The families we work with use agroecological techniques to grow their crops. Agroecology is:
- The application of ecology to the design and management of sustainable agroecosystems.
- A whole-systems approach to agriculture and food systems development based on traditional knowledge, alternative agriculture and local food system experiences.
- Linking ecology, culture, economics, and society to sustain agricultural production, healthy environments, and viable food and farming communities. .( http://www.agroecology.org/)
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Through the use of polyculture, farmers can better protect their crops from plague and insect infestations. Polyculture also helps to maintain or improve soil quality, given that you mix different types of plants, which make different demands on the soil.
In the Sertão, as in other semi-arid regions around the world, water is a very important topic, even in what are called years of “normal” rainfall. Dry mulch is used not only to decompose and return nutrients to the soil, but also to protect the soil from water evaporation, as it traps moisture, instead of letting it evaporate away.
Agroflorestry uses polyculture to take advantage of different types of plants and their characteristics, for example, using taller trees (in this case usually fruit trees, such as papaya), that offer shade to protect other, shorter, plants from the heat of the sun, and also reduce evaporation. A mixture of different plants also serves to improve the nutritional quality of the soil. This is the case not only by not just planting the same type of plant, that always takes and leaves the same things in the soil, but also by the possibility of planting nitrogen fixing plants, for example. Groundcover plants also protect the soil from unnecessary evaporation.
It works on three levels:
Dense, diverse planting – use of various plant species, of varying sizes, that produce year round.
Selective clearing – clearing of scrubland that has flowered
Pruning – to help the plant renewal, to produce organic material for composting and to improve soil, to open up space for annual crops.
(Adapted from the leaflet “Caminhos para Convivência com o Semi-Árido, ASA)
By using a mix of crop plants and native “caatinga” plants, the land will not only boast a diversity of plants that offer a varied diet, but can also help to enrich the soil, feed any livestock, give flowers that will attract bees for pollination, and much more. Pega pinto is an example; a native plant, it self-seeds, and when required (for example to prepare a new planting bed), it can be cleaned away and given to feed the pigs.
Avoid chemical insecticides and fertilisers
Avoiding chemical insecticides and fertilisers is a compulsory requirement for the farmers who sell their produce at the FAST market (Feira Agroecológica de Serra Talhada) -link. Chemical insecticides kill everything – both bad bugs and good, and also damage plants. Here in the community, they use repellent plants to produce crops from plagues – plants such as ni leaves, mamona leaves (the seeds of which are used to make biodiesel), and, another natural repellent, cow urine. Another plant that is also used is the chilli plant – however, given that chilli is so strong, then the use of this as an insecticide is going to be banned, given that this also kills everything, even though it is a natural substance.
Chemical fertilisers create imbalances in the soil by artificially introducing various nutrients. Agroecology uses natural processes created by nature to return nutrients to the soil, therefore enabling nature’s natural mechanisms. This includes using a variety of plants, which give as well as take from the soil. The soil here in the Sertão, and in particular in this community, tends to be quite poor, due to many years of monoculture farming and cattle grazing. Therefore by using a mixture of plants, and also by the periodic hoeing the land of native plants, leaving the material to decompose and return the nutrients to the soil, the improvement and maintenance of soil quality can be achieved without any need for chemicals. Natural fertilisers, such as animal manure (which can also be used to create gas for cooking), and even human excrement are also used.
To plant here there are two techniques employed. For smaller and quicker growing plants, such as lettuce, coriander and so on, planting is done directly into beds prepared as shown. With larger, slower growing plants, seedlings are first prepared – the planting of seeds into bottles full of soil, until the seedlings are large and resistant enough to transfer to the land. Both require frequent watering and covering with dry mulch to protect them in the first stages of growth.