This week I am in Brazil with my good friend Abe Bicksler and nine UI-ACES students. The Sustainability Spring Break Study Trip is being hosted by Fazenda Ambiental Fortaleza, a diversified organic coffee plantation, near the town of Mococa. Here we are learning first-hand about sustainability, and developing ideas for potential research projects that will help the owners of FAF realize their vision of a truly sustainable farm.
We’ve had a full day of learning and fun. Spent all morning with Dr. David DeJong. He’s an American who has worked at a major Brazilian university as a Professor of Genetics since 1980. We learned about Brazil’s many native stingless bees, and the Africanized bees (they aren’t as bad as everyone thinks) they use for most commercial honey production. He took us outside and we were able to see several hives (stingless ones). They keep bees on FAF and recently hired someone to get that operation back on track.
Before lunch, Marcos took us for a walk to some waterfalls, where we swam under the canopy of the rain forest. We saw a plethora of butterflies and gigantic bamboo. It was just what we needed after the bee session.
After lunch we split into two groups. The students met with Jason Barton, and PhD student from Vancouver working on bio-energy issues in Brazil. He presented the students with a real-life Brazilian sustainability dilemma…
Traditionally, sugar cane crops are burned off in the field before harvest. They do this to clear out all the leaves and plant biomass, snakes and spiders and other animals, before workers go in and harvest the cane by hand. The smoke negatively impacts air quality, and reducing all that biomass to ash means it isn’t returned to the soil. Soil quality suffers.
Another method of harvest, using mechanized equipment, eliminates the need for burning, but also eliminates the need for most of the human labor. Jobs are lost. Many people have to find work elsewhere.
It’s actually against the law to burn, but it is a difficult law to enforce. Economic trends and a new government approach has resulted in reduced burning of sugar cane fields. Instead of cracking down on the burning laws, the government has cracked down on labor laws. Vigorous enforcement has resulted in higher labor costs for farm owners. Economic trends have lowered equipment operating costs. The overall result has been a decrease in burning, but also a increase in unemployment. There are always trade-offs. There’s no perfect system.
While the students wrestled with that dilemma, Abe and I met with two research agronomists who work at a Brazil ag agency research site in Mococa (Agencia Paulista Tecnologia Dos Agronegocios). We sat down with them and discussed the possibility of them helping with some the research Marcos needs to conduct on the farm. The researchers are willing and interested, but would need money. Grants will have to be sought to make this a reality, but we will be sharing the class’ research proposals with these gentlemen and hopefully keep the conversation going.
After all this, most of the students went to visit the Cafe Igarai in the little village near the fazenda — Igarai (pronounce, ee-ga-da-ee’). There they visited with women of the village who have started a company through which they sell products they’ve made. They’ve even got their own website. Visit that HERE. Buy something truly hand-made in Brazil that will support women in Igarai. Silvia was instrumental in starting this group.
Rachel didn’t go the the cafe with the others. She had arranged to visit one of the farm worker families to ask some preliminary questions pertaining to her research proposal. The objective is to measure the quality of life of farm workers on FAF. Silvia is especially interested in making sure their workers are properly cared for. She and Marcos have already taken several steps to improve the worker’s lives and they are very interested to know if these measures are working.
Abe, me and Jason Barton had the wonderful pleasure of joining Marcos on a horse-back ride through some of FAF’s coffee fields. It was awesome, and that’s all I’m going to say about that.
The students and everyone at FAF put together some intensely chocolate cake and other desserts for Abe’s birthday. We sang and he blew out the candle. Tomorrow we visit another farm and go river rafting (floating, no white water).
For more pics, click HERE.