Farming with nature

LivelihoodsRainwater HarvestingSustainable Agriculture

Footsteps 110 - Farming for the future

Farming with nature

Water and food are essential for life, but many people on our planet are thirsty and hungry. One of the reasons for this is the overuse of natural resources. In the semi-arid region of north-east Brazil, Diaconia is promoting farming that supports food production while restoring healthy ecosystems. This approach is called agroecology.

Maria has built stone banks to hold back rainwater and encourage it to soak into the soil, creating an area where she can grow many different types of trees and crops. Photo: Acervo Diaconia
Maria has built stone banks to hold back rainwater and encourage it to soak into the soil, creating an area where she can grow many different types of trees and crops. Photo: Acervo Diaconia

Agroecology promotes agricultural practice that:  

  • enhances ecosystem health and biodiversity 
  • uses local, renewable resources 
  • makes the most of farmers’ traditional knowledge and works with their priorities 
  • carefully incorporates new innovations and technologies to provide environmental, economic and social benefits. 

The approach tries to ensure a fair wage for the producer and provide access to affordable, local produce for communities. Through advocacy and farmer representation, policymakers are urged to take into account the needs of farmers and the people who are benefiting from their products. This includes listening to producers and consumers, and including them in decision-making at all policy levels. 

Agroecology promotes fair relationships between people, and between people and the environment in which they live. It focuses on the production of food by working with nature, not against it. 

Creating an oasis 

Maria José’s 27-hectare family farm is in an area of Brazil that experiences long dry seasons and short, intense rains. Water has always been scarce, but climate change is resulting in even longer periods of drought and more unpredictable rainfall. Widespread deforestation has made the situation worse, and the major river that flows through the area is beginning to dry up. 

Despite these pressures, with Diaconia’s support Maria has been able to transform her farm into a green oasis. She makes the most of limited resources by enhancing natural biodiversity and ensuring that water and nutrients are recycled and not wasted. Having a variety of income sources – crops, animals and forest products – has helped her to stabilise her family’s income.

Livestock are an important part of Maria’s farming system. Photo: Thomas Lohnes
Livestock are an important part of Maria’s farming system. Photo: Thomas Lohnes

Nothing wasted

‘We used to get all our water from natural springs,’ says Maria. ‘But with the installation of a 16,000-litre cistern this has changed. We are now able to grow more food and make the most of the water we have.’ 

The cistern is filled by water that runs naturally down the slope when it rains. In addition, Maria has constructed stone banks along the contours of the land to slow the water down and encourage more of it to soak into the land. The family also reuses waste water from the sink and shower to water vegetables and other plants growing near the house.  

Maria continues, ‘We are protecting the springs by planting different species of trees and plants. We have drought-resistant bromeliads which have thick, fleshy leaves. These are good for feeding the animals as well as improving biodiversity and protecting the soil. It is these plants that keep the animals alive when there is a drought.’ 

Fodder plants and trees allow animals to graze in the shade. Their manure is collected and used to fertilise crops. Manure from cattle, goats and pigs is also added to a biodigester which produces gas for cooking. This means the family no longer burns wood and there is no smoke in the kitchen. The by-product from the biodigester is a valuable organic fertiliser. 

Maria grows a mix of crops including maize, vegetables and fruit. She carefully harvests and stores seed from the most productive plants to sow the following year. A fruit pulp processing unit provides additional income for the family. 

Many visitors 

‘I am grateful that today my family is a reference point for the community. We receive many visitors and we are encouraging our neighbours to farm in a sustainable way,’ says Maria. 

By making the most of available natural resources and appropriate technologies, Maria has been able to create a diverse and productive farm. In addition, the farm provides many environmental and social benefits to the surrounding area including more trees and better access to water. With the help of Diaconia, Maria has established a large water reservoir on her land which is used by the whole community. 

Diaconia is a non-profit organisation committed to promoting justice and social development in north-east Brazil. 

Email: waneska@diaconia.org.br
www.diaconia.org.br 


A new type of ranch

Traditional cattle farms in Colombia, which occupy 80 per cent of agricultural land, often remove all the trees and bushes to grow grass. 

Over time, the soil loses its fertility, less grass grows and the cattle have to walk further to find enough to eat. Every step damages the soil and makes the situation worse. As the pasture dries up, the cows produce less milk and calves grow more slowly. When it rains, the damaged soil is washed into the rivers. 

Research conducted at the Colombian Centre for Research in Sustainable Systems of Agriculture (CIPAV) has found that when cows are able to graze high-protein fodder trees and bushes, there are many benefits for the animals, the farmers and the environment. The trees and bushes help catch rain so more water soaks into the soil. They also absorb more carbon dioxide than grass pasture and are resilient to periods of drought. Trees improve soil quality and provide valuable shade. Cooler cows eat throughout the day, moving around and depositing their valuable manure more evenly. 

Cows farmed in this way produce more milk and calves grow faster, so are ready for slaughter sooner. The change in diet helps digestion so the cows produce less methane which is a major contributor to climate change. According to CIPAV, using this system cattle ranchers can produce the same amount of dairy, meat and timber products in half the land area, with no need for expensive irrigation, fertiliser or herbicides. 

www.cipav.org.co

Cattle grazing bushes and trees produce less methane than animals grazing on grass. Photo: Andrew Philip/Tearfund
Cattle grazing bushes and trees produce less methane than animals grazing on grass. Photo: Andrew Philip/Tearfund
Waneska Bonfim
Waneska Bonfim is the General Coordinator of Diaconia.