Collaboration for sustainable Amazon food production
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Collaboration for sustainable Amazon food production

30.05.2024 SciDev.Net

This article is supported by CIAT

[SÃO PAULO] Latin American researchers are working with rural producers and Amazon river communities to develop strategies for enhancing food production, making it more sustainable, and reducing deforestation and greenhouse gas emissions in the region.

They are fusing science with traditional knowledge, marking a shift from the top-down technology transfer model, where innovations were taken from the lab and implemented on the ground, often without taking into account the needs of the local population.

“[Such technologies] aim to include local people in the Amazon by helping increase productivity and protect the environment,” Judson Valentim, from Embrapa, the Brazilian state-owned agricultural research organization, in Acre state, tells SciDev.Net.

One example of the technologies developed through this process are tubular biodigesters, which use manure and waste products to generate clean energy for rural families to prepare food, and a rich source of nutrients to help fertilise the soil.

In Peru, researchers from the National University Toribio Rodríguez de Mendoza, in the Amazon region, created a tubular biodigester system to treat effluent from livestock farms, process livestock manure, generate environmentally friendly fuel, and reduce the environmental impact of livestock.

In Ecuador, researchers from Amazon State University created a tubular biodigester that reduces pollution by processing pig manure and waste water from farmyard cleaning. The biogas it generates is then used as a fuel source to produce thermal energy. The residual matter generated by the decomposition – known as digestate – is then used as fertilizer for orange, cocoa, coffee, and banana crops.

“The close dialogue with local communities is fundamental not just for the design of technologies, but also to increase the likelihood that they are adopted,” Augusto Castro-Núñez, a researcher at CIAT, the International Center for Tropical Agriculture, in Colombia, tells SciDev.Net.

“Often producers are interested in using the technologies, but they don’t have the resources required.”

Fighting emissions

Agriculture and livestock are the two sectors that contribute the most to greenhouse gas emissions as they require forest land to be cleared.

In the Juruá region, in the Northern Brazilian state of Acre, Embrapa Acre researchers have worked for more than ten years with rural producers to develop techniques able to improve soil fertility and increase the profitability of cassava, black-eyed peas, and maize.

Juruá soils are acidic and not very fertile, so farm production is typically only viable for three years, forcing producers to clear new native forest areas to be able to continue cultivating.

“Instead of telling producers what they’d have to do, we invite them to work with us to define together the best strategies for changing this,” says Valentim, from Embrapa Acre.

That collaboration has resulted in a scheme to correct soil acidity based on direct sowing of grasses and legumes and crop rotation.

This strategy has increased levels of organic matter and nitrogen in the soil, and restored part of the nutrients eliminated in the previous harvest, improving fertility. Yields of cassava and maize have increased by around 50 per cent in 13 years in Juruá, compared with other regions, which use conventional cropping techniques.

“In addition to restoring the productive capacity of soil and increasing crop yields, we have managed to maintain the fertility of recovery areas and the continuous use of land, which allows successive crops without clearing more forest areas for new plantations,” he says.

When the farmer Sebastião Oliveira joined the project, a large part of his soil was unproductive. “I always sowed cassava for flour production using the slash and burn system, but the land would lose its production capacity,” he tells SciDev.Net.

Cassava yields increased by 50 per cent after researchers and producers of the Juruá region developed strategies suitable to that specific reality. Credit: Courtesy of the Juruá Central Cooperative for SciDev.Net

Before his partnership with Embrapa Acre, he produced up to ten tons of cassava per hectare. With sustainable management and improved soil quality, his productivity has increased to 25 tons per hectare.

“I was able to diversify my production with maize and black-eyed peas,” he says.

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According to Valentim, the development and use of such co-designed technologies by small, medium, and large producers could help save between 58 million and 76 million hectares of native Amazon forest from deforestation.

Researchers estimate that in these 13 years, each hectare cultivated under this system stopped emitting over 1.5 tons of carbon dioxide, a significant contributor to greenhouse gases.

Curbing deforestation

Deforestation from food production and livestock grazing has reduced the ability of the Amazon to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and to serve as a brake on the process of global warming.

Only in the Colombian Amazon, for example, deforestation to establish cattle has increased by as much as 3 million hectares in the last 34 years.

“That results in temperature increases, changes in rain patterns and an increase of extreme meteorological phenomena causing damage and substantial economic impact in productive systems of the region,” says Castro-Núñez, who heads the research arm of an initiative on low-emissions food systems called Mitigate+, carried out through a joint venture between Biodiversity International & CIAT in Colombia.

