Around 200 million human beings live in Brazil, the world’s 5th largest nation. The warm and charismatic culture of Brazil is known for amazing Carnaval celebrations, contagious sambas and soothing bossa nova. Yet Brazil is also characterized by wide social disparities (in terms of income and access to services/infrastructure), corruption, armed conflict, and strong political polarization – particularly in recent times. Amidst all this, what I find truly fascinating is that this country is home to the greatest biodiversity of flora and fauna on the planet, with an average of 700 new animal species being discovered every year.
I recently had the privilege of traveling through – and dwelling into – Brazil; multiple Brazils, I should say, given the diverse panoply of ecosystems and cultures one can find there. Despite the vast distances separating each of them, I decided to visit Brazilian restoration camps on the ground. I was received by such welcoming, pure, and committed land stewards.
Camp Sítio Desperto – Regenerative Cultures Centre
After the longest flight of my life landed in the largest city I have ever seen, I was delighted by the idea of staying at Sítio Desperto for a week. To get there, I took a bus from Guarulhos to Caçapava in the interior of São Paulo, and then continued in an informal shuttle over a ‘massaging’ dirt road to climb up the Paraíba Valley. I arrived at the camp in the middle of a weekend course on syntropic agroforestry, facilitated by Gabriella (hereafter referred to as “Gabi”) and Michel, just in time before the tropical rains fell. I was met with smiles and some tired sighs, in a good way tired…The rain’s arrival invited quiet work indoors – studying and designing syntropic systems. Under very coherent and clear facilitation from Michel, we implemented and learned about syntropic systems. We explored a different human presence and celebrated the abundance of local meals throughout the weekend…
What is syntropic farming?
Syntropic farming is a form of agroforestry, which involves a combination of forestry with agriculture or livestock. The Entropy Law from thermodynamics may help us to understand the concept of syntropy. While entropy refers to a system’s tendency to dissociate into simpler forms and dissipate energy, syntropy points at the tendency of a system to grow into order, to “complexify”. Evidently, the word farming also implies that the production of food is a fundamental part of syntropic systems. Ernst Götsch, a revolutionary voice in the world of syntropic farming, established principles and a method of planning, planting, and managing ecosystems that can be applied at various scales. As I see it, the process is based on principles of biomimicry and restoration as we learn about the functioning of forest ecosystems. Healthy forests as a model or “reference ecosystem” for the ecosystems we are tending. In short, the syntropic approach “relies on biology, chemistry, ecology, and botany (…);” it involves careful design in time and space (considering different successional states), and planting a myriad species of plants, shrubs, and trees very close to one another. Generally, the use of external inputs (e.g. fertilizer and irrigation) is reduced over time as biomass accumulates and, (through management techniques like pruning, biochar application and mulching), feeds the soil. Thus, alongside the production of food, medicine and/or fuels, the quality of the ecosystem improves through increasing ecological functionality and complexity. Syntropic farming, along with other types of agroforestry, aims at increased diversification and near-optimal production of the benefits or ‘services’ derived from ecosystems. Thus, these can be seen as legitimate restoration approaches for humans to re-vitalise areas that have been degraded, feeding both human and nonhuman systems in multiple ways.
Back to my first encounter with Ecosystem Restoration Camps in Brazil; Sítio Desperto arose from Gabi and Michel’s radical shift out of ‘city-life’. Gabi has a background in design, social entrepreneurship and is also a holistic therapist. Though still involved with an organization she founded (to support women through natural gynecology), Gabi hopes to fully commit her time and energy to Camp Desperto soon. After leaving the IT sector to, in his own words, become free, Michel learned first-hand how to grow his food from Ernst Gotsch and various agroforestry projects in Brazil. Eventually, Gabi and Michel crossed paths to ‘walk their talk’ together at Sítio Desperto.
