A Successful Farmer in the Brazilian Drylands

The region of Cafarnaum, in the Bahian drylands (in the Northeast region of Brazil, about 5 hours inland from the coast) has some of the best soils a farmer could imagine. But it also has one of the worst climates possible. Rains are erratic, unpredictable, often destructive ( where a fourth of the year´s average can fall in one day), and are concentrated in three or four months of the year (November to February, Brazilian summer).

The rest of the year the land is scortched by a merciless sun, with occasional showers, but not enough that one can count on to do any serious planting.

There is a myth in Brazil that an inhabitant of this region (900 thousand square kilometers of land, ten million inhabitants) is doomed to a poor miserable life, the options being to live in misery or migrate to the big city slums and die in misery – or worse. Yet, in January of 2005 I visited a successful farmer. He is young (28), has been to São Paulo and back, started with a bit of inherited land like anyone else, and is growing financially and personally with each passing year. Today he lives in a brand new brick house with an enormous cistern for roof water. Behind his house, a shed protects a couple dozen native beehives (these bees do not sting), who harvest honey from the surrounding bush.

His family is happy, too – his children enjoy planting seedlings in the nursery, and Jurandir credits half of the work to his wife, Neide, who is always timidly behind the scenes. His new house is surrounded by a plethora of young fruit trees, sweet potato, cane grass (for the animals), flowers, and even a sunken bed with lettuce and cilantro.

The day we visited him, mid January, his property was a bright vigorous green, in spite of thirty days of drought in the heart of the planting season (it had rained 70mm the night previous to our visit).

Jurandir showed us the small fields of polyculture (a mix of cactus, sisal, corn, beans, and various legumes and trees, about 28 species in total) at various stages of development, from a three-year system with three-meter high trees, to a recently-planted one where the first trees were beginnning to peek over the young sisal plants.

When questioned whether he will use the system in all of his property, he replied “ I hope, when I am old, this whole property will have received this treatment.” He is absolutely convinced of the power of this system to create exceptionally fertile and protected agricultural systems. Proof of this was a planting of cowpeas in one of the older polyculture fields ( his oldest system is only three years old), vibrant, green, and full of flowers, in spite of the month-long drought. He would soon have delicious green beans for his table where the neighbors were just getting their beans planted. (They insist on the more commercial beans,(Phaseolus) which are less resistant to drought but bring a higher market price, whereas cowpeas (Vigna), native to Africa, resist drought but have a lower market value).

What most impresses me in Jurandir is a fundamental shift in values. Whereas his neighbors plant more for the market, he is investing in his own quality of life and in systems for the future. “My neighbor wanted to cut a piece of native shrub down “, he commented. “I tried to convince him not to do it, as we have so few native woods left, but he was determined to do it. So I bought that piece of land from him, and put honeybees on it. I have already paid for the land from the sale of the honey.”

In fact , Jurandir has bought some land every year since the Polyculture project started
(except in 2005, when he built his new house). One parcel of land is planted in sisal (an enormous permanent agave planted for its fibers), a crop once important in the region. This gives shared income, as sisal is harvested by professional teams (usually families) which travel around from property to property with their equipment.

Jurandir now has 57 acres, still considered a smallholding by most (one agronomist from an NGO which works in this bioma calculates a minimum of 87 acres to survive.) When asked how much land he was planning to accumulate, he answered that perhaps for the time being he would take care of what he already has.

When walking his property, what most impressed us (besides the general overall health of the plants) was the great diversity of fields. Instead of rows of beans or castor to the horizon (as is common in the region), we saw small fields( maximum one acre , often less) with a great diversity of crops: various types of beans, fruits, hedges as windbreaks, sweet potato, native woods, sugar cane (a surprise for me, as this crop needs considerable water, under normal conditions). This year´s corn had not yet been planted (it would be, the day following our visit, thanks to the copious rains which had fallen). Fortunately, Jurandir has easy access to a local market where he can sell all his products.

What I saw reflected back at me, was a philosophy of life. Jurandir gives high value to his quality of life, and believes that it can be achieved ( and in fact is!) on a small parcel of land. He has incorporated “Polyculture” not only as an agricultural model, but as a style of life, a form of non-linear, systemic thinking, where everything fits into a diverse and dynamic whole. He believes in himself, and in the potential of his land to produce a satisfying life. This, for a Sertanejo, is a giant leap in the face of the national myth of fordoomed misery for the farmers in the region.

Jurandir is ambitious, but not just for himself. As of a very young age he has been a community leader, and is now a leader in the polyculture project, travelling out to teach other farmers. The message, coming from him, cannot be refuted. “It works, because I did it...”

Link for the Polyculture Project: www.permacultura-bahia.org.br


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Marizá Epicentro

Tucano - Bahia - Brasil

Marsha Hanzi

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