The goal of Mitigate+ is to reduce annual emissions of the global food systems by seven per cent by 2030 through collaborative work with local producers.

In Colombia, Mitigate+ focuses its work on departments of Caquetá and Cesar, in the south and northeast of the country, respectively, helping approximately 700 producers obtain cocoa that is more productive, sustainable, and even capable of promoting peace.

“Cocoa is strategic to Colombia because it is one of the crops promoted by the government to stop farmers growing the coca leaf, linked to deforestation and conflict in the country,” says Castro-Núñez.

Through meetings and workshops with producers, the Mitigate+ team was able to understand the gaps that limit the sustainable production of the fruit. From these discussions, they developed a strategy based on the incorporation of trees in farms to increase biodiversity, restore soil conditions, and protect the land from erosion while providing the natural shadow that cocoa plants need to develop.

“Shade produced by the largest canopy trees boosts cocoa growth in its different development stages,” Castro-Núñez explains. “The strategy also allows income generation and food needed for food security of families by providing diversification.”

Maria Cecília Rosinski Lima Gomes, an environmental engineer from the Mamirauá Institute for Sustainable Development in Tefé, in Brazil’s Amazonas state, says: “We have a population in the Amazon that depends on the exploitation of natural resources which are being depleted due to climate change.”

“We need to develop innovation processes that go beyond purely technological solutions which have been generated externally.”

She coordinates a preservation project for the giant arapaima, a species of fish which has been overexploited in the last decades.

In the Amazon watershed, together with local fishermen, her team has carried out a collaborative management model since 2010 that has increased the population of giant arapaima, one of the most important species of fish in Amazon culture.

The strategy is based on fishermen counting individuals in specific lakes. This information is then used to determine fishing quotas, which is equivalent to 30 per cent of individuals registered the previous year, using a protocol co-developed by residents and the research team.

In protected and monitored lakes of the Juruá River, the number of individuals has increased more than four times, compared with areas without surveillance.

Forest conservation in flood plains

Another example comes from Pará state in Northern Brazil, where the joint work between researchers and producers of açaí, a species of palm tree, has helped to improve fruit production with forest conservation in flood plains of the Amazon estuary.

Açaí palm grows naturally in that environment and its fruit is an important component of surrounding communities’ diet. However, increased consumption in other parts of the country has meant overcollection in the region.

Açaí plantation in Portel, in the Marajó archipelago, Brazil, which uses the minimum impact management strategy. Credit: courtesy of Teofro Lacerda Gomes for SciDev.Net

Greater fruit demand has increased the incomes of coastal communities. However, the activity has put local biodiversity at risk as producers started to eliminate other native species to leave space to plant more açaí palms.

This leads to a vicious cycle as decreasing fruit yields encourage producers to clear more forest areas.

In collaboration with riverside producers of the Marajó archipelago, at the mouth of the Amazon River, researchers at the Eastern Amazon branch of Embrapa (Embrapa Amazônia Oriental) and other Amazonian teaching and research institutions, developed a management technique that limits the number of açai palm trees to 400 per hectare and adds 250 trees of other species with thin, medium, and thick trunks, contributing to maintaining forest diversity.

In addition, the system helps increase fruit production, because the açai depends on wood species to produce more fruits. This is because the roots of those species penetrate deeply into the soil, extracting the maximum of nutrients. These are transported to the leaves, which fall and become fertilizer for the açaí palm trees.

“Without these species, the availability of nutrients for açaí palms diminishes and so does the production of fruits,” forest engineer José Antônio Leite de Queiroz, from Embrapa Amazônia Oriental, tells SciDev.Net.

“We train some producers so they can train other producers,” adds Queiroz.

Teófro Lacerda Gomes is one of them. He tells SciDev.Net that his production has tripled since the adoption of the strategy, going from two to six tons per hectare.

“This has significantly improved production,” he states. “Now, I’m helping others to do the same.”

Denisse Gutierrez, Coordinator of Social Technology at the National Institute for Amazon Research, in Manaus, capital of the Amazonas state, says: “It is important to recognize that other sources of innovation exist and that some technologies originate in specific ecosystems where local people are crucial for its design, implementation and maintenance.”

This article is supported by CIAT

This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Latin American and the Caribbean desk.

30.05.2024 SciDev.Net
Regions: Europe, United Kingdom, Latin America, Brazil, Ecuador
Keywords: Science, Agriculture & fishing, Environment - science, Grants & new facilities, Business, Agriculture & fishing

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