Besides learning about syntropic farming, I felt truly inspired throughout my stay at Sítio Desperto. Gabi, Michel and their dog-friends were very generous and invited me into their home. Joining in the dynamic flow of Sítio Desperto, it did not take long before I noticed how complementary, and how strong a team Gabi and Michel are. Gabi’s caring energy translated into delicious semi-traditional, semi-experimental food, and a growing connection with medicinal plants. Michel is a humorous storyteller and incredibly knowledgeable about syntropic agroforestry, both in terms of its history and practical application on the ground. In between planting small trees and vegetables, I became familiar with Desperto’s vision of becoming a “Regenerative Cultures Center”; a place to demonstrate and facilitate the transition into frugal abundance. To actualize such a vision, different agroforestry plots are emerging and gradually pulsing through the camp, sitting in well-shaded/humid soils. As my work focuses on monitoring ecosystem restoration, we discussed how this might be done at the camp. Amidst administrating rentals, restoring/maintaining infrastructure, running learning experiences and everyday management of agroforestry systems, it is difficult for them to engage with ground Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E). However, both acknowledged the fundamental importance of collecting impact data to inform management and increase transparency. That is why we are developing a long-term project in which students (from the State University of Sao Paulo (UNESP)) help ERC/Desperto collect data on a range of ecological indicators (e.g. indicators from our Soil M&E Framework). Ultimately, this would allow for a greater understanding on how syntropic techniques (and other forms of agroforestry) are affecting the ecosystem.
For now, Gabi and Michel are also exploring meaningful ways of shifting away from short stay rentals, making a living through camp activities, and inviting other souls to join the mission of Desperto – to nurture and spread regenerative cultures… “Oxalá…!” (Let’s hope!)
After exploring the coastlines of Sao Paulo, I made my way to the city of Rio de Janeiro with the intention of joining Sinal do Vale (or just Sinal) . But when I arrived there, I realized Carnaval was happening after two years of hibernation… Of course, I was intrigued when Sinal’s staff confirmed they were heading towards carnaval colors and sounds, and decided to wander through Rio’s “Blocos” as well. Blocos are spectacular groups of musicians, dancers and entertainers attracting and moving Carnaval crowds along their parades. Albeit truly remarkable, the Street Carnival of Rio did take up some of the time I had hoped to spend at Sinal. Still, I enjoyed two very special days in the company of the founder and visionary soul behind Sinal do Vale, Thaís Corral.
Inside of Sinal’s main communal building, a space for workshops/gatherings (left) and the communal eating area (right)
Literally translated, Sinal do Vale means “Valley’s signpost”. At a modest distance of less than an hour by car from the center of Rio, Sinal certainly acts as a signpost of hope and regeneration. As an acronym, SINAL combines the words synchronicity, innovation, and joy (Sincronicadade, Inovaçao, e Alegria). Intuitively, such principles give us a good sense of what drives Sinal do Vale.
The camp was founded in 2012 by social entrepreneur, women’s rights- and ecological activist Thaís Corral. Sinal is the embodiment of her vast experience in – and profound commitment to – eco-social regeneration; a center for the regeneration of ecosystems, communities, and individuals through experimentation and place-based action learning.
I had the pleasure to briefly meet Mari and Kate, who were both involved with ambitious restoration projects within and beyond the camp’s site. One of them focuses on the reforestation of Sinal’s mountain tops, and the other one involves the creation of a vast ecological corridor and trail that connects different nature conservation/restoration projects across the landscape. Over meal times and an 8-km hike all the way up to the highest point of Sinal’s lands, Thaís explained how these 400 acres came into being between the urban sprawl and some of the last protected areas of the Atlantic Forest in Rio de Janeiro. Indeed, the flourishing of Sinal do Vale relied on synchronicities and partnerships – with Sandra, with whom Thaís shared the initial dream to cocreate Sinal, and then with young generations as “change-agents”, the soil, food, the forests of the area, and the regional community. The signposting becomes clear through Sinal’s vectors of action.
Change-agents refers to the empowerment of young generations and women in eco-social entrepreneurship and leadership, which is put into practice as young generations and women are employed at Sinal. Resilient infrastructure is built using locally sourced natural materials such as bamboo, which is produced and processed within Sinal do Vale. Hospitality translates in the wholesome care offered amidst the valley’s atlantic forests. Soils are prioritized in management practices and experiments, such as growing and researching mycorrhizal amendments. Food lies at the heart of Sinal, as delicious vegetarian meals using (as much as possible) locally produced ingredients are served to the entire team at set times, including the famous jackfruit, which has its own processing facility on site. Last but definitely not least, most of Sinal do Vale’s interventions aim at restoring forests (e.g. building fences to enable natural regeneration by reducing trampling and damage caused by animals), or active planting of native shrubs and trees in previously degraded lands.
Camp EcoAraguaia Farm of the Future
From Rio de Janeiro I went to Palmas, Tocantins, in the center of Brazil. The distance I traveled to get there is roughly the same as going from Lisbon to Brussels. Making such a long journey meant I was able to experience a very different culture and ecosystem. Specifically, I had left the coastal areas famous for the Atlantic Forest biome (of which only about 11% remains conserved) to enter the incredibly hot Cerrado biome.
