In the Amazon, farming the forest to save the forest

Open a new road in the Amazon and deforestation most often follows, creating a landscape of big sky, white cows, and green pastures. But on back roads around the frontier town of Nova Califórnia, in a remote corner of northwestern Brazil, a renewed verdant canopy closes in. 

As we crawl down a slick, red-mud road in a four-wheel-drive truck, Dielison Furtunato, our guide, points out açaí palms, whose slender fronds lap at the stout trunks of towering Brazil nut trees. Beneath the canopy, sour cupuaçu fruits hang like bloated potatoes from the branches of the small, rounded species. Although these particular forests look natural, they’re not; they are comprised of cultivated edible Amazonian plants.

These forests exist because Furtunato’s employer, a local agroforestry cooperative called RECA, has made it economically viable to plant and tend them, an especially important endeavor at a time when the rainforest is being razed at an alarming rate. For decades, cattle ranching has been the dominant economic activity in the Amazon, driving 80 percent of forest loss

Ranchers get caught in a vicious cycle, felling forest and establishing pastures that quickly deplete the nutrients in the thin tropical soils. Once depleted, yields of beef per acre diminish, so the ranchers move on, converting more forest to pastures until those soils are shot, too. So far, nearly a fifth of the Amazon has been cleared. But because agroforestry systems require far less land than cattle to make a living, they could take the pressure off the rainforest that remains—if they were more widely implemented.

RECA, a co-op founded in 1989, demonstrates how it could be done. The natural rainforest preserves biodiversity, protects soil and water, and sequesters carbon in its trees, mitigating climate change. RECA’s farmers approximate that ecosystem, densely planting up to 40 species in their recreated rainforest parcels. 

The co-op processes about a dozen of these species into food products sold throughout Brazil: fruit juice, palm hearts, oils. The rest, including medicinal plants, supply local markets. Others are planted simply to benefit soil and wildlife. Some of the harvest is even exported. RECA’s top crop is cupuaçu, a relative of the cacao tree. Its seeds are pressed into an oil purchased by the Brazilian cosmetics conglomerate Natura, which owns Avon and The Body Shop. L’Occitane, the French cosmetics company with stores across the United States, buys the seeds of the cumaru tree, which lend a vanilla-almond fragrance to the company’s Cumaru Raiz cologne.

The more than 300 families in the co-op earn about five times more per acre from their agroforestry plots annually than local ranchers do from their pastures. “Thirty years ago, a lot of people thought the folks at RECA were insane,” says Furtunato, a barrel-chested young man with a thick black beard. “Still today people think agroforestry does not provide a viable livelihood. But we know it can.”

Furtunato himself exemplifies that shift. The son of a local rancher, he was drawn away from the family business by RECA’s alternative vision for the Amazon, valuing trees over pastures, growing fruit instead of cattle.

We pull up to the home of Maria and Raimundo de Souza, early RECA members who moved to the area from northeastern Brazil in 1977. Facing dire poverty, they lived in a canvas tent when they arrived. “We survived because of RECA,” says Maria, sitting in a rocking chair on a clean-swept veranda, where coffee tins planted with flowers have been mounted to the wall of the board-and-batten house. “We suffered a lot, but today we are comfortable,” says Raimundo, a grizzled man wearing muck boots and a baseball cap. He points out a mango tree in the yard under which some of the first RECA meetings were held.  

Cláudio Maretti, a former president of ICMBio, the federal agency overseeing protected land in Brazil, views agroforestry ventures such as RECA as a model for reclaiming parts of the Amazon, especially on the pastures that have been abandoned because they can no longer support cattle—which comprise more than half of the land that has been cleared. “Agroforestry is a system for recovery, for attracting native pollinators and wildlife to return, and for providing ecological services,” Maretti says. 

He says that agroforestry plantings also help maintain the Amazon’s “flying rivers”—moisture-laden currents of air, transpired by trees, that ensure rainfall throughout much of the continent. Those will likely disappear if too much forest is felled.  

