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Farmers Know Best: How Restoration in the Brazilian Drylands Can Learn from Those Who Live There

In the hinterlands of Bahia, a state in the Northeastern region of Brazil severely affected by drought, local knowledge could hold the key to landscape restoration.

The working paper “Local Agroecological Knowledge: Pathways to Climate Change Adaptation and Restoration of the Caatinga Biome”, published on Monday (23th) by WRI Brasil, shows that it is possible to generate income and, at the same time, restore native vegetation at a large scale.

The study analyzed the agroecological knowledge of rural producers from Pintadas, Bahia, a city of approximately 10,000 inhabitants that sits about 225 kilometers from Salvador, the state capital. Researchers visited 42 rural properties in the region to talk to small farmers and learn how they continue to produce, amidst climate change, in the semiarid climate of Bahia’s Caatinga biome. The study also registered the farmers’ knowledge of the uses of native species of the Caatinga.

According to this research, the farmers’ accumulated knowledge of the vegetation and climate will be extremely valuable to efforts to build a productive system adapted to the semiarid Caatinga. “In several of the visited production systems, we have observed native tree species from the Caatinga mixed with agricultural species, in an agroecology approach,” says Aurelio Padovezi, manager of reforestation projects in WRI Brasil and one of the study’s authors. “Agroecology leads to more productive and resilient systems, and, at the same time, promotes the restoration and conservation of native vegetation.”

The working paper argues that such knowledge must be incorporated in Brazil’s strategic decisions, like climate change mitigation and adaptation. “Recognizing and valuing local knowledge about the use of regional native species and agroecological-based productive systems opens a door of opportunity to implement the National Determined Contributions (NDC) and to diminish local vulnerability, allowing social inclusion through the empowerment of women in the Brazilian drylands,” says the study.

Caatinga

Local Knowledge Fostering Agroecological Development and Conservation

Restoration projects in the Caatinga are, as a rule, expensive, relatively ineffective and provide no direct economic return. This happens because most research and restoration in Brazil is located in forest biomes such as the Atlantic Rainforest, where an ecological restoration, exclusively to assure the provision of environmental services, may have good results. When those practices are transplanted without modification to the semiarid Caatinga, poor results follow.

In the semiarid region, things are different. It is the poorest region in the country, and has little water. In addition, it lacks investments in restoration technology. For that reason, many rural producers feel unmotivated to apply their workforce into restoration activities, since such activities are not directly related to their livelihood and present a likelihood of failure.

In order to overcome such great barrier, the study recommends that the restoration projects be more closely connected with the agricultural production. If the rural producer knows that certain native species improve the productivity of the farm, they will certainly want to plant and preserve them.

Which species can be used that way? An interesting example found during the research is a typical tree from the Caatinga known as quixabeira (Sideroxylon obtusifolium). Since quixabeira has a well-developed tree crown, with lots of foliage, it generates a nice shadow, reducing soil temperature. When its leaves fall, they carry organic matter to the ground. That makes the area around the quixabeira more fertile and appropriate for agricultural production.

“Hinterland people (sertanejos) know about that and, therefore, do not cut the quixabeira,” says Mariana Oliveira, a WRI Brasil researcher and one of the study’s authors. “But they haven’t planted such species in their plots yet. They know about its value, but need to find out a proper way to bring such value to the productive system”.

The Ministry of Environment considers the quixabeira vulnerable to extinction. The recognition of local knowledge, combined with academic knowledge, may strengthen the shaping of incentives to the adoption of agroecological production systems which incorporate native species like the quixabeira – thereby increasing climate resilience and fostering the conservation of Brazilian rich biodiversity specimens.

Another species identified as important for production as well as for restoration is the palma (Opuntia ficus-indica). Palma is an exotic species, but very well-adapted to the semiarid climate. Local farmers use to cut the palm and distribute it on the soil to retain water, increasing the soil’s fertility and humidity. Doing so creates the proper conditions for regeneration and development of other native species.

“By understanding the wisdom of local people about the native tree species and the role they play in the natural and productive ecosystems, new technologies can be developed, making the productive systems more sustainable and efficient. That inverts the logic of desertification, since the planting or regeneration of native species adapted to local condition start to be desired by the rural producer,” says Padovezi.

Experience from Other Dry Regions

The results of the research in Pintadas comport with an international study by WRI called “Scaling Up Regreening: Six Steps to Success.” In the study, researchers evaluated the field experiences in the arid and semiarid regions of Africa and point to six steps in a landscapes restoration strategy. These six steps can tell us whether Pintadas is an appropriate site for a big restoration project.

Pintadas was not chosen as an object of study randomly. The town is extremely vulnerable to climate change. The temperature in Pintadas’ area is 2 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels and the volume of rainfall has dropped 50 percent. At the same time, Pintadas is a center of social engagement. Since 2006, an initiative called Adapta Sertão has helped organize the community economically, through a cooperative that commercializes products such as milk, vegetables and fruits. In 2016, women from Pintadas launched themselves into entrepreneurship and built a fruit pulp factory called Delícias do Jacuípe, with the capacity to produce 28 tons of pulp for juices, per month.

Said social engagement has put Pintadas in an ideal position for sustainable rural development based on agroecology and women’s leadership. The analysis of the six steps shows that, today, the region is prepared to initiate a restoration project at a large scale. “Agroecological practices which take into consideration gender may be an efficient way to transform the climate crisis in an opportunity to recover and conserve Caatinga, to preserve regional culture and to improve the life quality of backland people (sertanejos),” concludes the study.

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