News / 29 June 2021

Fighting desertification in the Brazilian Sertão

The farmers in the Sertão do Araripe region in Pernambuco state are smart. The small-scale family farmers know that securing a sustainable livelihood on the rich but vulnerable soils of the Sertão is only possible if they take good care of the environment. That means sound agriculture, making the best of every drop of available water, diligent use of natural fertilisers and pest-control and fighting for laws and policies that stimulate conservation rather than exploitation. The organisation CAATINGA helps the farmers to face the challenging conditions.

In 2012, over 135 farming families founded the Association of Agroecological Farmers of the Araripe (ECOARARIPE). Over the years ECOARARIPE grew, and currently over 500 farming families have joined the association. Its main goal is to help its members in the production, processing and marketing of their products and to advocate for policies that allow the farmers to practice sustainable agriculture.

But not only the environment is a challenge. Farmer's livelihoods also face threats from large-scale agribusiness, that are slowly but surely gaining ground, aided by legislation initiated under the conservative Bolsonaro administration. Cattle farmers, for example, face few legal restrictions in monopolising the available water. The argument is that big (agri)business means export and export means money. Likewise, the current Brazilian government does little to mitigate the challenges of climate change. The Sertão is heavily affected by changing climatic conditions.

Biological pest control

For small-scale farmers, the advise of specialised NGOs is important. One of the supporting organisations is CAATINGA (also see our publication "Unlocking Public Finance for Agroecology"). CAATINGA helps the farmers of the Sertão do Araripe to get acquainted with methods for agroecological practices. Paulo Pedro De Carvalho, coordinator of CAATINGA, explains: "We train farmers in soil, water and biodiversity conservation. Techniques to restore degraded lands are tried, evaluated and practised, with emphasis on issues like biological pest control and use of natural protectors. We use, for example, bait plants such as sesame, to control cotton pests. We stimulate the practice of crop rotation, the use of animal traction in soil preparation and crop treatments in order to keep and restore soil health." Results of the soil recovery and the greater biodiversity are that families have increased their productivity and strengthened their financial autonomy.

The support is not just technical. Through CAATINGA the relatively isolated farmers of the Sertão are connected with a national, regional and global network of farmers and specialists in agroecology specifically for semi-arid areas: information is exchanged, good practices are shared. "Operating within a network strengthens the effectiveness of agroecology", says Paulo Pedro De Carvalho. At the international level, CAATINGA is part of the global Drynet network. Drynet members in four continents are operating in ecosystems that are susceptible to land degradation and desertification. Drynet advocates for policies that support sustainable land use and restoration by local communities. Through Drynet, CAATINGA is linked with Both ENDS.

CAATINGA has been successful in providing a way out to the logic of land concentration and agricultural modernisation based upon the use of synthetic pesticides and fertilizers and deforestation. "We support the lobby for access to land and for farmers' participation in policy making."

A matter of survival

'A união faz a força' – unity is strength – farming families in the Araripe say. It is a cliché perhaps, but in the Sertão it is a matter of survival. Working together is the only way to escape poverty and build a dignified life. The farmers share production facilities that enable them to process their crops into products that yield higher prices. And so, during the yearly harvest festival in the region, the members of ECOARARIPE can be seen proudly presenting bottles of ecologically produced sesame oil and other high-quality products produced by the farmers and processed by their collective facilities.

Biodiversity is an important factor in the sustainability of the livelihoods of the family farmers. The preservation of biodiversity lies to a large extent in the hands of the rural families that often have been working their lands for many decades. All households of ECOARARIPE have family seed banks, and most participate in Community Seed Banks that are essential for the conservation of the Creole seeds that pass from generation to generation, increase seed diversity, and help in food and nutritional autonomy and security of families.

ECOARARIPE provides opportunities for farmers to obtain prices that cover the costs of agroecological production and processing. It has contributed to a renewed relationship between producers and consumers in the countryside and cities. And, last but not least, it is fruitful in such a way that it sparked the interest of other farmers to join the initiative.



The Sertão

The Sertão is a large, semi-arid region in the Northeast of Brazil. The region, that extends over 9 north-eastern states, is marked by scarce and increasingly unpredictable rainfall and prolonged drought periods that severely hit agriculture. Without smart agriculture a sustainable livelihood in the Sertão is impossible. The soil gets degraded, making the next harvest even more difficult. Hunger is not uncommon in this part of the world.


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