Agro-ecology in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil – Part 3

By Michael Wironen

     Smallholder farmers in the Atlantic Forest of Brazil face challenges providing for their families while also meeting the requirements of Brazil’s Forest Code. Participants in an Agro-ecology Atelier organized by the Gund Institute for Ecological Economics are working as part of a broader effort to identify solutions to protect and restore the Atlantic Forest. This is the third entry in a series documenting the trip.

After two days visiting protected portions of the Mata Atlantica, we moved inland to Santa Rosa de Lima, a small town of approximately 2,000 people in the midst of a predominately agricultural region. This town would be our base for much of the remainder of our field visit.

The Eucalyptus Paradox

On our drive to Santa Rosa de Lima, we noticed the preponderance of monoculture Eucalyptus and Pine stands adjacent to farmer’s fields and roads. These plantations are a testament to two phenomena: the insatiable local and global demand for pulp, paper, charcoal, and tobacco as well as the perverse outcomes that can arise from the best policy intentions.


Eucalyptus Monoculture Adjacent to Pasture on a Hill in Santa Rosa de Lima

The Brazilian government, in an effort to stem the trade in illegal native hardwoods, banned the harvesting and sale of native trees. What sounds like an excellent policy for curbing deforestation has had an inadvertent impact on those seeking to reforest previously cultivated lands. Rather than allow native forest to regrow, which would permanently take land out of production (felling of native timber being illegal), farmers plant Eucalyptus and Pine mono-crops on their fallow land. Eucalyptus in particular is a boon to farmers, because it grows rapidly and is in high demand from Brazil’s booming pulp and paper sector. Farmers will plant Eucalyptus and harvest it five to seven years later, using the windfall to cover major costs (a new car, machinery, school/medical bills, etc.). Unfortunately, while economically interesting, Eucalyptus has marginal ecological value, especially when planted as a monoculture.


A Small-Scale Charcoal Oven

Replacing Eucalyptus with an alternative that provides greater ecological value is a challenge, as few native species grow as quickly and harvesting native trees is illegal. There are some promising alternatives, such as Bracatinga (Mimosa bracaatinga), which the Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária (EMBRAPA) has identified as a native tree that has a comparable growth rate, fixes nitrogen, and can be used as fuel wood, timber, and for furniture. Replacing Eucalyptus is a policy challenge we will revisit in a later post.


Eucalyptus Trees Adjacent to Pasture: Note That Some Native Undergrowth is Present


Family Farms Versus Agribusiness

Agriculture in Santa Catarina is dominated by small family farms, which contrasts starkly with states such as Mato Grosso, where the prevailing model is large-scale “agribusiness” dominated by major Brazilian and international corporations.

According to the Ministerio do Desenvolvimento Agrario (MDA), 84.4% of farms in Brazil are classified as “family farms”, accounting for 24.3% of the area under cultivation. The definition of “family farm” varies from place to place, based on soil fertility.

Despite the modest area under cultivation, the MDA notes that family farms generate 38% of the economic value of agriculture in Brazil, produce 70% of the food Brazilians eat, and employ 74.4% of workers in the agricultural sector. Family farms generate nearly twice the revenue per hectare and nine times the number of jobs per hectare, when compared with large-scale agribusiness. Furthermore, in contrast to multinationals such as Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, profits from family farms remain in the local economy.

The Ecological, Social, and Economic Challenges facing “Conventional” Family Farms: A Conventional Tobacco Farm in Santa Rosa de Lima

In Santa Rosa de Lima, farming practices and crop types have changed repeatedly since the Mata Atlantica forest was initially cleared by European settlers, who arrived in droves from Italy and Germany (and elsewhere) starting in the late 19th century. These settlers brought with them a legacy of agricultural practices adapted to the European countries where they originated. These practices have not always been well adapted to the local climate and conditions in Santa Catarina.

In recent history, much of the cultivated land in Santa Rosa de Lima was dedicated to intensive tobacco production. The spread of tobacco through the region was facilitated by extension support and investment by multinational tobacco companies, starting in the 1980s. Even today, many farmers produce conventional tobacco, although some have switched to organic tobacco, dairy, and diverse vegetable crops.


Dry Tobacco in a Barn

The history of conventional tobacco production in Santa Catarina state reflects the tradeoffs between economic, environmental, and social ends that many farmers face each day. We visited a local tobacco farmer, who showed us around his property and explained the production process.

Conventional tobacco production is input-intensive, requiring the extensive use of pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers. Many of the agro-chemical inputs are subsidized, either by the tobacco companies contracting with local farmers or by the Brazilian extension services. Despite signage implying that workers in the fields should wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) to reduce exposure to field-applied chemicals, our local informant made it clear that wearing PPE in the sub-tropics while doing manual farm labor was not a common practice. To compound any health impacts that may arise from exposure to field-applied chemicals, the tobacco plants also release nicotine, which can lead to Green Tobacco Sickness, or acute nicotine poisoning. The litany of potential health impacts has led to anecdotal reports of high suicide rates among farmers in Santa Rosa de Lima and nearby municipalities.


Tobacco Company Signs Recommending Use of PPE

The environmental impacts of tobacco production extend beyond those resulting from the relative toxicity of the inputs used to grow tobacco. Tobacco also depletes soils of nutrients, eroding the natural capital that farmers rely on to produce a living. Once tobacco is harvested, the drying process is energy intensive. Our local informant uses a wood-fed furnace, which relies on locally harvested wood as fuel (typically Eucalyptus or, in some cases, illegal native timber).


A Mix of Eucalyptus and Illegally Harvested Native Wood for Charcoal Production

Despite the social and environmental impacts, tobacco production is still profitable in the short run, leading many farmers to continue. In the case of our local informant, he plans to abandon tobacco and switch to management-intensive grazing of dairy cattle.

The next post will feature some of the “success stories” of family farmers in rural Santa Catarina that have shifted into organic and agro-ecological modes of production.

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