There are also global benefits. According to Project Drawdown, an analysis of the most promising climate solutions, agroforestry systems sequester up to 11 tons of carbon per acre each year, eight times more than that pulled from the atmosphere if tropical forests are allowed to regenerate without human intervention.

“That’s because the agroforestry systems get weeding and fertilizer and irrigation,” explains Eric Toensmeier, a senior fellow at Project Drawdown.

Despite the clear benefits of agroforestry, there are powerful forces favoring cattle over trees in the Amazon. Nova Califórnia, a town of 3,000, lies in the state of Rondônia, along the BR-364 highway, a major drug-trafficking corridor where vehicles weave around potholes—craters, really, as many are the size of a queen mattress—that pock the asphalt every few feet in some stretches. Sawmills line the highway on one side of town, clouds of acrid smoke rising from their kilns. With its dusty dirt streets and ranchers in cowboy boots, Nova Califórnia feels like the Wild West, complete with a growing reputation for lawlessness. 

In the past five years, at least 20 people have been murdered in land conflicts involving the local loggers, which has been behind much of the illegal deforestation in the area. In one region north of town, just beyond where the majority of RECA properties are concentrated, small-scale farmers have been systematically driven out at gunpoint, according to reports by investigative journalists in Brazil, their homes ransacked and torched. 

Pedro Soares, manager of the climate change program at IDESAM, a Brazilian NGO, says it’s a pattern found in frontier regions throughout the Amazon. Loggers intimidate local residents, cut the most valuable timber, clear the land with fire, plant pasture, and attempt to establish ownership through grilagem, a time-worn process of paperwork doctoring. Under a 1996 law, landowners in the Amazon cannot deforest more than 20 percent of their plots, but through this violent, fraudulent process, the rainforest is being knocked down at a far faster rate.  

In fact, Rondônia has the third highest rate of deforestation in the Amazon, according to data from INPE, Brazil’s National Institute of Space Research. In the far western tip of the state, where RECA is located, large tracts of virgin forest can still be found a few miles from the highway, but they are rapidly disappearing. “Ranching is knocking at their door,” says Soares, whose job includes providing technical support for sustainable development projects in the Amazon, including RECA. “RECA is a one-of-a-kind initiative—it is far ahead of similar cooperatives in the Amazon—but it is under immense pressure.”

RECA farmers have suffered occasional incursions into their forests. Jersiane Berkembrok, the 24-year-old daughter of one of RECA’s founding families, says that last year someone entered the back of her sister’s property and began cutting roxinho trees, a species with wine-colored heartwood prized for high-end woodworking. The family notified the environmental authorities, but “nothing happened,” says Berkembrok. 

Deforestation in the Brazilian Amazon expanded by 34 percent in 2019, according to INPE, the first year of Jair Bolsonaro’s presidency. He defunded the agencies that enforce environmental regulations and made full-throttled economic development in the Amazon a top priority.

That summer, tens of thousands of fires were set across the Amazon to clear land for cattle, making headlines around the world. In September, Genecilda Lima Maia, a 38-year-old RECA farmer, was alarmed to discover a fire started by a neighbor had spread to her property. The nearest fire department is nearly 100 miles away, but in response to the constant threat of conflagration RECA had recently procured firefighting equipment and organized its own volunteer brigade of the farmers themselves. Maia’s blaze was one of their first tests. “The fire truck came, everyone got together, and we put it out,” she recalls. But not before six acres of newly planted trees were destroyed. 

The fires were even worse in 2020, and the Abunã district of Rondônia, where RECA is located, had the third highest number in the Amazon. Fábio Vailatti, who oversees RECA’s fire response efforts, blames Bolsonaro, who at one point suggested that environmental groups were setting the fires to generate publicity. “I was never worried about fires in the past,” says Vailatti. “We had some every year, but the numbers were small. Now there is a sense of impunity, which has led many people in our area to use this practice.” 

The breeze that meets us upon entering Bernadete and Sérgio Lopes’ grove of 80-foot Brazil nut trees makes the sweltering day seem suddenly bearable. “It’s like air conditioning,” says Sérgio. 

