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How peasant farmers feed the planet

In the northeast of Brazil, the landscape changes from dry, spiny vegetation to humid, verdant scenery dominated by sugar cane plantations. Driving through villages inhabited mostly by sugar-cane cutters is like winding through a slum in a big city. Barefoot children sell candy beneath the traffic lights, Coca-Cola signs light up bars and open-air sewage gives an indication of the pervasive poverty.   In the middle of a “green desert” of sugar cane (grown mostly for export), from the road I saw two adults and a young boy working in what appeared to be a tiny oasis teeming with lush fresh vegetables that shined from afar. Instantly, I was certain I had reached Rubem’s farm.   Like his father and neighbors, Rubem dos Santos worked all his life as sugar cane cutter. Today, at 42, he works for himself. And looking at the bounty of crops in the field, it seems he is doing pretty well. “Before, it was only sugar cane,” he explained. That all changed when the agribusiness that controlled the land went into bankruptcy. In exchange for unpaid wages and benefits, ex-sugar cane cutters negotiated with the government to gain title to the land. As members of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), a Grassroots International partner, the ex-plantation workers settled in the land, restored the soil and expanded their cropping areas.   In a short period of five years, the families moved from a single crop for export to a food oasis. When asked, Rubem and his wife Maria could not even remember how many different kinds of crops they had planted. We decided to count them as we walked through the vegetable garden. “We grow almost everything we need to feed ourselves and to sell in the local market,” Maria told me. And we started counting and naming the crops: “Lettuce, Cauliflower, beets, carrots, beans, corn, okra, collard greens, and scallions…” Thirteen different crops thrived in the former green desert.   The Journey from Cutter to Worker to Community   The transformation of the land – and life for Rubem, Maria and their community – was not instant.   In the past, Rubem took different jobs in the sugar processing plant. “I did a little of everything,” he explained, “I cut cane, worked in the garage and everything else I was asked to do.” That included spraying pesticides and chemical fertilizers in the decaying plantations. According to the Federation of Rural Workers Unions of Pernambuco (FETAPE), two workers died recently poisoned by pesticides. Agrochemicals are the number one cause for workers’ hospitalization in this sugar cane dominated region.   When the ethanol plant closed, Rubem lost his sole source of income. He set out to various cities in Brazil with the hopes of finding a job. “I traveled to Tocantins and did odd jobs at a hospital, a ceramic factory and a poultry farm,” he told me. “I went to live in Brasilia and it was terrible,” he said with the distant look that comes from revisiting the past. “If I had an income of two salaries, I would have never left my place.”   Now through his vegetable gardens, Rubem has a steady income. Monthly, he makes more than $450 US (well above two minimum wage salaries). The secret is the technical support that he and his wife received.   “The biggest challenge in agrarian reform is the lack of technical support for rural families,” Rubem said with a heavy sigh. “[N]ew farmers like me do not have access to funds. People are unable to make investments in the land. We need a sustainable agriculture policy to help small farmers like me.”   Creating New Models for Sustainable Living   Based on the needs of farmers like Rubem, Grassroots International and the MST collaborate to implement sustainable agriculture projects to help farmers diversify crops, produce healthy foods and generate a steady income.   Through a small grant from Grassroots, the MST helped Rubem test new agriculture techniques to improve crops’ productivity.   I asked Rubem how all of that happened. “Simple. There was a meeting in the community in which Cicero presented the project,” he replied. (Cicero is an agronomist who works with the MST.) Along with other members of the MST, Cicero received training on sustainable agriculture in MST’s Latin American School of Agroecology (LASA) – a project supported by Grassroots International. As part of the yearlong course, Cicero was responsible for implementing a pilot project for his practical exam. Based on the requests of Rubem’s community, Cicero visited the region and presented the idea. Together, Cicero and the farmers decided to test “Mandala,” a technique that maximizes water and soil resources.   An ancestral techinique, the circularly shaped mandala helps farmers to conserve water and control soil erosion. To irrigate his area, Rubem dug a canal to deviate water from a small creek to feed a cistern in the middle of the mandala.  In order to use the water efficiently, Rubem distributed the crops according to their water demands. Near the cistern, he planted lettuce, cilantro, and carrots—all of which require more water. In the outer circles, he planted fruit trees and other drought-resistant crops.     Rubem also uses an intercrop system that further improves productivity. He combines crops considered ‘companion plants” that are synergetic species. In other words, when planted near each other, companion plants produce a better yield than if planted separately. For instance, basil and tomatoes are companion plants as well as lettuce and scallion.   Upon my return, I asked Jefferson Vasconcellos, a MST organizer, if there was a companion plant for sugar cane. Instead of suggesting a crop to plant, he proposed an entirely different farming system.   First, he advised, we need to replace the industrial agriculture model with a more sustainable one. Second, governments should provide resources to small-scale farmers, so they could diversify their crops and reduce the use of deadly and costly agro-chemicals. As a result, he said, we would have more “real” food, more people employed, and a cooler planet.   Jefferson emphasized that Rubem is just one example of that kind of transformation. Cultivating a small parcel of land, Rubem changed his life and the environment around him for the better. He now feeds more people, instead of just the profits of his ex-bosses. And the way he cultivates the land by diversifying his crops has replaced the green desert of sugar cane with an oasis of healthy and sustainable food.