How agroforestry can restore degraded lands and provide income in the Amazon

How agroforestry can restore degraded lands and provide income in the Amazon

  • As Brazil prepares to turn the page on the Bolsonaro government, finding sustainable and economically viable alternatives for the Amazon region remains challenging.
  • Advocates tout agroforestry as a sustainable farming alternative to soy monocultures and cattle ranching. It can restore degraded pastures and provide a stable income for small farmers.
  • One such project is RECA, a sustainable farming cooperative and an agroforestry pioneer in Brazil’s Amazon, with more than 30 years of experience.
  • Yet expertise, financing, scale, science and technology are significant challenges.

NOVA CALIFÓRNIA, Brazil —  Hamilton Condack smiles and points to a towering ipê tree rooted in the plot of land where he lives and produces food.

“When I first got this place 15 years ago, a guy offered me R$500 [ ] for it,” he said of the ipê, one of the Amazon’s most valuable hardwoods, coveted by loggers. “Now they say it’s worth R$15,000-20,000 [$2,800- $3,800], but I would never sell it.”

Condack acquired his land in a degraded state, full of weeds and shrubs, after previous owners had cleared it for cattle ranching and then moved on after the soils became exhausted.

He set to work bringing the unproductive pasture back to life using agroforestry, a mixed-use farming method where crops mimic natural forests. Over time, the soil’s nutrients returned.

Today, as well as the ipê, Condack’s small farm is an oasis of plant and tree species, including cupuaçu, açaí and andiroba — sold to produce high-value goods like jam, pulp and oil at the sustainable farming cooperative that he leads.

Known by its acronym RECA (Consortium and Densified Economic Reforestation Project, in Portuguese), the cooperative has more than 300 member families. Based in Nova Califórnia, in the Brazilian state of Rondônia, it is a pioneer of the agroforestry system in Brazil’s Amazon.

“Agroforestry is an economically viable and environmentally friendly option, particularly for small farmers,” Condack told Mongabay on his land. “It allows us to produce organic food and restore areas of forest that were destroyed.”

Farming land of one of the members of RECA, a pioneer of the agroforestry system in Brazil’s Amazon. The cooperative has more than 300 member families based in Nova Califórnia, in the Brazilian state of Rondônia. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.
A bucket full of açaí fruits.
A bucket full of açaí fruits in RECA’s processing plant. The cooperative sells the pulp of the fruit, which is famous for its high nutritional content. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.

As the planet grapples with growing hunger and an uptick of climate change-driven droughts, torrential rains and flooding, experts and authorities from the United Kingdom to Uganda, as well as Brazil’s incoming government, increasingly tout regenerative agriculture to tackle the interconnected crises.

Brazil’s agroforestry advocates say it is a sustainable alternative to soy monocultures and cattle ranching that could help restore roughly 30 million hectares (74 million acres, a little larger than the U.S. state of Arizona) of degraded pastures in the Amazon.

Supporters argue that well-planned and managed agroforestry systems can provide a decent and stable income for the Amazon’s small farmers, many of whom are extremely poor, while protecting the environment by increasing biodiversity and carbon stocks.

“It is perhaps one of the only tools we have to carry out regenerative agriculture that is linked not only to climate goals but also to poverty and hunger reduction goals,” Tomaz Lanza, a consultant, expert in agroforestry and doctor of agronomy, told Mongabay by video calls.

Often referred by the Portuguese acronym SAFs, agroforestry systems combine species as varied as açaí, andiroba, copaíba, cupuaçu, cacao and banana, together with crops such as corn and manioc with trees in relatively small patches of land — a practice that is actually centuries old.

“The populations of the Amazon have been practicing the agroforestry system since they developed agriculture, 2,000 years before the European invasion of Brazil,” Judson Valentim, an agronomist and researcher at Embrapa, told Mongabay by phone.

Low yields and malaria

RECA, with more than 30 years of experience, is for many a blueprint of what sustainable agriculture in the Amazon could look like.