Unlike most of the settlers who founded RECA, Bernadete and Sérgio are well-educated. She was a nurse technician, he was a professor; the couple caught the back-to-the-land bug in the 1980s, uprooting their life in southern Brazil to move to the Amazonian frontier. The majority of early RECA members were landless farmers from other parts of the country who left behind a life of poverty for the promise of cheap land, a carrot that the country’s military dictatorship dangled to promote settlement in the Amazon.

The hundreds of thousands who migrated to the region in the 1970s and ’80s were unwitting executors of the government’s plan to bolster the national economy by exploiting the untapped resources of the Amazon, which was then largely intact rainforest. The settlers were given government loans to cut down the forest, and in some cases were required to as a condition for receiving free land. They planted rice and other annual crops they were familiar with from the farming communities they’d fled, but yields quickly diminished in the poor rainforest soils. Many, including those who later formed RECA, were destitute. 

In the early days, Sérgio would throw the sacks of rice they produced over his back and haul them 1.5 miles along a trail to the highway, unpaved at the time, where buyers would pick them up. The road was virtually impassable then during the rainy season, leaving the community cut off from the outside world—and unable to sell their crops—for nearly half the year. Electricity arrived in 1987, though only for four hours a day; telephone service was unavailable outside town until after the millennium. 

The Lopes family survived multiple bouts of malaria, but many of their neighbors succumbed to the disease. Overwhelmed with hardship, settlers left in droves. “People sold their land for the cost of a bus ticket home,” says Sérgio. “They’d do anything to leave. We realized we had to do something.”

So, some of the settlers in Nova Califórnia began harvesting wild plants they’d learned of from local rubber tappers, forest-dwelling communities that spread across the Amazon during the 19th century. A few settler families began organizing work parties, helping each other plant these species on their degraded farmland, and the cooperative, which is now organized into 10 neighborhood-based collectives, was born. In 1989, a Catholic charity provided much-needed seed money for RECA’s 86 founding families to scale up their tree plantings and purchase processing equipment. A bigger break came in 2003 when they landed the contract with Natura, the Brazilian cosmetics company.

As sales grew, members upgraded their mud-and-straw homes to brick structures. In the nineties, the group established a health clinic, a school, and a radio station in Nova Califórnia. An auditorium was built for community events and adult education classes, ranging from business management to organic farming and women’s empowerment. When the UN Development Program awarded RECA its Equator Prize in 2010, they noted that not only had the co-op filled many of the “social service gaps that have been left by the government” it had “been the source of the majority of investments into local infrastructure.” 

Now, at RECA’s headquarters along the BR-364, workers in hairnets and face masks separate the edible pulp of cupuaçu from the seeds that are then pressed into oil destined for face creams and shower gels. At the co-op’s store, the broader community can purchase RECA goods directly: honey, eggs, cassava chips, chocolate-covered Brazil nuts, and an array of homemade wines and liqueurs. Today RECA employs 70 people and pulls in $1.9 million in annual revenue.

RECA isn’t alone in the Amazon. There are a number of agroforestry initiatives that use a diverse mix of native species—the government does not track these separately from monoculture tree plantations, so it’s difficult to quantify their spread or economic impact—but RECA is one of the biggest and most studied. As many as 1,500 NGO representatives, government officials, students, and researchers have visited each year, including Jéssica Puhl Croda, a forestry engineer who has studied RECA’s ecological impact.

She says the agroforestry systems maintain soil fertility and water quality nearly as well as wild Amazonian forests. They do not have the same level of biodiversity—one acre of virgin forest can have hundreds of plant species—but they still harbor a multitude of native insects, birds, and wildlife. “The diversity of species creates a balance that keeps pests and diseases under control,” says Croda.

The 30 million inhabitants of the Amazon basin have two paths before them. They can develop an economy based around the standing forest, or one that turns it into tropical ranchland. The scales are heavily weighted toward the latter. 

Agroforestry may be more profitable per acre than cattle, but Judson Valentim, a researcher at EMBRAPA, Brazil’s version of the USDA, cites a laundry list of reasons why it is not more widely adopted: Government subsidies are lacking; technical advice and training are not widely available; infrastructure and distribution networks pale in comparison to the cattle industry; and the return on investment takes longer, making it difficult to obtain financing. “Cattle is seen as a reliable savings account,” he says. “If you have one cow this year, next year you’ll have two.”

