Can edible forests stop Brazilian deforestation?
You could not miss it this summer. Brazil made headlines around the globe. Those headlines were crystal clear: the lungs of the world were on fire. While Bolsonaro blamed NGOs, the latter targeted the policy of the so-called ‘Trump of the Tropics’, a policy in which trees must give way to soy and livestock.
The same collective indignation a burning Amazon forest evokes, is missing in the case of one of the most biodiverse savannas in the world, the Brazilian Cerrado. This region is also victim of illegal deforestation, which happens three times faster than in the famous rainforest.
Documentary maker Louise Amand launches Pé na terra together with the Movement for Healthy Agriculture (Wervel). The title’s translation is ‘with your feet on the ground’. The documentary discusses the Cerrado’s destruction and puts forward a kind of agriculture that makes reforestation possible.
An underground, inverted mosaic
‘The dry orange savannah soil, green soy fields, the paradisiacal nature, the landscape of the Cerrado resembles a mosaic’, says Louise Amand. After finishing her university degree, she moved from Belgium to Brazil and worked there for the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN).
Excluding the Amazon, the area is the most important habitat type in Brazil. It covers an area of almost two million square meters, the size of Western Europe. Although the region is vital for the Brazilian water and energy supply, the tropical savannah is relatively unknown, also in its own country.
‘Because it has a very different climate than the Amazon rainforest, it is sometimes called an inverted forest: the underground biomass is bigger than the one on top. The region’s characteristics are its twisted, gnarled trees and dry soil. For this reason, most Brazilians think of it as quite a sad place, which is totally undeserved’, Luc Vankrunkelsven from Wervel states.
‘Not only the Amazon forest is important for the Earth’s climate system. You could say that there is an underground sea beneath the Cerrado which feeds all the big rivers in Brazil. Fifty percent of the Amazon’s water rises in the neighborhood of Brasília, the country’s capital located in the heart of the Cerrado. The area is also very important for the storage of carbon dioxide’, says Vankrunkelsven.
Thanks to the original vegetation, the area is able to store 13.7 trillion tons of CO2. The rapid deforestation and planting of exotic crops jeopardizes this.
Gnarled trees versus green soy
The Cerrado’s deforestation is not a hot topic in Brazil, nor in the rest of the world. It is in terms of deforestation and loss of vegetation, one of the most exploited and endangered regions in Brazil. Approximately fifty procent of forest and native vegetation has been destroyed, often to clear agricultural land for Brazil’s large-scale export farming.
The gnarled native trees cleared the field for thousands of hectares of soy, Australian eucalyptus and corn. According to WWF only twenty percent of the original vegetation is intact. The majority of Brazil’s soy production takes place in the Cerrado region. Today Brazil is the world’s largest soy producer together with the United States and Argentina.
Pé na terra does not declare war on agriculture or soy cultivation, but does want to show that things can be done differently. Louise explains: “In Brazil I saw that the farmers have the power to reforest deforested areas, and to achieve this in an agro-ecological way with a constant food production throughout the year.”
The documentary follows some ecological farmers from the region and also lets a large soy producer have its say.
A co-creation with nature
According to Louise, the solution to save the Cerrado and its rich biodiversity lies in planting edible forests. That kind of agro-ecological agriculture is called agroforestry. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN describes it as a land-use system where trees are planted alongside agricultural crops.
‘It is a system that gives more than it receives. The system does not deplete the soil, but gives it the chance to recover. Agroforestry increases biodiversity and is not dependent on pesticides and fertilizers. Food is produced in accordance with the ecosystem of the region. You can view those edible forests as a co-creation with nature.’
‘The Swiss farmer and scientist Ernst Götsch is an agroforestry pioneer. About 30 years ago he took over a farm in Bahia. The soil was completely depleted, yet he managed to reverse the soil’s degradation. Many years later, his farm is one of the most fertile in the region. Some are even convinced that he is a wizard.’
Louise also says she is worried about the current situation in Brazil. After having lived there for four years, she and her Brazilian husband will soon be moving to Belgium. He was one of the documentary’s sources of inspiration. A few years ago his family made the switch from conventional to sustainable agro-forestry farming.
‘One day, my husband announced that he was tired of working with harmful pesticides. This was the beginning of the family farm’s transition. It took a few years but we managed to make the change. When I realized that this was possible, I saw a very practical solution to a problem that is not only limited to the Cerrado. With the documentary I want to prove sustainable change is possible, but that this requires a certain commitment.
Down to Earth
Yet Louise remains cautious: ‘We shot Pé na terra before Bolsonaro came to power. Today we see a big polarization within Brazilian society, both in terms of ideologies and in the different kinds of agriculture. Small farms were somewhat protected under Lula’s policy. This cannot be said about Bolsonaro’s administration: the distance between large and small farmers is increasing. The current government makes it very easy for the agricultural industry. Since Bolsonaro took office early this year, more than 200 harmful pesticides have been approved, for example.’
‘But in that polarized society you also find people who are very committed to fighting the destruction of the Cerrado. One of my favorite examples is Community Supported Agriculture (CSA), which is a partnership between consumers and farmers. As a member of the community you pay a certain amount that covers the production costs. The farmer then has the assurance that his harvest will not be wasted. It is a way to promote local food and it creates a bond between consumers and farmers. We need such an ethical-economic model. I have seen the number of CSAs increase in Brasilia with my own eyes. This gives hope. “
‘But it is necessary to strive for change. You participate in a system that does not make sense when you don’t. We need to reconsider the way we live now and make changes at every possible level. It is a slow and difficult process, but we cannot let ourselves be paralyzed by feelings of guilt or fear.’
Pé na terra premieres on September 10 in the Belgian Embassy in Brasília, Brazil and October 16 in Diest’s Cultural Center, Belgium.