After an unexpected mast repair, we leave Salvador and sail south along the stunning coast of Bahía. We’re sad to learn that 90% of the Atlantic forest has been cleared, mostly for timber and farm land. Yet a visit to farmer Ernst Götsch inspires us. He proves that it is possible that to farm in harmony with the forest, using agroforestry methods.

Salvador de Bahía (BRA) – Ilhéus (BRA)

“It’s not safe to walk there, you will get robbed!” The restaurant owner’s face turns from cheerful to serious when we ask him directions to the supermarket. “Better take a taxi.” It’s a bright Sunday afternoon, so we’re a bit surprised. But he knows this city, and isn’t the first to warn us about Salvador’s crime record. A very visible police presence is supposed to deter criminals. In groups of three, heavily armed military police officers guard every street corner of the historic city center, but only there. What will the other neighborhoods be like?

Saddened in Salvador

We follow his advice and jump into a taxi. Outside the colorful Pelourinho, we see people hanging around in front of shabby buildings. A one-legged woman tries to earn some money cleaning car windows at a traffic light. She limps away when the light turns green and the traffic starts to move again mercilessly. At the supermarket, security guards at the entrance shield a parallel universe. The large store caters to the well-off, offering an enormous variety of local and imported products, while outside whole neighborhoods are so poor that some of their desperate inhabitants resort to stealing.

We keep on noticing extremes in Salvador. The center boasts restored colonial buildings, monumental churches, and museums. But elsewhere historic buildings are abandoned and the sidewalks dilapidated. A large shopping mall is flanked by countless makeshift booths offering coconuts, flip-flops and smartphone covers. Homeless people lie on cardboard in front of a modern, gated apartment building. The visible scale of Salvador’s social misery saddens us.

At the same time, it’s nothing new. Nearly five million African slaves were brought to Brazil, many of them to Salvador, by Portuguese and Dutch slave traders between the 16th and 19th century. They were treated horrendously and abused for cheap labor on plantations. For plantation owners, slavery combined with monoculture cash crops like sugarcane proved to be a very successful business model. Everyone else suffered. It feels like part of the injustice lives on. Michael Jackson’s song They Don’t Care About Us, recorded here with members of the Afro-Brazilian community, still rings true.

An Unexpected Repair

We are moored at the well-guarded Terminal Nautica marina and catch up on our maintenance list. When Ivar returns from inspecting the top of the mast, he can’t hide his misery. “We have to take off the mast. A crack in the stainless steel masthead needs to be welded before it’s safe to sail on.” Although disappointed, Floris looks at it from the bright side. “We are lucky to find it here and now. Let’s focus on a way to get this fixed!”

Harbormaster Dominique comes to the rescue “Let me make some calls.” Unsure what to expect, we return to our boat. Can it be repaired here? How long will it take? And at what price? Dominique returns the next day with good news. “The marina management has approved my plan. We’ll clear the car park and you can moor next to the quay. I’ve contacted a crane and a welder. They’re coming the day after tomorrow”. We’re baffled, but not fully convinced. What if it’s not deep enough for us at the quay? Or the crane is delayed? Or the repair takes more time then we can stay on the quay?

The next day we suppress our worries by staying busy. We take off the mainsail and boom, disconnect the electrical cables and grease the screws of the rigging. That should minimize the time we need to stay at the quay. Dominique estimates that there is enough draft for us to moor there from three hours before to three hours after high tide, giving us six hours to take of the mast, do the repairs, and put the mast back on. We find out the next morning whether Dominique is right. “We have 40 centimeters of water under the keel”, Floris lets out a sigh of relief as we approach the quay. “That eliminates one of our worries!”

The crane is waiting for us and within an hour, the professional crane operator has carefully landed our mast on the empty marina parking lot. The welder gets to work under Ivar’s watchful eye. Soon, he has not only repaired the broken part, but also reinforced its construction. Time to put the mast back on! While the crane operator holds the mast in place, we frantically screw the rigging tight. With plenty of time to spare, we steer back to our berth. We spend the rest of the afternoon putting the beam and sails back on and tidying up. We’re exhausted by all the work under the warm, tropical sun, so we gladly accept our neighbors’ invitation to have drinks and dinner on board s/y Novara. Owner Steve and his crew have sailed here from Uruguay and share tips for our next cruising area. We also watch spectacular footage of snowstorms and icebergs from their expedition to Antarctica. Our mast job seems insignificant in comparison to the harsh conditions Novara experienced, yet we still feel relieved. The reparation was not cheap, but we are glad it got fixed without larger damages or any delay.