Cultural norms play a role as well. Raising cattle symbolizes that one has moved out of a subsistence lifestyle. “Cattle is associated with pride,” says Valentim, who comes from an Amazon farming family and has spent most of his life in the region. “A cattle rancher is seen as someone who is working hard and being prosperous. A guy with forest around his house is seen as lazy.”

In RECA’s early years, cattle was not much of a temptation because the industry had not yet become entrenched in the area. But as roads were bulldozed, ranchers moved in, burning and clearing the surrounding forest. Today, RECA forests are increasingly surrounded by a sea of grass. Hamilton Condack, the co-op’s current president, says that as the export value of beef has soared in recent years, some of the co-op’s members have even become ranchers. “I don’t like it, but it’s understandable,” he says. “Around here if you have a pregnant cow, there are five people at your door wanting to buy the calf before it’s born.” The cattle path, he says, is “seductive.”

Berkembrok acknowledges that RECA will need to keep finding new and higher-paying markets for the co-op’s products if agroforestry is to maintain its own seductive pull in the community. “It is an ongoing battle to demonstrate that we can survive and have a comfortable quality of life without cutting and burning the forest,” she says.

Túlio Lemos, a Nova Califórnia rancher with a herd of 5,000 and more than 60,000 acres of land, has a different outlook on the economics of agroforestry. He supports the idea of planting trees, but doesn’t believe there’s a large enough market for forest products to sustain the Amazonian economy. “Cattle is a scalable enterprise—no matter whether you have 100 cows or 100,000, you’ll always have someone to sell the beef to,” he says. But with fruit crops, “100 acres are enough to satisfy the market.”

He’s exaggerating, but it’s true that the $300 billion global beef market is orders of magnitude larger than the market for crops like açaí—the Amazon’s top agroforestry export—which is worth just shy of $1 billion. (Unlike açaí harvested in some areas of the Amazon, RECA’s is not tainted with child labor—their products are certified by the Union for Ethical Biotrade, and while RECA children are engaged in farm activities “as a way of learning,” says Condack, “we do not have child labor exploitation here at all.”) 

Lemos, however, fails to consider agroforestry’s secret weapon: consumers are willing to pay more for products that enhance biodiversity and sequester carbon. Natura, for example, pays the co-op twice the market value for its cupuaçu oil, covering the cost of the premium through a carbon credit program based around RECA’s reforestation efforts.  

“We’re paying them both to produce ingredients for us and to maintain the forest standing—it’s a service they provide for the planet,” says Luciana Villa Nova, who oversees rainforest supply chains for Natura, which sources a total of 39 forest-based ingredients from 34 Amazonian communities. “I think this is the future of the Amazon.”

That future will also depend on the up-and-coming generation, like Fortunato. RECA’s farmers are aging, and while some of their children have taken the torch, the co-op attracts only a trickle of new members. Furtunato recently purchased several acres of degraded land, where he’ll soon plant a food forest of his own. 

Furtunato grew up one county over, living in a dirt-floor hut with his family, who were subsistence farmers. Their plight improved in the mid-2000s when the government set up a loan program to help poor Amazonians acquire cattle, allowing the family to obtain a small herd of cattle.  As the herd grew, so did the family’s bank account. Many of their neighbors took advantage of the financing as well. By the time Furtunato enrolled in RECA’s high school in 2010, studying ecology and organic agriculture, huge swaths of forest had disappeared. “It happened overnight,” says Furtunato. “The incentive was too great.”

We’re sitting at a plastic table on the veranda of Bodega do Norte; there’s not much on the menu besides rice, beans, and beef. At the school, Furtunato  became fascinated with RECA. He went home for a couple years after graduation, which made him realize where he belonged. “I miss my family, but not the place. Living there is horrible—too much fire, smoke, and pesticides.” The latter, he explains, are sprayed from planes to defoliate the forest in preparation for clearing. “I ended up thinking, this is not what I want for myself.”

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