Sowing Resilience on the Amazon Frontier

(Longterm project; 2018 - ongoing. Amazon, Mato Grosso, Brazil.)

An area restored through agroforestry two years ago by Moacir, a farmer that lives in Carlinda, a municipality in northern Mato Grosso. He planted a variety of native tree and agricultural crop species through direct seeding, a technique farmers that work with agroforestry in the region call “muvuca”.

An area restored through agroforestry two years ago by Moacir, a farmer that lives in Carlinda, a municipality in northern Mato Grosso. He planted a variety of native tree and agricultural crop species through direct seeding, a technique farmers that work with agroforestry in the region call “muvuca”.

At the current rate, the impacts of continued deforestation and degradation are expected to lead to more severe and frequent fires and longer dry seasons in parts of the Amazon, particularly in areas located in the southern and eastern regions in what is known as the “Arc of Deforestation”. Increasing global demand for commodities, reduced environmental regulation and a rapidly advancing industrial and agricultural frontier into the world’s largest tropical rainforest poses serious social and environmental threats in terms of global climate change. For rural and indigenous communities and small farmers that reside in agriculture-forest frontier regions most affected by these threats, agroforestry has become a way of protecting their lands and livelihoods. This is the beginning of a longterm project that follows family farmer’s personal stories and journeys with agroforestry and the intricate relationship between farming, food and forests in a region that faces a present a future marked by pressing challenges and uncertainties.

Fires near the BR-163 highway, that extends over 4,000 km from south to north, into the heart of the Amazon Basin.

Fires near the BR-163 highway, that extends over 4,000 km from south to north, into the heart of the Amazon Basin.

Most of the municipalities in northern Mato Grosso were founded in the 1980s, as a result of national policies and subsidies encouraging the public and private colonization and occupation of the region, leading to overwhelming devastation of its rainforests. While deforestation was significantly reduced in the mid to late 2000s, since 2014 it has been increasing at an alarming rate. According to Brazil’s National Institute for Space Research (INPE), in June of 2019 deforestation soared to a total of 920.4 km2, 88% higher than during the same period last year.

A dairy cow in a grazed pasture in the municipality of Apiacás. Dairy farming is one of the most common activities practiced by family farmers in northern Mato Grosso, many of whom migrated north from southern states.

A dairy cow in a grazed pasture in the municipality of Apiacás. Dairy farming is one of the most common activities practiced by family farmers in northern Mato Grosso, many of whom migrated north from southern states.

Messias, a family farmer that lives in the municipality of Apiacás, in northern Mato Grosso, walks through his farm. “Our greatest difficulty is water”, he says, “it gets drier every year”.

Messias, a family farmer that lives in the municipality of Apiacás, in northern Mato Grosso, walks through his farm. “Our greatest difficulty is water”, he says, “it gets drier every year”.

Valdir, a farmer that lives in an agrarian reform settlement in Nova Canaã, shows images from when his family moved to their property.

Valdir, a farmer that lives in an agrarian reform settlement in Nova Canaã, shows images from when his family moved to their property.

When most of the region’s rural workers and farmers migrated to northern Mato Grosso from other parts of the country in search of land, opportunity and better livelihoods, as was advertised through government programs encouraging settlement in the region in the 1980s, the reality encountered was very different, disproportionately favoring large land owners and private companies over small-scale farmers. The kind of agriculture incentivized in frontier regions until today is industrial agriculture and extensive cattle farming focused on production for global commodity chains, rather than family agriculture and food production for domestic consumption.

Many small farmers in the region, like Valdir, have discovered agroforestry as a strategy to recover their once degraded lands and natural resources, resulting in more effective and diversified agricultural production involving less inputs than conventional agriculture. Pictured here, lines of “muvuca” including a variety of native forest and agricultural crop seeds were planted with space in between to use for beekeeping and honey production.

Many small farmers in the region, like Valdir, have discovered agroforestry as a strategy to recover their once degraded lands and natural resources, resulting in more effective and diversified agricultural production involving less inputs than conventional agriculture. Pictured here, lines of “muvuca” including a variety of native forest and agricultural crop seeds were planted with space in between to use for beekeeping and honey production.

