São Felix, Champion of Deforestation Swaps Cattle for Cocoa

Smoke billows from the Amazon rainforest near the town of São Felix do Xingu, in the northern Brazilian state of Pará. Ranchers, soybean farmers and loggers burned and cut down a near-record area of the Amazon - Photo: Dado Galdieri

Luckily there is also positive news about the Amazon rainforest. Market pressure leads São Felix do Xingu (PA) to grow fruits to recover the rainforests that they turned into pasture.

Within a decade, 12,000 km2 of Amazon rainforest (almost one-third of the Netherlands or the size of Maryland) disappeared to make room for more than 2 million head of cattle in São Felix do Xingu in the south of the federal state of Pará. However the title “Deforestation Champion of the Amazon” causes a growing averseness to the meat coming from this municipality, which houses the largest herd in the country.

Government officials and some dozen civil society organizations, work on building a sustainable economic model for the municipality. They predict, however, that the truckloads with oxen and cows which dominate the landscape and the ferry crossing the rivers Xingu and Fresco several times a day on their way to the slaughterhouses will not go away shortly.

But the scene is becoming a bit more promising in a town where everything is immense large, starting with the extension of the town, twice the size of the state of Rio de Janeiro.

Market pressure, combined with the “eyes” of the satellites, largely prevented the cheapest way to increase production, which was to bring down the rainforest to create pasture in a place where land was cheap and almost nobody has valid property titles.

The satellites of the Instituto Nacional de Pesquisas Espaciais (Inpe = National Institute for Space Research), which had recorded the accelerating pace of chainsaws, also collected the first signs of change: deforestation fell by almost 60% between 2010 and 2011. They only cut down 146 km2 during last year.

“Nobody quit deforesting, because it’s the right thing to do, but because there are no buyers for the product, the market is dictating”, records the municipal Secretary of Environment, Luiz Alberto de Araújo.

Credit lines
The slowing down of the deforestation has not been enough to take São Felix do Xingu from the list of towns which cut down the rainforests most and re-establish the credit-lines to the region, cut since early 2008, amid measures to combat the action of the chainsaws.

But more subtle signs indicate that the town’s council is on track in replacing the title of “Deforestation champion” by “Major cocoa producer”.

The production of the almond-fruit, raw material for the manufacture of chocolate, has quadrupled in five years and reached 1,500 tons last year, according to the Brazilian Institute of Geography and Statistics (IBGE). More importantly, cocoa has been used to restore vegetation in deforested areas and provides a source of income, especially for small producers with less than 100 hectares of land.

These more than 40% of the properties represent less than 4% of the territory of São Felix, but are important in engineering the environmental sustainability in the area.

At about two hours or 34 kilometres from the town centre by rutted dirt roads full of potholes, the entrance to the property of Jaime Martins de Sousa is a deep green. With pride, he shows the forest vigorously growing where until recently was pasture. The riverbanks are protected, there is an area of reclaimed pasture for cows which he still raises and a crop of cocoa, which grows in the shade of other native species.

“Soon, the capoeira (a cleared area where new vegetation is growing) will recover and after two years it will already have that thickness”, says Sousa, pointing to the slopes of the hills around, where the forest is full grown.

Besides the lack of roads to transport the almonds, the main obstacle of the cocoa plantations still are the monkeys, who eat in some plantations, up to 40% of the fruit production. It is one of the problems that the technical assistance has to deal with. Syrup prepared on a pepper base has been the best alternative in this case.

“There are all kinds of people here. I know people who, if they had 100 hectares of forest, they would overturn 150. I regret having deforested to get pasture, but, to recover, just put a fence up and lend a hand, it is very easy to pick up”, says the also small producer Altamiro Pereira Lourenço. “With cattle on a small piece of land, there isn’t a living; diversification gives you a living, it’s better”.

Lawrence farms fish and produces fruit pulp in the region, besides the cocoa. The trophy, he has on his property is a giant sumaúma (kapok tree), in that part of his land where the cocoa grows.

“The expectation is that production will grow, because it guarantees income and contributes to the reduction of deforestation”, says Iron Eterno de Faria, president of the Alternative Cooperative of Small Urban and Rural Producers (Cappru). Considering the average productivity of each cocoa plant in the region, an alqueire (piece of land of about five hectares), can yield BRL 31 thousand (USD 17,500) per year, more than the income provided by livestock from a same area. An opportunity for the country also, which still imports 50% of the cocoa consumption.

On Thursday, Faria attended a meeting with representatives of the multinational Cargill, the largest buyer of cocoa in Brazil. The negotiations indicate that the production of cocoa, limited to less than 20 km2, can reach 500 km2 (50,000 hectares) in the coming years, depending on the supply of good quality seeds and technical assistance. That would mean a multiplication by 200 to the current production. Currently, the cocoa produced in the region goes to Itabuna in Bahia, where the kernels are processed.

The negotiations have made clear that cocoa must not be turned into a mono-culture. It would be too risky for small local producers. The cultivation of choice is: Cacau Cabruca, a cultivation form of low environmental impact based on the use of sub-bush (intermediate layers) of the native rainforest. A culture of economic interest, cocoa, under the protection of the dominant strata formed by the remaining trees, discontinuous and surrounded by natural vegetation, establishing a stable relation with the associated natural resources. Designed in a limited geographical area, it leads to direct harmonic man-nature relationship, providing the basis of a “genuine territory”.

For now, medium and large cattle farmers do not seem to be very interested in investing in cocoa. Unlike cattle, the cultivation of cocoa requires frequent care and more working people.

source: Marta Salomon, special reporter for O Estado de S.Paulo

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