(Tocantins is often called “Tostantins”, as the word “Tosta”/toast is a metaphor for the heat typical of this state).
After driving 4 hours along a flatscape that reminded me of the Netherlands, across intermittent patches dominated by cattle, soy, corn, and Cerrado, I arrived at Camp EcoAraguaia/Farm of the Future. The camp is in an area of critical importance for conservation and truly amazing biodiversity, part of a so-called ecotone as it sits at the intersection of three biomes: Amazónia (amazon rainforest), Pantanal (tropical wetland), and of course, the Cerrado (often called “Brazillian savanna”).
EcoAraguaia or “fazenda do futuro” refers to 500 ha of wild ecosystems transitioning away from conventional agriculture and livestock production of the area. Seen from above, the camp is an “Oasis” amidst cattle, soy and farms. Nearly half of the land constitutes RPPN Guaíra (“Reserva Particular do Património Natural” or privately owned area for nature conservation), meaning no extractive activities, fires, or domestic animals are allowed there. Such a “private initiative” symbolizes how important it is that people like Guilherme (the camp manager) ignite change from the ground-up. Though good conservation policies have been formulated (e.g. one has to “conserve at least 35% of a property within the Cerrado biome”), the enforcement of environmental law is a massive challenge in a country as big as Brazil. Various conversations with locals show a grim outlook for the Cerrado biome, which has been suffering from decades of illegal logging, conversion of forest to farmland, intensive agriculture, heavy machinery, disruption of watersheds, and (imprecise) use of synthetic fertilizers and agro-chemicals. One of them is glyphosate, an herbicide that has been banned from various countries around the world due to the fact that is regarded as probably carcinogenic and due to its powerful, non-selective negative impacts on beneficial creatures, like pollinators and earthworms, as well as the food base of whole ecosystems). Some fishermen reported increased observations of dead “pirarucu” fish along the huge freshwater basins of the Amazon, Araguaia and Tocantins rivers. (Pirarucu is a fish native to the Amazonian rivers and lakes, and among the world’s largest freshwater fishes, reaching a length of nearly 3 meters and a weight of 220 kg). Yet the externalities of business-as-usual land-use practices remain largely unaddressed through “top down” approaches. The quality of ecosystems essential for the survival of local communities is thus being compromised over the short- and long term.
Aware of these trends, Guilherme is – in between parallel projects – determined to facilitate holistic living and collaboration around the concept of ‘regenerative islands’. In each of these islands, a group of families will be able to experience and experiment with traditional/innovative and ecologically sound ways of growing food (through syntropic farming), building homes (e.g. through the use of local materials and techniques), and regenerative enterprises (e.g. agroforestry and eco-tourism). All of this in alignment with EcoAraguaia’s ambitious vision to create a network of local rural families working with agro-forestry and integrated production systems; to build vibrant local communities where the young want to stay, whilst also improving farmers’ relationships with the Amazon Forest.”
Other projects are underway, particularly on the “island” where Guilherme and the ERC facilities are situated. Close to the river, this island has several fully equipped eco-lodges, a workspace, communal kitchen, and a stunning staircase down to the mystical Araguaia river… Some corporate retreats and open events have already been hosted there. Besides promoting natural regeneration through the creation of a protected area (again, where human intervention is minimal), the first 1 ha SAF/agroforestry plot of EcoAraguaia has been evolving since 2019.
The biology of the RPPN area is being monitored using sophisticated technology such as bioacoustics and wildlife camera traps, through a collaboration with the local conservation institute (Instituto Araguaia) and State Park of Cantao. Besides, the camp’s first SAF is being studied as part of a collaborative project with the Federal University of Tocantins (UFT) for the past 3 years. The findings will be disseminated soon, and right now, Guilherme, UFT and I are discussing ways to continue and expand monitoring/research at the camp. It is likely that we will consider the methods used to monitor SAFs at this camp as a model for other camps engaging in agroforestry (e.g. Camp Desperto), to ensure standardization and greater interoperability as we grow open-source datasets on restorative agroforestry systems. Such parallel inquiries demonstrate how important it is to strengthen the camps movement through knowledge exchange, and how beneficial it is to facilitate networking – perhaps not only at a global level, but also at levels that are more relevant for the practice of restoration (e.g. geographically/regionally and/or considering the specific types of issues or restoration approaches camps are dealing with).