Brazil’s other rainforest, the Atlantic, has also been devastated by felling – but organic soya farmers could be the key to its restoration
Clicaea Ferreira’s grandfather was a man of insight. If it hadn’t been for his vision, she says, then the fragment of forest that covers 50% of her farm in the Campos Gerais region of Parana state, southern Brazil, would have been cut down. Ferreira, speaking to a group of local farmers, gives a clear message: save the forest and go organic. But unusually for impassioned speeches about sustainability, she advocates growing soya.
The faces gathered on Farmers’ Day at the Ferreiras farm would look at home in farmers’ markets around Europe. As the barbecue smoke and sounds of the local school band drift across rolling fields and small woods, the scene owes more to the agricultural landscapes of Europe than the Atlantic rainforest – the Mata Atlantica – it has replaced. And the rhetoric on the twin pillars of organic farming and biodiversity conservation is couched in a familiar European language of environmental and social concern. But step from the recently harvested soya bean field into the forest and all that changes.
Under towering araucaria trees – the umbrella-shaped, monkey-puzzle trees – electric-blue Morpho butterflies strobe from the shadows, parrots and other dazzling birds yell from treetops, the skeleton of a capybara – the largest of all living rodents – lies across a path, and the ground has been raked by the powerful claws of ant-eaters. Wolves, tapir and jaguar are seen in this 500 hectares (1,236 acres) of forest, and the farmers are very proud of its ecological value.
“Once, the Mata Atlantica was a forest that spread for 1,300,000 sq km,” Ferreira says. “It contained 6.7% of all known species of plants on Earth. Now only 7.8% of the forest remains. Between 1920 and 1990, 100m araucaria trees were felled. In 2002, a law was passed protecting the trees, but there is still illegal felling going on. We must stop the felling because it’s killing our future.”
Together with non-governmental organisations, local authorities and some government help, the farmers are reshaping the future by protecting and restoring their native forest. The plan for Campos Gerais is to link forest fragments with wildlife corridors, to plant native araucaria trees instead of exotic conifers and eucalyptus, and to create a buffer zone around the restored forest of organic agriculture using non-GM crops.
Philipp Stumpe, a campaigner at the conservation organisation Preservacao, says Parana state holds most of the remaining Atlantic forest in Brazil. “We were formed two years ago to recover and rehabilitate the Mata Atlantica on private property,” he explains. “This is a voluntary project for farmers to join up the tiny fragments of forest on their land. Our target is to acquire 10,000 hectares in 10 years to add to existing protected fragments. We have set up a tree nursery and will plant 400 hectares of trees in wildlife corridors this year, and we are establishing a seed bank of forest flora, because none exists.”
Apart from the few remaining fragments of the Mata Atlantica, the land in Parana is agricultural and the farmers here are called “red feet”, after the colour of the soil. Since a freak frost in 1975 devastated coffee plantations, farmers have had to diversify, and soya has become the major cash crop. So lucrative has soya farming become in Brazil – supplying animal feed to the processed meat trade – that it spread to the Amazon basin and overtook logging and ranching as the main engine of deforestation in the planet’s most important rainforest. Following a recent report by Greenpeace, and an international campaign, there is now a moratorium on the expansion of soya growing in the Amazon, but that will not affect the intensive growing of GM soya crops in other sensitive ecosystems in Brazil.
A five-hour flight south of the Amazon, there is another side to soya: it is the link between those who reach for the non-dairy options in European supermarkets and the Brazilian organic farmers restoring their native forest.
Ferreira sells the organic, non-GM soya beans she grows to Alpro, best known for its soya milk. Her farm is part of a sustainable development initiative under the auspices of the Socio-Environmental Institute of Agricultural Research and Sustainable Development (Isapades), which is supported by the agri-environment scheme Floresta.
The soya beans are handled by Agrorganica – a fair trade company set up by local farmers and Dutch Organic International Trade, which tests the beans for any GM contamination and processes them before shipping to Alpro in Europe. Dwarfed by the massive silos of the soya giants in Parana, the tiny Agrorganica plant stands as a subversive gesture. But while the main players in the soya industry receive international opprobrium for their environmental record, Alpro’s market is quietly buoyant and growing because of its right-on credentials.
“We have 26 years’ experience of ethically sourcing our beans for soya milk,” says John Allaway, marketing director of Alpro’s UK division based in Kettering, Northamptonshire, “and we can trace the origins of all our ingredients to ensure they are GM free. Only 30% of our soya is organic at present but all the 60 growers we buy from in Brazil are now organic.”
In the 1970s, a Belgian, Phillippe Vandemoortele, hit on the idea that his preparation of soya milk, adapted from a Chinese food tradition, could be the answer to famine and starvation in the developing world. Although this did not catch on with the poor, it did become attractive to the affluent, health and environment conscious in Europe.
“Looking at the global food supply, plant-based foods offer more solutions to social and environmental problems,” says Allaway, “Animal-based foods use 10 times more land, 100 times more water and 11 times more fuel than plant-based foods. We are committed to healthy lifestyles, fair trade and lowering ecological impacts.”
Ben Ayliffe, forest campaigner for Greenpeace, is impressed by Alpro’s involvement in Brazil. “I think they’re doing well,” says Ayliffe. “They have a very small-scale operation but they have more control on the traceability of their products and they are streets ahead of the rest of the trade working with farmers and funding schools and other projects. It’s not greenwash, they practise what they preach.”
Back in Campos Gerais, farmers chew over what Ferreira and others have been saying about protecting the forest and going organic. A parrot perches in the rafters of the barn and butterflies drift through the hot afternoon. As shadows from araucaria trees reach across the soya fields it seems that old Europe and what looks like a new Europe in South America have a use for each other in the restoration of one of the most ancient and diverse forests in the world.
Article by Paul Evans for The Guardian, UK
Wednesday April 4, 2007
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