Protecting the environment through sustainable production

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Protecting the environment through sustainable production

©Ubirajara Machado/MDA/IFAD

Brazil - Sustainable Development Project for Agrarian Reform Settlements in the Semi-Arid North-East

The Sustainable Land Management in the Semi-Arid Sertão Project was designed as a complement to the IFAD-financed Dom Helder Câmara Project (DHCP), which ran from 1998 to 2007 in various areas of the semi-arid northeastern Brazil. The Sertão Project aimed to address pressing environmental and land degradation issues, and to build resilience to climate change. The project focused on the caatinga — a uniquely Brazilian scrub forest covering approximately 10 per cent of the total area of the country. The caatinga is one of Brazil's most threatened natural landscapes.

In semi-arid northeastern Brazil, the main causes of land degradation are overgrazing and using of inappropriate agricultural practices such as slash and burning. All that has led to the lowering of the water table and the salinization due to excessive irrigation, the salinization produced by irrigation and the deforestation for crops and livestock-raising. As a result, the caatinga biome's rapid degradation prevented it from providing natural protection for its unique biodiversity.

The overall goal of the Sertão Project was therefore to minimize the causes and negative impacts of land degradation and to protect the integrity of the caatinga biome, through the implementation of sustainable land use systems.

Results and achievements

The Sertão Project triggered considerable changes in environmental conservation, thus validating the hypothesis that sustainable production systems help to conserve natural resources in the caatinga and lead to better lives for poor rural families that depend on the natural environment for their survival. Six years of intervention can be summarized as follows:

  • Increased environmental conservation, which translated into reduced erosion and fire, decrease in exposure of soils and improved water use. About 20,000 hectares are now being preserved. The protected area saw an increase in 11 per cent in the diversity of species, a reduction of 69 per cent in erosion and increases of  between 15 per cent (in the State of Piauí) and 79 per cent (in the State of Pernambuco) in carbon sequestration.
  • Increased household income and food security. Planning and training, as well as environmental incentives and access to regional organic and fair trade markets have led to better land management and higher family income by between 55 and 205 per cent.
  • Better awareness of the benefits of conservation. Over 4,200 households now practice soil conservation, better plant and animal management, more efficient water use and waste management in their gardens, backyards and in scrub areas on more than 10,500 hectares.
  • Economically viable and sustainable land use changes. Given the economic return of sustainable land management for poor families, conservation practices are expected to continue even after project closure.
  • Reversing land degradation throughout the caatinga biome calls for a significant expansion of supportive public policies. As new families start adopting conservation practices, more needs to be done to support their efforts and continue the work initiated through the project.
  • Moving away from carbon projects, too costly and complex to prepare compared to the projected benefits. Payment for environmental services thus focused on developing a proposal for micro-watershed protection.
  • The experience of the Sertão Project teaches that sustainable land management focused on improving production practices helps address environmental concerns, social development, and poverty reduction.

The key factor of its success was getting  families involved in the task of combating land degradation. To achieve that, it placed production aspects at the forefront and opened new market opportunities for family farmers, such as organic and fair trade markets, agro ecological fairs and institutional markets. A most salient unexpected result was the strengthening of social organizations, which increases the likelihood that the results of the project will last and multiply.

Innovative, sustainable production practices proved to be more productive and saved more resources than traditional forms of land use, while generating additional revenue and expanding the options for household consumption and hence food security.