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Saving Water with Agroecology

November 2012

It is still dark outside when the farmers awaken. The cool air of the morning won’t last too long once the sun rises. When the sun slowly breaks the dawn, the sleepy bodies demand a cup of coffee. The flame in the old stove lights up the kitchen and gets the mind thinking about the day ahead.    Elias, Francimar, José Augusto, Agnael and many others are working in this huge project. They are dedicated to implementing an agro-forestry system on their farms to improve the soil and conserve water. Elias is one of the trained agronomists of the Landless Workers Movement (MST) in the Northern state of Maranhão. He is the facilitator of this agroecological experiment in the Cristina Alves settlement. Francimar brings the technical expertise. And local farmers – like José Augusto and Agnael – provide the local knowledge. Together they will introduce practices to improve the local agriculture. The system might take years to mature, or reach a point of full production. While that might seem like a lot of time, the group plans to start small and replicate the process in other areas.   Our friends at the Cristina Alves settlement will combine annual crops with fruit trees and local species for timber. In the first year, farmers will plant crops to “feed the soil.” The biomass from beans and tall grass will stay in the soil to conserve water and create the conditions for a diverse community of insects and worms to flourish. These insects will work non-stop to eat the grass and beans leaves, tilt the soil and fertilize it with micro-organisms.   Agroecology is the opposite of industrial agriculture. It sees nature working for us, while industrial agriculture tries to subjugate it. Agroecology demands less external resources. Industrial agriculture requires high doses of petroleum-based agrochemicals and pesticides and modified seesds to withstand them. That’s why farmers who depend on the land to feed their families are eager to use agroecology.   As José Augusto explains what the agro-forestry project means to him: “Even a small result for us will be huge, because at least we will have built a seed bank and a nursery. Also, another [expected] outcome is that we have brought families together to learn about new ways to improve our traditional agriculture. I am sure that our project will show important results in terms of productivity, the conservation of our environment and it will strengthen our community in many aspects.”     In addition to the agro-forestry system, the agroecologists of Cristina Alves are building an integrated system to raise pigs and fish and save water. It seems strange at first, but it is very simple. The water from the cleaning of the pigs bay is channeled to a fish tank that will consume food leftovers, and the pigs’ excrement will help to create the algae that also feed the fish. At the end, farmers reuse the scarce water for their crops and have an additional food and income with the marketing of the fish.   Agnael is also confident that the project will be a big success. “I expect to earn my bread and butter [through these new projects]. I always thought it is a great idea to diversify our production. This way, our food is guaranteed.”   The Landless Workers Movement (MST) is implementing different agroecological projects like the agro-forestry and fish project in agrarian reform settlements with the support of Grassroots International. The 1.5 million-member movement has played a critical role in the discussion of Brazil’s new national agroecological plan. By combining its work on the ground and in policy spaces, MST intends to stop the expansion of the poisonous practices of industrial agriculture. Instead, they advance agroecology and support peasant farmers in their effort to end hunger.

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