SÃO PAULO, Brazil — As the world’s population grows — to 9 billion by 2050 — so too does the demand for food. That means land currently dedicated to agriculture is being tasked with producing greater yields, often in a shorter amount of time. Researchers around the world are working to figure out how to meet such demand without degrading the environment. With an abundance of natural resources, Brazil is a poster child for this challenge. South America’s largest and most populated state, it holds more renewable freshwater than any other country in the world and is known as home to the “lungs of the Earth” for the innumerable trees that call the 2.1 million square mile Amazon rain forest home.
It is also a nation that has seen its share of conflict between environmentalists and farmers over the use of the country’s forests. In fact, in recent years vocal environmentalists have been gunned down, and some have blamed farmers and ranchers for the deaths.
It is in this context and in the face of the country’s much-criticized Forest Code — which is meant to protect 80 percent of the Amazon forest as legal reserves — that Brazil’s Confederations of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA), a national organization that represents rural farmers, and the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa), a state-owned company affiliated with the Ministry of Agriculture, three years ago introduced a plan they believe will please both environmentalists and farmers by allowing for production andpreservation.
According to Embrapa and CNA the plan, known as the Biomes Project, will deliver technical and scientific solutions and introduce proven techniques that retain agricultural production as well as promote environmental protection mostly through the use of trees on properties dedicated to agriculture in Brazil’s various biomes: Amazonia, Atlantic Forest, Cerrado, Caatinga, Pampa and Pantanal. Researchers involved with the Biomes Project, which is scheduled to last nine years, say they are showing how trees help the soil and surrounding waterways while specifically identifying the best potential uses for the land in each biome that will also be the most sustainable.
One example is the Biomes Project’s “Farm Days,” which shows farmers how certain soil is ideal for growing trees that can later be used to build fences. But the farmers also learn the importance of having trees on their land in order to keep soil fertile, which therefore increases the land’s productivity, and they are encouraged to always have some trees growing on their property.
“Our results will have a high degree of interaction among environmental, social and economic factors,” says Gustavo Ribas Curcio, a researcher and technical coordinator for the Biomes Project from Embrapa, via email and translated from his native Portuguese. “We have to achieve results that respect the time, resources and labor of the Brazilian landowner.” Reports about outcomes will be available for free to all rural producers, making the specific scientific findings for each biome accessible to anyone who wishes to use them in rethinking their agricultural pursuits — what Biomes Project organizers call “science democratization in the fields.”
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Originally published February 20, 2013, on Ensia.