01 Jun 2021
A revolutionary agroforestry technique that copies nature, without the use of pesticide or fertilizers.
Translated from Portugese “Revolução floresta”
SEZEFREDO CRUZ tried for years to dominate nature. He used fire to clear the forest and make room for his banana, rice, corn and bean plantations in Barra do Turvo, a city on the border between São Paulo and Paraná. For a while it worked - the fire fixes the nutrients quickly and production goes on at full speed. But the process also wastes the soil. Prigas (iweeds) began to dominate the plantations. Sezefredo followed the traditional recommendation: he bought on fertilizers and chemical pesticides. And with each new cycle, he end up with less money in his pocket.
The landscape showed the damage: an immensity of lifeless land, decked with weak banana trees and plants scarred by pests. Sezefredo planted food, but he only reaped disgust. "With the bad soil, the banana trees left the land and, at times, it caused a plague. It was sad. The earnings from the planting barely paid for the food of the employees who worked there.
A day's work in the fields was only enough to buy a can of oil. He saw no other way out than to put the property up for sale.
Until, in 1995, an agronomist hired by the São Paulo State Department of Agriculture appeared. Oswaldo Souza had the mission of promoting fairs between local producers. But he carried within him a much greater passion. His passion was the agroforest - an integrated system of trees and plants of different species in the same plantation, with zero use of fertilizers or pesticides.
Oswaldo Souza met agroforestry with Ernst Götsch, a Swiss based in Brazil. In the 1970s, when he was still living in Europe, the farmer and researcher began to carry out experiments that combined the cultivation of different plant species in the same space, as European farmers used to do until the beginning of the 20th century.
He noticed that his beans grew stronger when they were near trees. Even better after those trees were pruned. He also realized that it was not enough to take care of just one plant (or one species): it was necessary to take care of the whole system around the plantations.
It seemed a backward idea at that time when the ideas of the green revolution were dominating the rules of agriculture.
The world population was growing rapidly and the concern was how to feed all these people. Farm innovation was all about how to reduce the time until harvest and increase production. The solution was then, with heavy machinery, fertilizers, poison and selected seeds. Tractors streamlined the entire process and chemicals created artificially the right environmental conditions to keep the plant healthy. In this monoculture logic, any other species (insects and weeds) are invasive and must be eliminated.
However, in the middle of the process, the soil becomes more compacted and waterproofed (in other words, dry). In addition to this, other problems are added, such as erosion, contamination of the environment by pesticides, silting up rivers, strengthening the dominance of pests. More fertilizer was needed to grow and more poisonous chemicals to kill unwanted plants and insects.
Thus, with each new cycle, the production became more expensive, the climate drier, and the biodiversity was significantly reduced. Even in organic plantations it works in almost the same way, but with natural inputs. And the only winners are the big producers - the Sezefredos. Many other small farmers can't close the bill and make a living.
Ernst understood all the flaws in this model. And the more he went deeper into his research, the farther he moved away from the ideas of the green revolution. In thermodynamics, he found a concept to understand how the negative impact of agriculture happened. And the entropy principle, which measures the wear and disorder of a system.
Imagine your kitchen - every time you prepare a dish, the dirty dishes increase and the mess grows. You mess up that space. Nature works from. same way. When man transforms the Mato Grosso savanna and the Amazonian rainforest lands into monocultural soy plantations, nature becomes unbalanced. The dirty dishes it accumulates and the bill arrives. As more and more of nature destroyed, the result is what we have now: less life, more plagues, poverty, global warning and more drought.
Ernst moved in 1984 to the south of Bahia where he bought 500 hectares of wasteland. "The banana trees did not stand up. They were left lying down by the wind. The rain came and there was a great flood. Then came the drought", recalls Ernst. "They said that foreigner Ernst is stupid. He doesn't know how to choose land."
Ernst did not want to be another person to create chaos. He decided to integrate into that environment, take his food and livelihood out of nature and make it healthy.
If there was a entropy, the best thing was to look for the opposite, syntropy, the ability to reorganize things. He found the best way out was in the forest system.
In any open area, the weeds are the first to appear. These weeds disperse quickly and need few nutrients, so they adapt better to resource scarcity. That is why the weeds is born in the crack of the sidewalk or dominates the landscape of even the most desolate places like Chernobyl.
Weeds plays a key role in soil recovery, retaining moisture and decompressing it. As it has a short life cycle, it also improves the fertility of the land, due to the action of microorganisms that work in the decomposition of the forest. Richer, the soil creates conditions for larger and longer-lived plants to grow until everything changes into a big forest.
Nature, however, is in no hurry. It may take thousands of years for it to reach its climax – it all depends on the fertility of the soil and on the birds and other animals that spread seeds there.
Ernst copied nature and gave it the speed that agriculture asks for. He created a complex planting system, where plants selected to play a role in each step of this process of natural regeneration with increasingly larger strata. All seeds are spread at the same time, well dense - and the choice of each species also depends on its function in our life.
Lettuce, arugula and corn can play the role of the groundcover. A little bigger, cassava, for example, succeeds them. And almost like a family: broccoli creates papaya, which creates the trema (a native tree), which creates the inga (native leguminous tree), which creates the avocado, which creates the chestnut tree. Until the papaya tree grows, the broccoli disappears from that space and the stratum of flowers takes a step. Then the forest evolves until it reaches the ipe (Tabebuia sp tree) and cedar (Cedrela sp)trees - which can be cut and sold as logs.
