Six steps to abundant drylands in Brazil

Imagine this scene: to one side, scorched earth, with tiny castor bean plants dying of thirst. Five yards from that, a green wall two meters high, a complex mixture of castor beans, pigeon peas, jack beans, sesame, cowpeas, opuntia (nopales- an edible cactus) fodder trees, and young fruit trees. Below this mass, the soil is so humid that one might think that it had just rained. 

Result of irrigation? No. This is the result of an agricultural model appropriate to drylands: polycultures.

There is a myth which says that in the Brazilian drylands, called “Sertão,” it rarely rains. In fact in the Sertão it rains “enough” (sometimes a lot!) for its ecosystem. There is an enormous mix of flora, fauna, medicinal herbs, fine woods, fruit, fodder and annual crops adapted to this climate. The problem is the loss of rainwater and not the lack of rain! Dryland research, confirmed by the EMBRAPA of Petrolina, show that the present agricultural model leads to a loss of 80% of rainwater, through wind, sun, and runoff. In the rainy seasons, the rivers in the Sertão overflow their margens – where there are floods, there will be drought, because that water has been lost to the system!

Therefore, the problem of the drylands is wrong management and not lack of rain. In order to create a form of sustainable agriculture, even in drought years, one needs to take six simiple steps:

    1. Plant windbreaks – the dry wind can carry off up to 1,500 mm of humidity – three time more than it rains in the region! Just this one strategy could result in enormous advantages to the farmer.
    2. Cover the soil – Mulch, besides shading the soil from the direct rays of the sun, stores humidity, keeping the soil surface cool, a fundamental condition for the presence of beneficial soil life. In fact, the process of decomposition of this mulch material produces water as one of its sub-products.
    3. Polycultures – a diversity of plants takes adavantege of every drop of rain, amply proven by the Polyculture Project of the Bahian Permaculture Institute. With the intense utilization of space by a variety of plants, the farmer harvests eight to fifteen crops where before he harvested one or two, increasing tremendously the number of products for sale and for his table. Polycultures create a situation of financial and food security within which the farmer can risk trying out new crops. A second advantage of polycultures is the immense web of roots formed under the soil surface, which keep it open and humid, making sure that all humdity remains available to the plants, and does not easily slip below the root zone.
    4. Plant trees wherever possible – Locally adapted trees produce fruits and fine woods and firewood even in El Niño years, leaving the local microclimate cooler and more humid. In spite of the belief that trees take a long time to produce, with polycultures it is possible to have an agricultural system which after one year produces short-term crops such as elephant grass, cassava, opuntia, with two years produces dwarf varieties of cashew, serigüela and fodder, with four years anonas, cashew , guavas, and with five years the first woods for fence posts. Thus, the farmer implements an integrated agroforest which produces over the years with a minimum of intervention and without having to wait years in order to start harvesting from the plot. Ideally the farmer would leave a small area for annual crops (corn and beans, etc.) and would transform the rest of his property into mixed agroforests (which could also be forrage agroforests for his animals), a much more stable proposal for an instable climate. In fact, this agroforest wil create its own cooler microclimate, as the temperature difference sun-shade is 8 degrees centigrade!
    5. Plant fodder systems for the animals – In drought pasture dies, but the bushes and trees continue green. Having specific fodder systems would avoid the necessity of turning the animals into the crop stubble, scraping the fields clean of all organic material, to cook in the sun, as is the case today.
    6. Put cisterns on all roofs – A hundred meters of roof surface can catch twenty thousand liters of water in the worst years, and up to seventy thousand in better rain years. 

The problem of the Sertão, therefore, is not lack of water. It is the lack of information and of extensionists working with a model which is appropriate for this climate. The success of the Polyculture Project, which is into its fifth year, proves that non-irrigated agriculture in the Sertão is capable of providing abundance and income, even in drought years.

*Marsha Hanzi is Northamerican, permanent resident in Brazil for 30years, founder of the Bahian Permaculture Institute, author of the manual “Permacultura- O Sítio Abundante” (Permaculture- the Abundant Farm)


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