Tome-Acu, a settlement of Japanese immigrants in Brazil, has over the years attracted attention as a model of sustainable agriculture.
Residents of this city in the state of Para near the mouth of the Amazon have reportedly developed a unique farming method, which helps raise farmers’ standard of living and restores forests.
I visited there in late May, a month before the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) was held in Rio de Janeiro, to see for myself.
After arriving at a farm, I was guided along a road between trees. I knew that agroforestry is a farming method that grows a wide variety of crops along with helping to restore forests. But I failed to notice that both sides of the road were actually the agricultural field I was looking for until I was informed of that fact.
Looking at the trees carefully, I found cocoa pods dangling from the branches of a short tree. The pods were beginning to change their color. And there was a vine coiling around the trunk of a roadside tree. Small peppercorns on the vine were still blue.
I also spotted a mahogany tree, which will produce lumber when it grows tall, and an Andiroba, a tree that yields oil for cosmetics.
At the top of a palm tree, it bore shiny black acai berries, which in recent years have become popular for their high nutritional value.
These trees were planted in lines in general, though that was hard to detect because of other miscellaneous trees and undergrowth.
I was surprised. To my untrained eye, these trees looked like a natural forest.
But I thought this wide variety of crops would be inefficient for farmers from the labor demands of tending to them to harvesting them. So I imagined such work results in high costs, prohibiting the products from being price competitive in the market.
With questions popping into my mind one after another, I spoke to Francisco Wataru Sakaguchi, head of Tome-Acu’s agricultural cooperative.
“Farmers are self-employed workers,” he said. “We only do what is profitable.”
Sakaguchi, 52, admitted that agroforestry necessitates more labor and costs than monoculture, which grows a single crop over a large area. But he explained that because machines are not good at harvesting fruit, which depends largely on human hands, there is no major difference in costs. He said agroforestry reduces costs from some other operations and produces many benefits.
The biggest benefit is that farmers can harvest a wide range of crops throughout the year. On Sakaguchi’s farm, the picking of cupuacu, an Amazon fruit, was nearing the end, and the harvesting of cacao would soon begin, followed by pepper and acai, he said. Bananas grow year round. Even if farmers have a poor harvest of one crop, others will make up for the loss.
Sakaguchi said agroforestry allows farmers to use less fertilizer or pesticides, and he explained how things work.
In a newly cultivated field, for example, farmers plant bananas, which prefer sunshine and grow fast, and later plant cacaos and legume plants, which dislike strong sunlight, in the shade of the bananas. After banana leaves wither and fall, the leaves, covering the ground, retain moisture in the soil, decompose and eventually turn into soil. The legume plants help fertilize the soil. Perhaps because these plants are separate species, Sakaguchi said, diseases are less likely to spread widely than in the days of monoculture practices.
“That sounds like going back to the old days,” I said.
“We also got ideas from the lives of the indigenous people, who had grown a wide variety of crops around their homes,” Sakaguchi told me.
Sakaguchi said the turning point for Tome-Acu farmers came when they suffered a setback when they were only growing only one crop.
Pepper cultivation began here in the 1930s. In the 1950s, the settlement enjoyed a boom thanks to high pepper prices, as pepper fields covered a broad swath of Tome-Acu. This area produced peppers that accounted for 70 percent of Brazil’s domestic consumption in 1954.
Sakaguchi said a truckload of peppers could be sold and pay for a new truck with its back filled with gifts for the family.
Flush with wealth at the time, some farmers invited carpenters from Japan over to have them build new homes. Some of the “pepper mansions” still remain.
But in the late 1960s, disease began spreading among pepper plants here, and wiped them out several times in the 1970s. Farmers had trouble even putting food on the table, Sakaguchi said.
The conversion was meant to avoid such risks.
Many farmers said they can no longer expect such a profitable harvest as in the days of pepper cultivation, but have been leading much more stable lives.
What was interesting is that developing a field means adding a forest. The Para state saw forests disappear at an alarming rate because of farmland development and slash-and-burn agricultural practices. Since 1988, 130,000 square kilometers of forests have been lost in the state. But the region is regaining its past landscape and appearance.
Michinori Konagano, 54, who emigrated from Japan, has long engaged in agroforestry here.
“We made our fields by cutting down a forest in the first place,” said Konagano, who also serves as chief of the city’s agriculture bureau. “We want to play a part in restoring the environment.”
After visiting many farms, I was pleased, because the farming method established by Japanese settlers and their working manners were apparently influencing other people.
Jose Maria Mendez, 42, said he learned about agroforestry two decades ago, working under Konagano, and got out of debt by practicing the method in his own field.
Now, he has been asked for technical guidance and to give lectures to nearby farmers. What’s more, he has spent his lecture fees on improving local farm roads and loaned other farmers his farm equipment at no charge to them. Mendez said he wants to nurture farmers of the next generation.
“Don’t you use your money for yourself?” I asked him.
“I’m just doing what Konagano and other Japanese did for me,” Mendez replied. “I’m happy to find I have this potential,” he said with a smile.
Vicente Morais, 30, a farming technique instructor at the Tome-Acu cooperative, was busy teaching agroforestry to farmers who had continued the destructive practice of slash-and-burn agriculture. Morais said those farmers are unhappy about the greater labor requirements at first, but they change their mind after realizing agroforestry’s benefit of allowing for harvests many times a year. Slash-and-burn agricultural practices are now seen significantly less, Morais said.
“I’m pleased that agroforestry has been helping improve local people’s livelihood and stopping environmental destruction in my hometown,” Morais said.
Tome-Acu is experiencing its first major boom since good times brought about by pepper, thanks to acai’s rising popularity across the world.
The output at the juice factory, the mainstay revenue source of the Tome-Acu cooperative, has doubled over the past two years. Officials will start working to add a new refrigerator to the factory by the end of the year. The factory, which has been busily humming along, has been benefiting farmers.
Yet sustainable farming itself seems to give consumers no incentive to buy products produced under this method. Customers pay attention first to the price, followed by nutrition--factors directly related to consumer benefits, said Kensuke Hayashi, 31, head of the Brazil office of Fruta Fruta Inc., which sells juice made from Tome-Acu fruit in Japan. The appeal of sustainability has little impact on consumers, Hayashi said.
Though Tome-Acu’s farming industry is on track now, if consumers continue to fail to appreciate the sustainable farming methods being utilized, few may follow in the footsteps of these farmers, who have patiently worked for a better natural environment and nurtured farmers of the next generation.
No doubt, prices and efficacy are important, but I think it’s good to be aware of what farming method is used, and I hope people will factor it in when making a choice.
Imagine that your choice will eventually lead to the birth of a forest somewhere on Earth, and you may derive a sense of satisfaction by your purchase.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
- « Prev
- Next »