Wednesday, 8 Nov 2000

RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil

I arrive at the Tom
Jobim Airport in Rio de Janeiro very early. From Rio, I drive two hours to a farm in the countryside, which I visit once a month.

Degraded pasture in the Rio de Janeiro state.

Here, I’m working on a farm that has survived the Brazilian coffee age. Three hundred years ago, a forest called Mata Atlantica used to cover this entire area. Then it was cut down to make room for coffee plantations in the 19th century. About 30 years ago, the coffee plantations were replaced by pasture, which degraded as time passed. The results were poor. The animals raised on this land looked ugly, were skinny, and produced few calves each year. Today, the Mata Atlantica forest has begun to recover. Forest now covers about 50 percent of the total area of the farm I’m visiting, where the current owner values its preservation.

When I first visited this farm two years ago, it was very clear to me that I was talking to people who had serious and good intentions (and this is very important!), but who needed a new model to manage their farm. It was also clear to me that I was, once again, in contact with the last remnants of the so-called “green revolution,” which invariably led to cut-down forests, muddy rivers, eroded land, destroyed environment, bankrupt farms, and frustrated people.

So, we got to work.

Using our knowledge of plants and of animal physiology, we initiated a new model of management: Pasture areas are separated by electric-wire fences (which we made ourselves) powered by photovoltaic solar energy. The pastures are divided into small paddocks and animals are allowed to graze in each one for one day only. Then the paddock is left to rest for about 30 days in the wet season (summer) and 60 days in the dry season (winter) before the animals return.

Healthy pasture after a year of restoration.

The pastures have time to rest from the grazing and can grow again. Every day, when the cows go to a new paddock, they find good and copious amounts of food. They are outdoors and feed themselves entirely from pastures (ruminants are the only animals that can transform straw into high-quality proteins), drink water whenever they want, and rest in the shade of big trees. They enjoy comfort and are not confined to feed lots (called animal concentration camps by Jose Lutzemberger).

The result of this work is that we can produce organic meat and milk without the use of grains or chemicals and without destroying the environment. The farm production increased by 100 percent in one year. Now, the outcomes are positive. The farmer is proud and has recovered his self-esteem. The soil is thoroughly covered with straw, leaves, and manure. Erosion is no longer a problem, not even when the rain comes in the tropical summer. The farm is alive again.

This model of sustainability can be replicated on other tropical and subtropical farms. From the start, we intended to develop a model on this farm that could be reproduced on a large scale by all the farmers in the region (I think replicability is an obsession of every Ashoka Fellow). For this process our NGO, IDEAAS, will establish a partnership with local NGOs.

Today, while I was in the field visiting the project, I felt once again the harmony of life and was sure that it is possible to live on our planet in peace with all our brothers: blue sky, clean water, green grasslands, content and well-fed animals. Peace and quiet are everywhere.

Far in the distance, the mountains are covered with the Mata Atlantica forest, and I can hear the birds singing and the small monkeys grunting. Once again, I am sure that it is possible, here on earth, to be near God.