Mongabay traveled to RECA two days after Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva won Brazil’s presidential elections by a narrow margin. The veteran left-winger has promised to put protection of the Amazon at the forefront of his agenda and has signaled lower interest rates on rural credit for sustainable productions and recuperation of degraded areas.

RECA lies 220 miles (354 kilometers) from Rondônia’s capital Porto Velho, a drive along the BR-364 highway where soy plantations and cattle ranches extend to the horizon, and vultures, often seen feeding on the carcasses of dead animals, are the only birds.

On the journey, Mongabay passed road blockades set up by supporters — one visibly armed with a pistol — of outgoing far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, who remains highly popular in Rondônia. The state gave him the second-highest vote for reelection, second only to Roraima, another Amazonian state where environmental crimes such as deforestation and illegal mining have skyrocketed during Bolsonaro’s term.

Açaí palms.
Açaí palms in a RECA agroforestry plot. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.

Deforestation in Rondônia in 2021 hit 1,673 square kilometers (413,407 acres), the highest level in more than a decade, according to Brazil’s PRODES system. In Nova Califórnia, the district where RECA is located, twelve trucks with illegal timber were seized earlier this week.

The state has the sixth-largest cattle herd in Brazil, with 15.1 million in 2021, while soy production has more than doubled in the past 10 years to 400,000 hectares (988,421 acres), according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE).

RECA’s story began in 1984 when Brazil’s National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), the government agency that oversees land use, gave forest plots to farmers who migrated to the Amazon from the south.

“We arrived in Nova Califórnia with the idea of producing here the same things we grew in the south,” Bernardete Mattos Lopes, a farmer who moved in from Santa Catarina state around that time, told Mongabay at her house in Nova Califórnia. However, she and others soon realized that the conditions in the rainforest were very different from the subtropical climate of her home state. The crop yields were much lower.

“We didn’t have a local market, we didn’t have anyone to sell what little we produced,” she said. “And it started to get difficult, malaria got everybody, the disease wouldn’t let us work.”

Bernadette de Mattos.
Bernadete de Mattos Lopes in her land. She and her family moved to Nova Califórnia from southern Brazil in the ‘80s. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.

The settlers bonded together, working with the traditional rubber tapper populations in the region and discovered new fruits, nuts, and palms like cupuaçu, castanha and pupunha while leaving traditional southern crops like coffee behind.

The cooperative was officially founded in 1989. Today, RECA sells high-value goods like jam and pulp across Brazil and even for export, with açaí and cupuaçu products the biggest earners. The cooperative also has a carbon credits program with cosmetic giant Natura, by which the farmers receive economic compensation for protecting the forest and reducing carbon emissions in the company’s supply chain.

Along with the Tomé-Açu Mixed Agricultural Cooperative (CAMTA) in Pará state, experts consider RECA the most successful example of agroforestry in Brazil’s Amazon.

For Valentim, the researcher, a huge part of RECA’s success comes down to its organizational model as a cooperative. He touts the economic benefits of the agroforestry model not only as a way of lifting small farmers out of poverty but offering perspective for the future, halting Amazonian migration and the advance of the deforestation frontier.

“An agroforestry system with açaí and a consortium of cultures including a short-term production crop can place a farming family with 5 hectares of land in the Brazilian middle class,” he said.

Agroforestry systems are more resilient economically because producers are less exposed to price shocks if the value of a product changes, but also environmentally, key at a time of increasingly accelerated droughts and floods.

A recent study pointed to how climate change-driven drought in the Amazon was forcing cattle farmers to sell more quickly because they couldn’t fatten their cows, potentially affecting quality and availability.

Drone image of the agroforestry farming land.
Drone image of the agroforestry farming land of one of the members of RECA. Agroforestry offers a successful method to restore degraded land and generate income for small landowners. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.

Immense challenges

Yet despite the utopian buzz about agroforestry and regenerative agriculture as a whole, serious expertise, financing and technology challenges remain to its implementation in Brazil’s Amazon.

