Blog post

Soils, agriculture, forests and people: the missing links

Published on
September 19, 2016

Never had I harvested and processed sugar cane before. But one is never too old to learn and ‘get your hands dirty’ for the good of science, right? The scene occurred in the community Espera Feliz in Zona da Mata, Minas Gerais, Brazil (about 200 km south of Belo Horizonte). Together with Heitor Teixeira, Margriet Goris, Lucas de Carvalho and Ardjan Vermue, three PhD students and one Master student, I visited five family farms, three farmers’ syndicates and three communities during a travel of three days (besides Espera Feliz, we went to Divino and Araponga). These three communities are located relatively close to the city of Viçosa, about 50 to 150 km eastward, the university of which is partner in the so-called FOREFRONT project. FOREFRONT is financed primarily through the INREF fund of Wageningen UR and led by Prof. Lijbert Brussaard and Prof. Frans Bongers. The project is about the delivery of ecosystem services – such as production of food, regulation of water flows and maintenance of nutrient cycles – in agro-forest frontier landscapes, with a focus on Brazil and Mexico. It tries to understand the complex practices and processes behind ecosystem services delivery, why such delivery often fails and what can be done to improve such situations. FOREFRONT aims to be interdisciplinary in nature (it talks about social-ecological systems), wishes to apply a landscape approach (linking agriculture to watersheds, soils, trees, forests and, of course, people) and advocates a participatory research methodology. The latter implies the connection of practical knowledge of farmers about ecosystem services with scholarly knowledge of scientists in Viçosa and Wageningen.

This participatory ambition was also the background of our field visit. Since the project started recently, we wanted to (re)establish contacts with family farmers and farmers’ organizations as soon as possible.
This was enabled in a large way by more than 20 years of collaborative
experience between the University of Viçosa and the farmers in the region.
Because of this, we were welcomed warmly by the farmers and syndicates, although some of them felt a bit over-researched by previous projects, without benefitting that much. Therefore, we discussed with them what added value FOREFRONT could bring.

Back to the sugar cane. As part of the participatory approach, we will not only study farmers, but also work with them and work for them. Firstly, to learn about the various farming practices and, secondly, to compensate for the time we ask of them to be interviewed. So we harvested sugar
cane, the five of us with the farmer, in the morning and processed it to brown sugar in the afternoon (squeezing and boiling). In the meantime, particularly during the boiling process of the sugar-cane liquid, we were able to interview the farmer and his family. In so doing, we applied a mapping exercise (so-called Fuzzy Cognitive Mapping). This is an approach to reconstruct the cognitive representation of the agro-ecological system as perceived by the farmer. By letting him/her identify the main services nature offers to the farm, by identifying factors and drivers that shape these services and by setting and weighing relationships in a map, the world view of the farmer is reconstructed. We did two maps during our three days visit, but the idea of FOREFRONT is to make 25 of such maps in the Viçosa region, and then combine these in a number of social representations of agro-ecological systems per farming style. Moreover, these maps can be combined with natural science data to complete the picture and also serve as a basis to deduce various future scenarios for changing and – ideally – improving the various farming styles.

Before travelling to Viçosa, I also visited a workshop on Tera Preta and Biochar in Piracicaba, about 150 km west of São Paulo. This activity
was again related to an INREF program, but now one that is nearly finished. Project coordinator is Prof. Tom Kuyper of Wageningen UR and partners in Brazil are Embrapa and INPA, amongst others. Amazonian Black Earth (or Tera Preta) is an humanly modified soil that is found in large parts of the Amazon (between 3 and 10% of the territory, for as far as we have evidence now, but probably much more, because large parts of the Amazon are still unexplored by archaeologists). These soils are a remanence of human cultivation, the effect of dumping organic matter around settlements, together with ceramics, bones and other materials. Over time, a dark layer of very fertile and carbon-rich soil has been formed, sometimes up to more than a metre on top of the poorer Oxisols
of the Amazon. Since carbon is also very stable in Tera Preta, it has recently been identified as an important potential for carbon sequestration, besides being a waste-management tool and soil fertilizer. Now, the idea is to reproduce Tera Preta in a modern form and on an industrial basis and scale. This is the so-called biochar, a promising ‘triple win’ (climate-change mitigation, waste management, soil fertilizer). Yet, a number of doubts on these win-win-win claims exist. For example, experiments show that the carbon in biochar is not necessary always stable, thus putting doubts on the climate-change mitigation potential. The Piracicaba workshop covered these topics and was visited by about 50 scholars from various disciplines (archaeology, ecology, soil sciences, policy sciences, sociology).

Between the Piracicaba workshop and the Viçosa field visit, I went to Brasilia for two days to meet one of my PhD researchers, Barbara
Farinelli. She is affiliated with the World Bank and evaluates the so-called
ABC plan of Brazil, the low-carbon agricultural plan of the country, as part of its NDC (Nationally Determined Contribution) under the UNFCCC and the Paris Agreement. Part of the visit was an interview with the ABC credit-line coordinator of the federal Ministry of Agriculture. This interview showed that the plan is promising, but encounters many difficulties in its implementation. Moreover, family farmers (the subject of FOREFRONT) are excluded so far. And finally, the plan was once initiated by President Lulu of the Socialist Party. With the impeachment of Rousseff – it actually took place when I was in Piracicaba – and the takeover of the presidency by Temer, many assume that such ‘socialist’ initiatives will be blocked by the new conservative government.

These two weeks in Brazil were both intense and efficient. Three projects were addressed – putting forward the many links among soils,
agriculture, forests and people. Now I am leaving, it looks as if I have been more than a month in the country. But as sad as I am to leave, I am as happy to go back home, to my own ‘family farm’.