Alberto Oppata grows cocoa, black pepper, açaí, peach palm and pitaya on his 100 hectare farm in Tomé-Açu, in Brazil’s northern Pará state.
The great-grandson of Japanese immigrants, who arrived in the region nearly a century ago to found an agricultural colony, today Mr Oppata is president of the Tomé-Açu Mixed Agricultural Co-operative (Camta). The organisation is a pioneer of agroforestry within the Amazon biome, a vast tract of land extending over several Brazilian states — and into neighbouring countries — and consisting largely of rainforest.
International concern over the future of the Amazon has grown in recent years, with many overseas observers blaming Brazil’s agriculture sector for rampant deforestation.
Agroforestry of the sort practised by Mr Oppata, however, is being increasingly touted by environmentalists and sustainability-minded investors as a viable alternative to cattle ranching or monocultures such as soya.
“This system gives economic stability and creates jobs,” Mr Oppata says. “It is more harmonious with nature.”
Used for centuries by local populations, agroforestry consists in growing trees and shrubs on the same land area that is used to produce crops or raise livestock. Such systems are based on traditional family agriculture models, requiring relatively small amounts of land and capital.
“It’s a way to maintain the family together, with a basic sustainable income,” Mr Oppata says.
Soils in Brazil’s Amazon are often of poor quality and quickly become unproductive with intensive cattle grazing and crop production. This requires further investment from producers or, often, slash-and-burn expansion of farmland at the forest’s expense.
Edegar Rosa, director of conservation and restoration of ecosystems at environmental pressure group WWF-Brasil, says that Brazil has more than 50m hectares of degraded pasture that could be recuperated and made more profitable using agroforest systems.
“The amount of area already open would be enough for expansion,” he says. “We don’t need to follow the model of deforestation.”
A further drawback of intensive agriculture is its vulnerability to disease — a reality that Mr Oppata knows all too well. He grew up at a time when his community’s prized black pepper crops were being ravaged by insect pests, prompting many people to leave.
This experience led those who remained to create the current mixed-use system, which is more resilient.
Today, Camta, a partner of Embrapa, Brazil’s state-owned agricultural research corporation, exports some 400 tonnes of black pepper a year to Japan, the US, Germany and Argentina. Exports account for about 30 per cent of its sales, with 60 per cent of its cocoa and 30 per cent of its açaí going overseas.
Camta also has partnerships with local universities and Natura, a Brazilian cosmetics giant, says Mr Oppata.
Meanwhile, some 3,000km away, in the far western Brazilian state of Acre — still within the Amazon biome — WWF-Brasil in partnership with Embrapa claims to have created an agroforestry system that is more profitable per hectare than cattle or soya.
According to Mr Rosa, the model can generate R$4,500 ($840) per hectare in forest areas reclaimed from degraded farmland, compared with R$1,500- R$2,500 per hectare for soya, which in turn is more profitable than cattle.
“It consolidates the process of conservation with profit,” he says. “Within two years, the system can be self-sufficient.”
The aim is not to replace conventional large-scale agriculture but to reduce pressure to raze more forest.
“The models that we have are still small in scale compared to conventional agriculture,” says Marcello Brito, president of the Brazilian Agribusiness Association, an industry group. “But no doubt, there is opportunity for growth.”
Start-up costs are a barrier for many, however, because of a lack of political will, Mr Rosa says, with monocultures still highly favoured when it comes to securing credit. “Public policies are fundamental,” he adds.
Paula Costa, co-founder of PretaTerra, a São Paulo-based agroforestry consultancy firm, argues that the current funding bias creates risk. “All of the structure of investment is centred on monoculture,” she says. “But if you’re an investor you shouldn’t put all your money in one fund.”
For Tomaz Lanza, a postdoctoral researcher who has been studyingagroforestry systems over the past 13 years, supportive public policies and access to credit for small producers are essential.
“The great obstacle is how to make this system cheaper to implement and in my view it has to be via incentives,” he says “If we had political and economic incentives certainly we’d be able to reach more.”
Currently, Brazil has an area of 17m hectares dedicated to mixed-use systems such as agroforests, according to José Pugas, a partner at Ceptis Agro, a business specialising in product authentication and traceability.
Recently, Ceptis entered into a partnership with Embrapa, bank Bradesco and other businesses to launch the Sustainable Agriculture Financing Fund, which seeks to attract investment from abroad and plans to allocate $68m next year.
The money will be directed at producers who set aside 5 per cent of their properties’ productive areas — which must be independently certified — for agroforestry-type systems.
“We don’t just want to reward producers for producing more,” Mr Pugas says. “We want to reward them for being more sustainable.”