A growing movement for sustainable agriculture in the Amazon Brazilian, has acquired a new urgency with the coronavirus pandemic
The cumaru trees could have been planted elsewhere in this Amazon reserve, where they were more likely to flourish. Instead, they were planted in rough, sandy soil in the dry savanna that breaks through the forest. Beans, pigeon peas, and other straw crops were planted around it with cut savanna grass, to obtain moisture and compost. "We call it the cradle," says agronomist Alailson Rêgo. "Protects them."
The hope is that if these native Amazonian trees, whose seeds can be used in cosmetics, thrive in this sandy soil and on a nearby patch of deforested and burned land, they can regenerate pastures abandoned elsewhere. In the Amazon, more land is cleared for cattle than anything else. It's easier to clean: cut down some trees, light some fires. But restoring the forest? Bringing back life and greenery? That is much, much more difficult.
Located in the isolated Amazon reserve of Tap ajós-Arapiuns in the Brazilian state of Pará, the Centro Experimental de Bosques Activos (CEFA) was created in 2016 to solve problems like this. It is a research and development center where agriculture within the forest, or agroforestry, rather than clearing it for livestock or soybeans, is the focus. And it's part of a growing movement for sustainable agriculture in Brazil that has taken on a new urgency with the coronavirus pandemic, as scientists warn that the climate crisis and land development increase the chances that another deadly virus will jump out. animals to humans.
"It's a way of dealing with nature that is playing with the apocalypse," says Eugenio Scannavino Netto, the doctor and infectious disease specialist who helped establish the center. "We are heading for collective suicide."
At 61, Scannavino Netto has spent three decades in the rainforest working on Amazon solutions. In 1987, he founded the non-profit Health and Happiness Project, known by its Portuguese initials PSA (Projeto Saúde e Alegria), in nearby Alter do Chão. The group assists in sustainable community development while providing health and education services for remote communities using a hospital boat and clowns. Last year it was considered one of the 100 best NGOs in Brazil.
The center's goals are ambitious, but equally practical: 40,000 seedlings from its nursery will be donated to local communities to reforest areas of the reserve cut down and burned for livestock or traditional agriculture. These include pau-brasil, grown to be sold as wood; urucum, whose seeds are traditionally used as body paint by the indigenous peoples of the Amazon and sold as a colorant in lipstick; and pau-rosa, whose leaves are used in perfumes.
"The culture here is slash and burn, and we are trying to change that," says Scannavino Netto.
A collection of hives houses stingless bees. Small owner Joelma Lopes, 46, from the nearby community of Carão, learned beekeeping here and now subsidizes her income by selling honey from her own bees. "It was a door that opened a lot of knowledge," she says.
Moacir Imbiriba, 40, a Kumaruara indigenous man who works at the center, says that children in his village now use agroforestry techniques in their garden. "Many leaders see this as an evolution for communities," he says.
But while PSA's projects in this region have been widely praised for benefits such as reduced infant mortality, police raided its headquarters in Alter do Chão last November. Officers arrested four firefighters from a volunteer brigade who tackled the flames in local reserves during last year's fires in the Amazon, one of whom worked for the NGO. Documents and computers were seized.
The police investigation alleged that firefighters were setting fires in reserves near Alter do Chão, a popular beach beauty spot, to obtain international money. Serious flaws in the investigation work were exposed by the Brazilian media. Federal prosecutors investigating land grabbers suspected of setting fires on the same reservation said they had found no evidence of the involvement of volunteer firefighters or NGOs.
The investigation, suspended during the pandemic, has not yet concluded. But the police raid came weeks after Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro accused NGOs of setting fires in the Amazon without providing any evidence. "This is much more of a political operation than a technical and police operation," says Scannavino Netto.
In fact, the PES aims to be inclusive rather than politically divisive. Last year he organized a sustainable agriculture event in the nearest city of Santarém. The idea, says Caetano Scannavino, Scannavino Netto's brother and coordinator of the PSA, was simple. He says: "How can we produce an agenda that unites the environmental movement, the indigenous movement and the agribusiness sector?"
Rogério Vian, a farmer from the state of Goiás who grows organic and sustainable soybeans, spoke at the event. He is one of a national group of farmers working on sustainable agricultural techniques and reducing the use of pesticides, what he calls a middle way between organic farming and conventional farming.
“Farmers need the forest and the environment more than anyone else,” he says. Why not produce and conserve? You can do it all at the same time. "
Another speaker was Ernst Götsch, 72, a Swiss farmer who developed a system of crops and trees together that he calls “syntropic” agriculture on a farm in Bahia, northeastern Brazil. “We have between 50 and 60 different species of trees and palms per hectare. It is very diverse. I don't use any fertilizers, I don't use pesticides, ”he says. Agroforestry techniques like this were used by indigenous communities before the Spanish and Portuguese explorers arrived. "They had similar strategies," says Götsch.
Now the coronavirus pandemic has given farmers more reason to change. As the Netflix series Pandemic revealed, scientists and researchers have found thousands of other zoonotic diseases like the new coronavirus and fear that another virus could jump to humans, such as avian and swine flu or MERS.
Deforestation has already been attributed to the 1999 outbreak of the Nipah virus in Malaysia, which killed 105 people after jumping from bats to pigs and then people. The outbreak inspired the 2011 film Contagion, starring Gwyneth Paltrow.
In March, Scannavino Netto argued in the Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo that the monocultures of modern agriculture were destroying everything from biodiversity to insects that serve as "bioregulators." Logging the Amazon changes animal behavior and increases the risk of another, much more deadly virus leaping to humans.
Covid-19 has been a warning. “Either we change,” he said in a recent telephone interview, “or we will die in the next pandemic. And it will be fast.