Deforestation in Brazil’s Amazon hit a record high at the start of the year, according to data from the Brazilian government. The new AmazonPasto app, released by Instituto Ouro Verde (IOV), a Brazilian non-governmental organization, and the University of Exeter, aims to protect the environment and help small-scale farmers earn a living in deforested areas.
In a silvopastoral system—a type of agroforestry—farmers intentionally grow trees in combination with forage plants and graze livestock on the same land. The new digital AmazonPasto platform allows users to access and share information about species that are beneficial for these tree-based agriculture systems. It also includes tips to improve soil quality and build sustainable farming techniques. To encourage the region’s small farmers to adopt silvopastoral systems, AmazonPasto also offers microcredit funding that can support farmers as they get started.
“We have to evolve the concept of product quality to the concept of environmental quality,” Alexandre Olival and Andrezza Spexoto, co-founders of IOV, tell Food Tank. “We will only be able to produce high quality products when our production system is connected with the local biome, helping to preserve animal and plant species.”
According to a recent report from Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs, the historical extraction of food and mineral commodities for global markets has resulted in high levels of poverty and inequality in the region. Continued exploitation of resources including beef, milk, soy, corn, cassava, rice, bauxite, and iron ore contribute to the decline of the region’s vast natural capital without adequate improvements in local wellbeing. The World Bank reports that in Brazil’s northern region, where the Amazon is located, poverty rates reach 35.3 percent, almost twice the national average in 2021.
Prior to joining AmazonPasto, some of the farmers involved in the project faced homelessness. But through silvopastoralism, small scale farmers are able to produce crops and milk for sale at a fixed price to the Brazilian government for consumption in local institutions like schools.
Large-scale mining and other infrastructure projects also increasingly threaten protected areas and Indigenous lands. According to research published in One Earth, a recent proposal to regulate mining within Indigenous lands may impact 20 percent more forests than under current policies. And the Nature Conservancy reports that 34 million people, including more than 380 Indigenous groups, are exposed to air pollution associated with forest fires.
AmazonPasto’s developers aim to transform current systems focused on these short-term gains. Olival and Spexoto explain that planting trees can provide farmers with benefits beyond just income from the sale of wood. Olival’s previous research in Agronomy and Forestry finds that improvements in soil quality and the quality of forage plants can help reduce the need for correction fertilization or nutritional supplementation of animals. These changes are especially effective in the dry period of the year.
While the project currently uses Inga trees to lock nitrogen into the soil and maintain long-term soil fertility, no single species is a “savior,” Olival and Spexoto tell Food Tank. “The idea behind the app is to show that what will make the system better is precisely the combination of species.”
To foster dialogue between producers, the app provides two tools for users to exchange information and highlight experiences with successful combinations of species. They can submit evaluations of trees already registered in the app, which will be visible for other users to consider. Users can also register a new species in the app’s system, indicating its main characteristics. By evaluating images sent through the app, a team of botanical specialists from partner universities can then help to correctly identify any newly added species.
Registered participants also have the option to share suggestions through a WhatsApp group established for users of the platform. AmazonPasto hopes that this additional outlet will help to facilitate more direct communication as farmers and technicians select the best trees and forage plants for their production systems.
So far, the app has helped create approximately 60 hectares of silvopastoral systems, containing more than 20,000 trees in the Brazilian Amazon. The project aims to increase this area by about 150 hectares per year. In the coming months, the IOV team hopes to expand its operations and work with people in other Brazilian biomes, including the Caatinga, Pantanal, and Atlantic Forest.
“No single species has all the ecological functions that guarantee the productivity and resilience of systems,” Olival and Spexoto tell Food Tank. “But if we bring the species together in an organized and rational way, we can have incredible results.”
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Photo courtesy of Dieny Portinanni, Unsplash