Beyond Cattle: Family Farms Provide a Good Life for People and Nature in the Amazon

Tree nursery in Amazon
Tree nursery operated by a local farmer. Credit: ADAFAX.

Editor’s Note: Rane Cortez works for The Nature Conservancy and is based in Belem, Brazil. She has just moved for two months to the highly-deforested frontier town of São Felix do Xingu in northern Brazil to work with local farmers, ranchers, landowners, indigenous groups and city officials to together promote forest-friendly sustainable growth for the area.

This post is the second in a series over the next eight weeks that will share her perspective from the frontlines of Amazon deforestation.

By Rane Cortez

“The history here is deforestation. People came here for one reason only: to deforest,” explains Father Danilo Lago. “But we shouldn’t just think about the conquest of the land. People need to learn to live well off the land.”

This is the mission of the Association of Family Farmers of Alto Xingu (ADAFAX), of which Father Danilo is the Treasurer. ADAFAX seeks to help family farmers diversify their crop production so that they make a sustainable living off of their small land holdings. I sat down with Father Danilo and two of his colleagues, Clarismar Pinto de Oliveira and Domingo Mendes, to learn more about their work and the difference it’s making on the ground. The conversation was an inspiration.

“Yesterday I was in a small community called Xada, visiting a farmer,” says Clarismar, “and I was impressed by the changes in mentality that I saw.”

Recently, the farmer planted about 12 hectares (roughly 30 acres) of cacao, mixed with native shade trees, on an area that he had planned to use for cattle pasture. In addition to cacao, the farmer decided to diversify further, creating fish ponds and garden plots. Now, the garden plots are his most lucrative venture. It’s a small area, but the farmer says that it provides better profits compared with his other activities.

“He told me, ‘it was through my participation in ADAFAX events that I changed my vision. Before, I thought that cattle was the only thing that made a good profit and only through ranching could I stay on my land. Now I’m seeing that if I only do one activity, I wouldn’t be able to stay here. If I had continued to work only with cattle, I would have had to sell my land by now and I would have moved to another region,’” relates Clarismar.

From left to right: Clarismar Oliveira, Domingo Mendes and Padre Danilo Lagos.

“There is an idea here in São Felix do Xingu that to live well, to have a better life, you need to be a big rancher,” says Father Danilo. “But if you have 100 hectares and you try to live only by ranching, what will happen? You’ll deforest those 100 hectares, you’ll sell it to the big ranchers and you’ll have to move forward. But where are you going to go? Here in front of us we have only indigenous lands and ecological reserves. There’s nowhere left to go.”

This is why Father Danilo talks about the need to learn to live well off the land. The old model of deforesting, using up the land, and moving on, is no longer viable. Family farmers need to learn that other alternatives exist that will allow them to live well and stay on their lands. Domingo has learned this firsthand.

“If I hadn’t begun working with ADAFAX, I wouldn’t still be on my land,” he says. “I have 50 hectares – I can’t live off ranching on 50 hectares. So now I am diversifying. I have cacao and make fruit juice concentrates. I think the concentrate is going to provide me with a better living than cattle would.”

More and more farmers like Domingo are beginning to change their mindsets as well. “I think we are seeing results here in São Felix,” Says Father Danilo. “Various people are seeing that you can live well on 100 hectares. You don’t have to keep deforesting. You don’t have to keep moving forward along the frontier. There is a viable alternative – gardens, cacao; cattle, yes, but just a small number for milk production – this has a big influence. It helps us lose this idea that to have a good life you have to be a big rancher. Having a well-structured, diversified farm also provides a good life.”

The Nature Conservancy is working with ADAFAX to help make sure that idea keeps spreading. “The future is going to be much better,” says Domingo. “If we do things like recover degraded areas and plant trees in riparian zones and around springs, things will change a lot. Maybe the old rains that used to fall will even return.”

ADAFAX staff and family farmers
ADAFAX staff (right) and family farmers. Credit: ADAFAX.

Stay tuned for Rane’s next posts in the series, featuring interviews with local players – like family farmers, cacao plantation owners and ranchers – and more in-depth looks at some of the strategies for reducing deforestation and promoting forest-friendly growth here in the Amazon.

Rane will also be blogging on the Nature Conservancy’s climate change blog, Planet Change, about how accelerated economic growth and the need for environmental conservation meet and collide in one of the most dynamic parts of the Amazon.

Human Journey


Meet the Author
Nicole Levins is an online media manager at The Nature Conservancy.