Greening the Amazon Forest


DURING the 1990’s, the world annually lost millions of acres of natural forests, reported the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization. In Brazil’s Amazon region alone, whirring chain saws and crackling fires have already turned a tract of rain forest larger than Germany into a mere pasture. Instead of a seamless landscape of treetops, the forest canopy is now broken by stretches of cracked clay thinly covered with weeds and exposed stumps baking under the sun.

Although this ongoing forest destruction is disturbing, there are glimmers of hope. One promising program has already yielded some results. It is called agroforestry, and one source describes it as “a system in which cultivation of trees is combined with field crops or pasture in an ecologically . . . sustainable manner.” How does agroforestry work? What has it accomplished? What prospects might it hold for the future? To find out, Awake! visited the National Institute for Research in the Amazon (INPA) in Manaus, the capital of Brazil’s Amazonas State.

The Disappointing Escape

Johannes van Leeuwen, a Dutch agronomist at INPA’s Department of Agronomy, has been working with farmers in the Amazon for the past 11 years. But how did so many farmers end up in the Amazon forest in the first place? Large-scale mechanized farming in the center and south of Brazil began to rob small farmers of their land and  livelihood, causing them to migrate. Other farmers, who cultivated jute, used in the manufacture of burlap sacks, saw their livelihood vanish as sacks were replaced by plastic bags. Still others, living in drought-stricken regions, were forced to move in search of more fertile soil. But where could they go? On hearing promises of land, housing, and fertile soil in the Amazon, they followed a new road leading into the rain forest.

The farmers, however, soon discovered that they had settled in an area where the rainfall is heavy, the humidity is high, the climate is hot, and the soil is poor. Within two to four years, the soil was completely exhausted and the same problem arose: poor people on poor soil. The desperate farmers tackled the problem by clearing away yet more areas of forest to serve as farmland.

Granted, small farmers are not the main cause of the Amazon’s forest destruction. Large cattle ranches, big agribusinesses, mining and logging industries, and hydroelectric dam construction projects have done most of the damage. Even so, the influx of small farmers and the slash-and-burn method of farming that they practice have contributed to forest destruction.

 Consulting “Living Libraries”

“No matter how big their impact on the forest is,” says Van Leeuwen, “these poor farmers are here and have nowhere else to go. So to slow deforestation, we have to help them live off their land without having the need to cut down more forest.” And that is where the agroforestry program comes in, teaching a farming method that combats soil degradation and allows farmers to use the same deforested plot for many years. How did the researchers arrive at the specifics of the program?

Years of surveys, questionnaires, and field collections preceded the launching of INPA’s agroforestry program. Valuable data came especially from interviews with the “living libraries”—Indians and caboclos, people of mixed white, black, and Indian ancestry whose forefathers settled in the Amazon basin.

These inhabitants of the Amazon have a storehouse of knowledge. They are familiar with the local climate and the types of soil—black dirt, red clay, white clay, red dirt, and a mixture of sand and clay—as well as the array of native fruits, spices, and medicinal plants that the forest produces. By tapping this knowledge, agronomists and farmers became research partners—a partnership that improved the quality of the program.

The Forest Is Not a Mine

The agroforestry program was carried out gradually. The first step was to convince farmers not to view the forest as a mine—to be worked and then abandoned—but to look at it as a renewable resource. Next, they were advised to plant not only cassava, bananas, corn (maize), rice, beans, and other fast-growing crops but trees as well. “Trees?” asked the farmers. “Why?”

Since farmers often come from areas where trees do not play a role in agriculture and since they were also unfamiliar with Amazonian tree species, researchers spelled out the benefits of planting trees. They explained that forest soil does not hold the nutrients that food crops need. Before nutrients can enter crops like corn, for example, rains wash them away. In contrast, trees manage to absorb and build up a supply of nutrients and maintain soil fertility. In addition, trees furnish forage and shade for animals. Farmers can also use trees as live fence posts to mark their property borders. And, of course, fruit trees can serve as a source of income-producing fruits and wood.

The farmers were also encouraged to plant many different species and varieties of trees. Why? So that a wide variety of fruits and wood can be harvested. That way, the farmer avoids ending up with a large harvest of just one or two kinds of fruit that he must sell for a low price because everyone else is selling the same product at the same time.

Budding Program Bears Fruit

What kind of trees are planted? “Presently we use between 30 and 40 of the fruit trees mentioned here,” says agronomist Van Leeuwen as he hands over a list of 65 trees with exotic names. To show that the program is working, Van Leeuwen lays out several photos of the same plot of cleared forest land taken at different intervals.—See the box “How the Forest Can Recover.”

A visit to the food markets in Manaus shows that the budding agroforestry program is bearing fruit. In these markets more than 60 different kinds of locally grown fruits are already for sale. As for the future, agronomists hope that the deeper agroforestry takes root, the slower the deforestation will advance. After all, when a farmer has learned how to reuse an old farm, he may forgo cutting down the forest to create a new one.

These laudable efforts are not likely to eliminate the global threat to earth’s ecology. But they demonstrate what can be done when our precious resources are treated with respect.

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Orange and Acerola, Move Over

The orange, that familiar symbol of vitamin C, pales in comparison with a fruit that is hailed as “the new queen of vitamin C.” Even the acerola, the sovereign among the fruits rich in vitamin C, must concede defeat. The new ruler? A small but mighty, purple-colored fruit that is about the size of a grape and grows naturally in the Amazon’s floodplains. Its name? Camu-camu. Does it deserve the throne? A Brazilian magazine notes that 100 grams of orange contains 41 milligrams of vitamin C, while 100 grams of acerola contains 1,790 milligrams of vitamin C. Yet, the same amount of camu-camu has a whopping 2,880 milligrams of vitamin C—70 times the amount in oranges!

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Acerola and camu-camu: Silvestre Silva/Reflexo

[Box/Pictures on page 25]

The Art of Layering Trees

After farmers have agreed to adopt some parts of the agroforestry program, agronomist Johannes van Leeuwen can hand them a more detailed proposal—a layout of their future tree farm. Instead of haphazardly choosing and combining just any trees, computer simulations of agroecosystems are used to help determine which species should be planted and how they should be arranged. There is an art to layering, or arranging, species of small, medium-size, and large trees into groups.

For example, the first group, made up of guava, guarana, and cupuaçu trees, are planted close together. These trees stay small and start bearing fruit early. The second group, of medium-size trees such as biribá, avocado, and murumuru palm, will need more space. In this group, fruit production generally starts later than in the first. The third group, of large trees like the Brazil nut, piquia, and mahogany, need even more space. Some trees in this last group produce fruit, others valuable timber, and still others both. When all three groups of trees grow up together, the farm resembles a natural forest.


Johannes van Leeuwen (far right)

A market in Manaus with locally grown fruit

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J. van Leeuwen, INPA, Manaus, Brazil

 [Box/Pictures on page 26]

How the Forest Can Recover

1. February 1993—This forest plot in central Amazon was cut down and burned in September 1992. In January 1993, pineapple plants were planted. One month later, fruit trees were planted as well.

2. March 1994—The pineapple plants have grown, and the fruit trees are becoming more visible. Small signs on sticks standing next to the trees identify them as abiu, Brazil nut, and peach palm trees, to name a few. The weeding that the farmers did around the crop benefited the trees as well. As if to show gratitude, the trees have begun to rehabilitate the fertility of the soil.

3. April 1995—The fast-growing crops have been harvested and eaten or sold, and a variety of fruit trees continue to grow.

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Pictures 1-3: J. van Leeuwen, INPA-CPCA, Manaus, Brazil