Edgair, originally from the southern state of Paraná, like many farmers that migrated to northern Mato Grosso, walks through one of her agroforestry gardens in Apiacás. In the beginning, Edgair says she and other women working with agroforestry faced prejudice and even received threats for doing things differently, causing suspicion among neighbors. “Before, people thought we were crazy planting trees”, she remembers, “now, they see the benefits and want to know how they can participate”.

Edgair, originally from the southern state of Paraná, like many farmers that migrated to northern Mato Grosso, walks through one of her agroforestry gardens in Apiacás. In the beginning, Edgair says she and other women working with agroforestry faced prejudice and even received threats for doing things differently, causing suspicion among neighbors. “Before, people thought we were crazy planting trees”, she remembers, “now, they see the benefits and want to know how they can participate”.

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Edgair’s daughter, Bruna, with her niece at Edgair’s home in Apiacás. Bruna began working with agroforestry through a local organization when she was 14, where she met other young students and farmers also working with agroforestry in other municipalities.

Edgair’s daughter, Bruna, with her niece at Edgair’s home in Apiacás. Bruna began working with agroforestry through a local organization when she was 14, where she met other young students and farmers also working with agroforestry in other municipalities.

Today there are over 1,000 families from different municipalities involved in agroforestry networks that together have restored thousands of hectares of forest and that organize through various networks, local markets, seed houses, cooperatives and associations in the region to promote family agriculture, agroforestry and restoration.

Moacir, also originally from the southern state of Paraná, looks out from his porch in Carlinda. Since he began working with agroforestry ten years ago, he has planted nearly 85% of his property through this technique. “I will never go back to the way it once was”, he says, “when we moved here the soil was so bad we couldn’t produce anything”.

Moacir, also originally from the southern state of Paraná, looks out from his porch in Carlinda. Since he began working with agroforestry ten years ago, he has planted nearly 85% of his property through this technique. “I will never go back to the way it once was”, he says, “when we moved here the soil was so bad we couldn’t produce anything”.

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Moacir collects urucum fruit native to the region in front of his home, which part of will be taken to the local seed house and the other to sell in a local farmers market. He estimates that there are over 200 native and agricultural plant varieties and over 1,000 individual trees on his property of two and a half acres.

Moacir collects urucum fruit native to the region in front of his home, which part of will be taken to the local seed house and the other to sell in a local farmers market. He estimates that there are over 200 native and agricultural plant varieties and over 1,000 individual trees on his property of two and a half acres.

Ordália brings seeds to her community’s seed house, located in an agrarian reform settlement in Carlinda, where farmers that work with agroforestry in the area take the native seeds they have collected to be stored and eventually sold. Since farmers began adopting agroforestry, seed collecting and saving has also become a more prominent activity practiced in the region. Seed houses located in several communities in the region store large varieties, anywhere from 50 to 150 species, of seeds that may be eventually used for restoration.

Ordália brings seeds to her community’s seed house, located in an agrarian reform settlement in Carlinda, where farmers that work with agroforestry in the area take the native seeds they have collected to be stored and eventually sold. Since farmers began adopting agroforestry, seed collecting and saving has also become a more prominent activity practiced in the region. Seed houses located in several communities in the region store large varieties, anywhere from 50 to 150 species, of seeds that may be eventually used for restoration.

“It’s still hard, but since we started planting we don’t have to worry about food”, Ordália says, “we have plenty of food”. The surrounding landscape overwhelmingly consists of degraded pasture spotted sparsely with a few head of cattle in the blazing heat and suspended dust of the dry season. Family farmers observe various benefits working with agroforestry, especially when it comes to those felt in the family’s food security, general health and well being on their farms.

“It’s still hard, but since we started planting we don’t have to worry about food”, Ordália says, “we have plenty of food”. The surrounding landscape overwhelmingly consists of degraded pasture spotted sparsely with a few head of cattle in the blazing heat and suspended dust of the dry season. Family farmers observe various benefits working with agroforestry, especially when it comes to those felt in the family’s food security, general health and well being on their farms.