownership here is quite unique for Brazil. Using a cooperative model, small-scale farmers pooled their savings to buy land together. Deforested and exhausted land of course, that’s what the large landowners were prepared to sell. By allowing the soil to regenerate using agroecology techniques, they made the land fertile again. Now that the farmers own the land, they can decide themselves what to plant. Besides coffee, which they sell for cash, they grow diverse crops for their own use and to earn a decent living. And they keep buying more land, with more people joining the cooperative. It has allowed farmers to return from the slums of Rio de Janeiro and successfully farm here.” This example shows that agroecology also has a socio-economical component. A Better Future for the Poor This component also becomes evident when we visit a community of slave descendants, the Quilombola Coreggo de Meio. The university runs a cultural and environmental exchange project with them. By helping them to organize a cultural/religious procession, or caravana, the university is getting familiar with the community’s traditions and gains their trust. We learn how important religion and ceremony are, when during our encounter at the community’s meeting center, music and prayer are intertwined with discussions about their past and present conditions. Mestre Boi, the community leader, has tears in his eyes when he shares a personal story with the group. “We are a very poor community. Many of us are unemployed, or addicted to alcohol. I lost my son to alcohol, and I almost died, too. But I found support in my faith.” He smiles as he watches his granddaughter share chocolates with the group. “She is going to school now, and is a very intelligent girl. I pray to God she can also go to the university someday.” We are moved to learn about the struggle of Brazil’s poor, and start to understand the value of this project. The community feels supported by our interest, while the university also shows them building and farming techniques. When we interview Irene later that evening, she stresses how important agriculture is for the poor and the role of politics. “Industrial agriculture needs large farms, monocultures and mechanization to be economically successful. In the process, rainforest is destroyed and the soil exhausted, the land poisoned and the workers are underpaid. Rural jobs are lost and small farmers who try to compete on price lose out. Many move to the cities, only to learn that there is no work for them there.” She explains the importance of land rights in national politics: “Land in Brazil is extremely unequally distributed among our population. Land reform would benefit small farmers. It was one of the pillars of President Lula’s policies. It is a real shame that he’s been sidelined for the coming elections by a rich elite that corrupts our government.” Irene convinces us that agroecology provides a proven better future for the nation’s poor. Divine Diversity Having learned about the scientific, practical, social, economical and political sides of agroecology, we are about to learn about another one. Irene and Arne take us to a seed exchange, organized by a church in the community of Divino. Some sixty people, from young to old, have gathered outside the church. All of us form a circle around the seeds, fruits and plants that each one has brought. During introductions, we learn that some of them are coffee farmers. They are worried about low coffee prices, people leaving the community and the recent closure of the community’s school. Irene invites everyone to pick a seed that intrigues them. One by one, they explain what they picked and why. Many people sound nostalgic as they take the microphone and share with the group why they have good memories of certain crops but no longer plant them. Then Irene address the crowd. “God did not create monoculture crops, nor did women. Men did! Planting a variety of food crops has so many benefits. When your cash crop harvest is poor, or prices are low, you can eat your own. And by using agroecology principles, you don’t poison nature and respect God’s creation.” Once again she impresses her audience, including us. “Irene takes agroecology even to the spiritual level”, Arne observes.