Underwater Ecosystems

Before we leave Salvador, we seize the opportunity to go diving with the company that operates out of the marina. In Cabo Verde, we dived with Nuno, but the ships he sank to create artificial reefs (see also our logbook story “A Taste of Africa”) were too deep for us. Salvador’s All-Saints Bayoffers plenty of shallow wreck-diving opportunities. Under the supervision of dive instructor Bruno we descend to a wreck at a depth of only seven meters. Although the wreck is over 100 years old, many of the ship’s parts are still recognizable. Colorful corals completely cover them and countless fish swim around the remains of the hull. The explosion of marine life on the wreck is in stark contrast with the sandy ground that dominates the underwater landscape in the bay.

Our second diving spot is a breakwater close to the marina. Here, too, the tropical biodiversity amazes us. The large stone blocks function as a surface for corals to grow on and as hiding places for countless fish. The amount of marine life attracted to man-made structures prove that artificial reefs really work!

Green, Greener, Greenest

With our mast fixed, laundry cleaned and food supplies stocked up, we’re eager to explore Salvador’s All-Saints Bay. After checking out at the Capitania and saying farewell to our neighbors, we leave with the incoming tide. Our genoa firmly pushes us further into the bay towards Ilha dos Frades. We pass an oil terminal on the mainland whose orange flames, smoke, and storage tanks couldn’t contrast more with the scenery on the island. Its lush vegetation reveals more and more shades of green as we come closer. We drop anchor close to mangroves, which envelop the border between land and see. Layers of other trees follow closely behind. “With all-year round temperatures of around 30 degrees Celsius, lots of sunshine and frequent rain showers, it’s not only a paradise for humans, also for trees and plants”, Ivar jokes.

Our next anchorage is at Ilha de ItaparicaIt is popular among cruisers, because it is well sheltered and on shore is a small town. There is even a fresh water spring. The anchorage hosts some 10 boats, so it doesn’t take long before we meet other sailors. With the crews of SY Mystic Blue and SY Seahorse, who started their sailing trip from South Africa and Namibia a few weeks ago, we exchange stories and plans, while we get useful tips from SY Ui’s experienced crew. After seven years at sea, they are making plans for a return to land. We feel like our trip has only just begun, now that we are further from home.

Palm Trees and Coconuts

A day sail south brings us to a river whose entrance is marked by a conspicuous hill, the Morro de São Paulo. Small ferryboats swarm around the quay of the popular town like bees around their hive, so we look for an anchorage further upriver. That is easier said than done, as the river estuary is full of coral reefs and moving sandbanks. There is not a single buoy or landmark, so we move slowly and keep a close eye on the digital chart and depth instrument. What looks like a good spot on the chart with 5 meters of water, is in reality 30 meters deep. “It’s been a while since the last survey”, Ivar remarks.

Close to the settlement of Gamboa we find a spot with suitable depth and good holding. Coconut palms line a white beach with some bars and restaurants. Behind it we discover a friendly town with small shops selling fruit and vegetables, bread, and fish. To reach Morro de São Paulo we take an inland route. It soon turns into an expedition through ravines and jungle. “Are you sure this is a path?” Ivar repeatedly asks. “It is, according to!” Floris always answers. After two hours of climbing and scrambling, we arrive at a spectacular beach. The coconut water straight out of the coconut made it all worthwhile.

On Ivar’s birthday, we step further into coconut territory. Ivar finds a washed up coconut that has begun to sprout. “They’re able to root on just white sand, and thrive in this harsh, very salty environment. I think these trees are real heroes!”. When Ivar manages to pick a few coconuts from a not-too-high tree, he smiles enthusiastically. “What an awesome birthday present!” The taste and abundance of coconut juice inspire us to change our diet. We try coconut milk as a plant-based replacement for yogurt at breakfast and for milk in Ivar’s coffee, and find it delicious. Even the smallest grocery store sells it in one-liter cartons.

River Paradise

Our next stop along the Brazilian coast is the bay of Camamu. Its entrance is hidden by a dense forest. Only when we get closer, a passage reveals itself between coconut tree-covered islands. We sail upriver following a path of waypoints recommended by our pilot book. We manage to avoid hitting coral reefs and sandbanks and reunite with Mystic Blue and Seahorse at a beautiful and quiet anchorage by Ilha de Goio.

The surroundings invite us to go on a kayak expedition. We paddle through a mangrove forest and feel like being in a submerged forest. Yet the wildlife is quite different. Red and black crabs climb onto the mangrove trees and hide when we come closer. Small fish jump out of the water and colorful birds emit distinctive sounds. Floris tries to capture the wildlife on camera and gets lucky when a kingfisher stays put while Ivar maneuvers the kayak closer.