The more complex the system (with greater interaction between various species, including man), the more complete the forest, the greater the chances that it will become healthy.
“[as humans] I have to be a beneficial presence in that environment. And don't just think about what I can get out of it. The result is abundance," says Ernst.
In this synchronized rhythm, even ants, such as those used in conventional agriculture, enter the dance. Their role is to carry out natural pruning and deposit even more organic matter in the soil, producing a green manure And it's okay if the cotia (Brazilian wild guinea pigs) appears to eat chestnuts and the toucan devours the açaí berries: at some point, they will return the seeds to the ground and spread seedlings in a new place.
Man is responsible for improving the ecosystem through pruning. He should not feel guilty for cutting large branches or felling entire trees. Losing a few branches does a lot of good to the plants. After pruning, Microrrhizas, a symbiosis between fungi and roots, enters the process: they start to produce even more gibberellic acid, a vegetable hormone, which stimulates their growth and that of their neighbours, since the roots become entangled under the ground.
In addition, pruning allows the entry of light, which increases the rate of photosynthesis by up to 70%. With more photosynthesis, the greater the capture of carbon dioxide, responsible for the greenhouse effect, from the atmosphere. Then when that branch goes to the ground, the carbon becomes trapped in the soil and is released little by little during decomposition - in a much slower time than would happen in a soil without so much organic matter.
And like in the forest a tree that falls makes room for the cycle to restart, the removal of an older species allows that broccolis that gave way to the papaya to shine there again.
This collective work speeds up the production process (from the first cycle, whether in an area of 100 square meters or 100 hectares, at least one lettuce plant you will have), but instead of sucking nutrients, it enriches the ground. With bonus: it increases the humidity and the incidence of rain in the region.
And the Ernst the foreigner who people think didn't know how to buy land saw the pristine rainforest come dominate his 500 hectares. It is from there that he sends top quality organic cocoa to Italy and from where Ernst obtains a huge variety of fruits and vegetables that, if not they go to the table, they become food for the fauna that started to live there. The farm even got a new name: Olhos d'Água (The Eye of Water), in honor of the 14 springs that resurfaced on his property.
Above, Syntropic agroforestry at 6 months and 3 years (estimated)
Back to our guys…
Ernst taught Oswaldinho, Oswaldinho taught Sezefredo. And Sezefredo, now 73 years old, doesn't even think about getting rid of the place full of palm trees and other trees in a nightmare.
Dolíria Rodrigues, from another farm, didn't either. Impossible to look at the abundant forest in her backyard and imagine the scenario of 20 years ago: a pau-a-pique (rammed earth) house surrounded by grass, with low production of beans, rice, corn and cane. Agroforestry has brought back springs and new ones have emerged. The rain never again washed the land and silted the river.
Research in the region shows that a 15-year-old agroforestry has an absorption capacity equivalent to a 70-year-old secondary forest. And even though the sales of vegetables and fruits generate little money (a minimum wage, on average), she stopped depending on her husband. "Before, I couldn't even buy shoes for the boys. Today, with my effort, I can. And in up to two years I'll still have a car", he says. The house is no longer a rammed earth.
Sezefredo and Dona Dolíria represent just two of the more than one hundred families of Cooperafloresta, a Barra do Turvo cooperative of agroforestry producers, who still make money from the sale of their products.
Yet, these farmers have difficulty in entering the market, due to the low popularity of some fruits and vegetables. And they already produce guava, raisin, fruit pulp and vegetable flour, thanks to the small food processing industry financed by Petro bras' Agroforestry project
But it is not only in the south of São Paulo or Bahia that agroforestry works. Ernst is able to replicate the model across multiple ecosystems. It has already worked in the Amazon, cerrado, caatinga and even in the Salar de Uyuni region, in Bolivia.
In parallel, without the Swiss influence, agroforestry has already sprung up in Indonesia and in countries in Central America and Africa, with the power to slow down the expansion of the Sahara desert. And the tendency is to grow more and more: it was pointed out by the UN as a way to reduce hunger and poverty in the world.
In another farm in in Itirapina, interior of São Paulo, they have abandoned organic dairy production to dedicate the farm to agroforestry. For three years, he has been trying to make these products financially viable. As the use of machines is limited, these plantations require more manual labor - which makes production more expensive.
The solution was to adapt some machines to take care of the pruning and preparation of the land, while the farmers keep the most delicate part of the harvest. In up to two years, Toca promises to place the fruits of these harvests on the markets.
More than process, agroforestry carries a philosophy.
From the organelles of a cell to the biosphere, all life is based on a network of complex systems that interact with each other, in an intense exchange of energy. That's how agriculture must work too. "You're not the smartest one there. You don't own it. It's just a part, a cell," says Ernst. It's what he calls unconditional love, without competition or scarcity. With abundance and cooperation.
Original article appears in: JULY 2016 SUPERINTERESANTE 53 (Magazine in Brazil)
Reporting by Felipe Floresti
Illustrator: Pedro Correa
Design: Bruna Lora
Editor: Carol Castro
We first came accross this article on Agenda Gotsch website.
We wanted to learn about this Syntropic Farming methods but many of the information online are in Portugese. We managed to read this article using Google Lens and filled in the blanks with our own interpretation. We decided to post our unofficial translation online in case someone out there is looking for resources of syntropic farming like us too!