By Marsha Hanzi

xfoto pdc 03The enormous slums of Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo (15 million inhabitants each) are in large part composed of immigrants from the drylands of Northeast Brazil. This vast region, 900,000 square kilometers and growing, is home to ten million people. It is the “Sertão”, the most densely inhabited dryland region in the world.

Young people from these areas emigrate to the big cities for several reasons. They see no future in their region where almost the only form of employment is with municipal governments. The land cannot support so many people. Grandfather had a thousand acres. His ten sons received a hundred acres each. Each of the grandsons received ten acres, never enough to survive on. And there is a national myth that this region is miserable, and its inhabitants doomed to poverty and deprivation, an image replicated in the media and schools. The bright lights of the city with jobs and money are shown to be the desirable future.

The agricultural models used currently in the region are a poor imitation of European agriculture, with monocultures, excessive plowing, and burning of organic material. Chemicals, disastrous for this dry tropical region, lead to severe land degradation in three to five years, and Farmers are obliged to constantly move on to new lands.

The Bahian Permaculture Institute was founded in 1992 to address the question of the appropriate agricultural model for drylands. Efforts are dedicated to developing and teaching successional agroforestry models, based on the natural dynamic of ecosystem evolution, developed by Ernst Götsch, the father of the Brazilian agroforestry movement. The whole-farm planning framework of Permaculture has provided an excellent context for this.

In 2000 my husband Adrian and I visited Irecê, a dryland region in collapse due to monocultures and excessive use of chemicals. Adrian works for the castor bean industry, and a chance suggestion I made then led to an adventure which continues until today. I simply mentioned that all the different crops we saw should be combined into the same field, with castor as the main cash crop and the rest being for the farmer´s table. The Dryland Polyculture Project was born.

Adrian took the idea and ran with it. He saw this idea as a way to stabilize castor bean production – which can fluctuate wildly – and to support the small farmers who supply the castor oil industry with raw materials. He got seed money through the industry, a wonderfully talented agronomist, Henrique Souza, was hired to develop the first model fields, and the project took off. Today the Bahian Permaculture Institute administers a mammoth project which works with over one thousand farm families in the Irecê region. We credit the success to focusing on one seed idea—polycultures–and the inclusion of many farmers, and creating critical mass.

The strategy has been successful, and the Polyculture Project has won several national and international awards for its effectiveness. Small fields produce enormous quantities of food and fodder over the entire year. Pests are unheard of. The soil stays humid weeks after the last rain. The farmers always have something to eat and something to sell. Farmers now take pride in their profession, and sons and daughters are being inspired to stay on the land. Focusing on the model of polycultures for drylands, hopefully those returning from the cities in the future will find life can be marvelous in the Sertao, even on a small piece of land.

*Marsha Hanzi is a Swiss-American permanent resident in Brazil since 1976, is co-founder of the Bahian Permaculture Institute. She “retired” from the Institute in 2002 to start her life´s dream: her own farm in the drylands, transforming 50 acres of poor sandy land into a “Paradise Garden”. Her project is called “Marizá Epicenter for Culture and Agroecology”. It is open to visitors and trainees – 

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