Beyond Cattle: Family Farms Provide a Good Life for People and Nature in the Amazon

Written by Rane Cortez on . Posted in Uncategorized

Editor’s Note: Rane Cortez, a forest carbon program director for The Nature Conservancy based in Belem, Brazil, has just moved for two months to the highly deforested northern frontier town of São Felix do Xingu (roughly pronounced sow felix do shingoo) to work together with farmers, ranchers, landowners, indigenous groups, and city officials to promote forest-friendly sustainable growth for the area. This post, which appeared on NatGeo NewsWatch on March 30, is the second in a Planet Change series over the next eight weeks that will share her perspective from the frontlines of Amazon deforestation.

“The history here is deforestation. People came here for one reason only: to deforest,” explains Father Danilo Lago. “But we shouldn’t just think about the conquest of the land. People need to learn to live well off the land.”

This is the mission of the Association of Family Farmers of Alto Xingu (ADAFAX), of which Father Danilo is the Treasurer. ADAFAX seeks to help family farmers diversify their crop production so that they make a sustainable living off of their small land holdings. I sat down with Father Danilo and two of his colleagues, Clarismar Pinto de Oliveira and Domingo Mendes, to learn more about their work and the difference it’s making on the ground. The conversation was an inspiration.

“Yesterday I was in a small community called Xada, visiting a farmer,” says Clarismar, “and I was impressed by the changes in mentality that I saw.”

Diversified Farming More Profitable

Recently, the farmer planted about 12 hectares (roughly 30 acres) of cacao, mixed with native shade trees, on an area that he had planned to use for cattle pasture. In addition to cacao, the farmer decided to diversify further, creating fish ponds and garden plots. Now, the garden plots are his most lucrative venture. It’s a small area, but the farmer says that it provides better profits compared with his other activities.

“He told me, ‘it was through my participation in ADAFAX events that I changed my vision. Before, I thought that cattle was the only thing that made a good profit and only through ranching could I stay on my land. Now I’m seeing that if I only do one activity, I wouldn’t be able to stay here. If I had continued to work only with cattle, I would have had to sell my land by now and I would have moved to another region,’” relates Clarismar.

“There is an idea here in São Felix do Xingu that to live well, to have a better life, you need to be a big rancher,” says Father Danilo. “But if you have 100 hectares and you try to live only by ranching, what will happen? You’ll deforest those 100 hectares, you’ll sell it to the big ranchers and you’ll have to move forward. But where are you going to go? Here in front of us we have only indigenous lands and ecological reserves. There’s nowhere left to go.”

Deforestation No Longer Viable

This is why Father Danilo talks about the need to learn to live well off the land. The old model of deforesting, using up the land, and moving on, is no longer viable. Family farmers need to learn that other alternatives exist that will allow them to live well and stay on their lands. Domingo has learned this firsthand.

“If I hadn’t begun working with ADAFAX, I wouldn’t still be on my land,” he says. “I have 50 hectares – I can’t live off ranching on 50 hectares. So now I am diversifying. I have cacao and make fruit juice concentrates. I think the concentrate is going to provide me with a better living than cattle would.”

“We Are Seeing Results Here in São Felix”

More and more farmers like Domingo are beginning to change their mindsets as well. “I think we are seeing results here in São Felix,” Says Father Danilo. “Various people are seeing that you can live well on 100 hectares. You don’t have to keep deforesting. You don’t have to keep moving forward along the frontier. There is a viable alternative – gardens, cacao; cattle, yes, but just a small number for milk production – this has a big influence. It helps us lose this idea that to have a good life you have to be a big rancher. Having a well-structured, diversified farm also provides a good life.”

The Nature Conservancy is working with ADAFAX to help make sure that idea keeps spreading. “The future is going to be much better,” says Domingo. “If we do things like recover degraded areas and plant trees in riparian zones and around springs, things will change a lot. Maybe the old rains that used to fall will even return.”

Rane Cortez is a forest carbon program director for The Nature Conservancy in Belem, Brazil. This post is the second in a series that will share her perspective from the front lines of Amazon deforestation. Catch up on Rane’s other posts Two Months in the Amazon Frontier: Getting to São Felix – Planes, Taxis, Motorcycles, and Buses and Chocolate: A Sweet Solution to Tropical Deforestation?

Photo credit ADAFAX: Top photo (Tree nursery operated by a local farmer); Photo 2 (From left to right: Clarismar Oliveira, Domingo Mendes and Padre Danilo Lagos); Photo 3 (ADAFAX staff and family farmers).

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Planet Change is a Nature Conservancy blog site designed to share stories about actions the Conservancy and others around the world are taking to fight carbon pollution and the impacts of climate change, and to help people feel the connections between climate change and their daily lives and understand actions they can take.

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