“The challenges are immense,” Joice Ferreira, an ecologist and researcher at Embrapa, told Mongabay by phone. “Even after so many years, so many decades, of research, of incentives, the potential is still not being fulfilled.”

Technical assistance is one of the main issues according to Embrapa’s Valentim, which only a minority of producers across Brazil have access to, whether public or private.

“So, the first thing is that you don’t have adequate professional information to meet the demand for the implementation of these systems,” he said. “With agroforestry, it can take five to eight years to come into full production. So, you would have to have technical assistance for a long period.”

Valentim added that access to credit, an essential component for Brazilian agriculture in scale, is insufficient for family farmers and agroforestry and is instead much more directed to big agriculture and the production of commodities.

“There are some initial lines of credit for multi-diverse systems. But it’s still not adequate,” he said. “Often, the financing that is given, the payment term is very short. So, this is not compatible with the cycle of some of the crops in an agroforestry system, açaí, cupuaçu, and other species that sometimes take four or five years to start production.”

President of RECA.
The president of RECA, Hamilton Condack, bought a degraded plot 15 years ago. Today, the land is an oasis of trees and palms. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.
Large amounts of castanha at one of RECA’s warehouses.
Large amounts of castanha at one of RECA’s warehouses. The nut is one of the cooperative’s main sources of income. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.

Ferreira said that the structural problems of Brazil’s Amazon, such as energy interruptions, poor roads and difficult access to markets — even more problematic when handling delicate fruits in high temperatures — make the widespread implementation of SAFs difficult.

“The proliferation of cattle in the Amazon isn’t a coincidence,” she said. “It’s so common because it’s a perfect match for a place where there’s no structure.”

Then there are the issues of applying the agroforestry model at scale. Expert Lanza says that Brazil still lacks the research and technology to apply to agroforestry models to more than 10 hectares.

“Large-scale adoption is still a very big challenge because we don’t have adapted machinery,” he said. “They are more complex systems, so operating costs can be high in scale. I believe more in agroforestry on a small to medium scale. I think it is more feasible to have 100 agroforestry plots of one hectare, than one of 100 hectares, for example.”

In the short to medium term, therefore, he said that strengthening the cooperative model that RECA has is the most effective solution, as well as an overall agrarian reform in Brazil.

For Embrapa’s Ferreira, public policies that encourage production by small farmers, such as purchases for school meals — a policy Brazil already implemented, with success, in the past — are key to the growth of agroforestry models in the Amazon.

“This kind of public policy was not necessarily specific for agroforestry systems,” she said. “But it generated a demand for the purchase of a variety of products.”

RECA hopes to fund new initiatives with support from Norway’s Amazon Fund, frozen during Bolsonaro’s presidency, which Lula confirmed will be restarted “very soon after the 1st of January.” In 2018, the cooperative received R$6.4 million ($1.7 million) from the fund to strengthen its supply chain, recover degraded areas and train the farmers in agroforestry techniques. Thanks to those funds, the cooperative was able to, among other things, boost its incipient vegetable oils production, which is today one of its key products.

Back at his farm, RECA chief Hamilton Condack talks of the bright prospects for the cooperative and for agroforestry in the Brazilian Amazon.

“I believe that our work is successful because the agroforestry system today is the agriculture of the future,” he said.

A cupuaçu fruit hanging from a tree.
A cupuaçu fruit hanging from a tree. The cooperative sells more than 450,000 kilograms (992,080 pounds) of cupuaçu pulp a year. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.


This report is the first of a three-part series produced with support from the Serrapilheira Institute.

Banner image: Similar to other settlers of this region, RECA member Daniel Berkembrock moved to Nova Califórnia from the south of Brazil in the ‘80s. Photo by Avener Prado for Mongabay.


Skidmore, M. E. (2022). Outsourcing the dry season: Cattle ranchers’ responses to weather shocks in the Brazilian Amazon. American Journal of Agricultural Economics. doi:10.1111/ajae.12333

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