Agroforestry ventures based on techniques refined over centuries by indigenous people in Brazil may serve as a business model for farming enterprises around the world that are trying to reduce their carbon footprint.
Instead of slash and burn techniques that are productive but hurt the environment, the method relies on planting different types of trees to ensure that fruit is available all year.
Developing effective ways to create a more global green economy will be a major theme of the Rio+20 summit that kicks off in Rio de Janeiro on June 20.
One example of successful agroforestry can be found in Tome-Acu, some 200 kilometers south of Belem at the mouth of the Amazon.
Tome-Acu was settled by Japanese immigrants around a century ago. The fields are not ploughed and, to the untrained eye, resemble jungle.
Each field has dozens of different types of trees. Acai palm and mango trees are popular.
The trees are of all sizes. The highest ones tower about 30 meters among much shorter trees. Fruit of some kind can be harvested throughout the year.
The agroforestry project is overseen by the Tome-Acu Multipurpose Agricultural Cooperative (CAMTA).
The first Japanese immigrants to Tome-Acu cut down the jungle to clear land for their fields. Some planted pepper, and there was a period when they enjoyed good business due to high prices. However, from the late 1960s, the pepper farmers had to battle plant disease and flooding.
Copying traditional farming methods of indigenous people, the farmers began experimenting with a greater variety of trees to more closely match the natural environment. Those efforts led to the present form of agroforestry.
The fruit processing plant operated by CAMTA now produces 4,500 tons of food annually, about 2,000 tons more than two years ago. The types of fruit available has grown from nine to 15.
Some of the fruit is exported to Japan.
Fruta Fruta Inc. is the Japanese agent for CAMTA.
Makoto Nagasawa, CEO and president of Fruta Fruta, learned about the agroforestry venture around a decade ago.
In 2002, he established a company to handle imports. Over the past 10 years, imports from the area handled by the company have grown by 40 times.
"By providing consumers with quality produce, we have as a result been able to increase the size of the forest," said Nagasawa, 50.
A small juice carton containing 195 grams of fruit juice, such as acai, sells for between 198 yen and 258 yen ($2.50 and $3.20). While not overly cheap, the juices proved popular because of the novelty of fruits from the Amazon as well as the nutritional value.
The agroforestry model has helped local farmers in Brazil move into more profitable areas.
Michinori Konagano, a CAMTA official, has helped some farmers turn to cacao farming after their difficulties growing pepper.
One farmer who made the switch said, "I am more assured now because I can harvest all year round. I have purchased a TV set and can even afford to send my daughter to university."
Since 2006, CAMTA has been providing technical guidance to local farmers.
In the past, farmers used to set fire to the forests once their farmland became depleted so they could clear land for new fields. But they are gradually moving to the new farming techniques.
CAMTA is now seeking to establish a certification system for its agroforestry methods.
(This article was written by Seiji Iwata, Akemi Kanda and Masanobu Furuya.)
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