On Floris’s birthday, we use the outgoing tide and anchor near the charming tourist town of Barra Grande at the river entrance. We wander over sandy roads through town and along the island’s long white beaches. Floris’s birthday drinks at a beach club are also a farewell to the crews of Mystic Blue and Seahorse. They plan to sail further north, and will stay here until they have favorable winds. For us, the winds are excellent to sail south early the next morning. Who knows when our paths will cross again?

Green or Green-Washed?

To explore agroforestry examples in Bahia, we anchor at Ilhéus and rent a car. When we need to fill it up, we’re faced with a choice. “Ethanol or gasoline?” Floris asks. “Ethanol is cheaper and hopefully better for the environment.” Ivar suggests. Yet later his research shows something else. On the plus side, Brazilian ethanol is made from sugarcane, which makes it a renewable energy source. It also requires much less energy to produce than it harnesses. The energy return on energy-invested ratio of around 1 to 8 is high among biofuels. However, clearing a forest to make room for a sugarcane plantation emits so much COthat it creates a carbon debt of up to 62 years. There goes its supposedly positive climate contribution. Also, sugarcane’s monoculture plantations exhaust the soil and need fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides. This means that sugarcane is only renewable as long as the soil sustains it and chemical resources are available. “It shows that sugarcane plantations can’t be sustainable. They used to depend on slave labor, but now rely on fossil fuels. I would call it extractive, as it leads to deforestation and soil degradation”, Ivar concludes. Nevertheless, the Brazilian government got away with an increase in ethanol production as part of their COreduction pledge for the Paris Climate accord. “That’s some green-washed sustainable transport solution”, Floris judges.

Vanishing Green

During our research on sustainability in Brazil, we learn that sugar cane plantations are not even the largest cause of deforestation. A major contributor is cattle farming, followed by industrial farming of livestock feed and other monoculture food crops. The typical approach is to first log the highly sought-after wood, burn the remaining vegetation and sell the land to farmers. When monoculture crops are planted, they exhaust the soil and leave barren land behind; a highly destructive and unsustainable practice. As a result, more than 90% of the Atlantic rainforest, which used to be abundant in this area, has been cut down. And since the 1970s, more than 20% of the Amazon rainforest has been deforested. To make things worse, the level of deforestation in Brazil is increasing again. In 2017 a forest area larger than the Netherlands was destroyed. Isn’t there a better way to do agriculture?!

Farming Under a Green Roof

The good news is that it’s possible to grow food without destroying the forest. Ernst Götsch is widely regarded as the founding father of the agroforestry movement in Brazil. He started in the 1980s and his farm in Bahia has become a showcase example of how to grow food in harmony with the forest. When we visit him, Ernst explains his philosophy. “It took nature billions of years to evolve into a perfect, balanced ecosystem”, he starts. “All we have to do to get enough food is to play our role in that ecosystem. We seem to have forgotten that it is our role to spread seeds and stimulate plant growth. It is certainly not our role to kill certain plants we call “weeds”, insects and fungi we call “pests” or to use artificial fertilizers.”

So how did he get started? Ernst shows us how he farms in sync with nature “When I started this farm, the land was deforested and barren and the topsoil eroded, so I planted grasses, plants and trees. Lots of them. More plants led to more rainfall, insects and birds. I managed to restore the ecosystem by selecting and planting native plants and trees that help each other.” He points out three different layers of vegetation. “Look at the tall mahogany trees up there. They produce magnificent wood and provide shade. Below them I planted citrus fruit trees. And underneath them grow cacao trees, which need lots of shade. The right amounts of water and sunlight are important, as is of course a healthy soil.”

And how do you get a healthy soil, we wonder? Ernst takes out a chainsaw and gives us a live demonstration. “By pruning and leaving the biomass on the soil. It enriches the soil, while the pruned trees regrow quickly. The entire forest becomes much more productive.” His approach works well. Besides cacao and citrus fruit, we see papaya, banana, corn and many vegetables. The diversity of trees and crops and their healthy look impress us. Even the notorious “witch-broom” fungus, which has crippled cacao farming throughout the entire state of Bahía, is under control at Ernst’s farm. “Healthy trees provide healthy fruits”, he smiles. “And of excellent quality!” (See our “sustainable solution” article and video about food forests here).

Bright Green Agroforestry

As we drive back to Ilhéus, we can’t stop talking about Ernst’s inspirational agroforestry farm and its potential. “Good news, we are invited to join a conference on agroecology!” Floris announces after receiving a message from a professor. It will take place at the University of Viçosa, seven hours by bus from Rio de Janeiro. “No time to waste then!” As soon as the wind is favorable, we set sail for “the marvelous city”.

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