Humanity is facing a global environmental crisis. Climate change, pollution, species extinction, soil loss, and a myriad of related issues are causing tremendous damage to the planet. Modern land-use practices and intensive agriculture, in particular, have undermined the very ecological systems upon which we rely. With our survival at stake, it’s critical that we redefine our relationship with the natural world.
Thankfully, by turning to both ancient and contemporary farming practices, we can meet humankind’s needs while healing our environment. We simply need to look and listen to the Earth’s natural ecological systems.
From the tiny midge fly that pollinates a cacao flower to our bustling and advanced human societies, all life on our planet forms an intricate web of ecological connections and interactions. The natural cycling of nutrients, air, and energy are our lifeline. It’s by these systems that we live and breathe. Ecosystems are built on diversity and, over time, animals and plants develop a mutual interdependence. A majestic tree provides habitat for animals and beneficial conditions for understory plants. Invertebrates cycle plant litter on the forest floor into soil nutrients that, in turn, feed the tree. Plants- through the incredible process of photosynthesis- turn the sun’s energy into food. Animals feed on vegetation, and predators eat their prey, passing nutrients up the food chain. Through the practices of permaculture, agroforestry, and regenerative agriculture, we can mimic these natural processes and create diverse agroecological systems that are stable, resilient, productive, and don’t rely on harmful chemicals and habitat degradation. Taking lessons from how ecosystems function, we can increase agricultural production while minimizing inputs, restoring natural forest ecosystems, and supporting the livelihoods of local communities.
Permaculture (or permanent agriculture) is a design science that uses ecological and “whole systems” thinking to create productive and stable agroecological systems. By focusing on the beneficial relationships between various ecological and agricultural components, permaculture design creates a high level of synergy, reducing inputs while maximizing yields. Permaculture looks at the entire landscape- including nature, housing, structures, and facilities – to integrate food production into the design of basic living, housing, and community needs.
Regenerative Agriculture seeks to enhance “natural capital”. It provides for human needs while restoring the ecosystems we inhabit. Rather than unsustainably mining resources, regenerative practices enrich ecological reserves – soil, water, biodiversity, etc. – building future resources. Of particular importance, regenerative agriculture is a leading strategy to capture and store atmospheric carbon in the soil, trees, and vegetation; a promising step forward in curbing climate change.
Agroforestry is the time-honored practice of combining trees and agricultural crops in multilayer structures. By imitating natural forest ecosystems, agroforestry offers far more biological diversity, resiliency, and productivity than standard monoculture cropping systems. The cacao agroforestry system in Bahia – known as cabruca- produces cacao in the understory of the remnant Atlantic Rainforest. The rainforest trees provide shade and protection for cacao plants and the forest ecosystem provides water, nutrients, pest control, and other services. By integrating permaculture principles into this system, we create a multi-layered “food forest” amongst the cacao groves, featuring a diversity of fruit, nut, and tree crops. The old-growth canopy of the forest is retained, and the soil is nurtured through the accumulation of organic matter and minimal disturbance. The forest is preserved, natural soil fertility is increased, toxic chemicals are eliminated, and crucial habitat is saved for pollinators and endangered wildlife. Through careful selection and grafting of cacao varieties, we ensure genetic diversity, disease resistance, and fine-flavored cacao that can fetch a higher price in the marketplace. Rather than contributing to carbon emissions and climate change, this agroforestry system sequesters carbon while also yielding an abundance of cacao and other crops; potentially up to three times as much as monoculture farms.
Building the Future.
Permaculture and regenerative cacao production, building on cabruca-style agroforestry, is a viable nature-based solution for crop production and ecosystem protection in Bahia. It adds tremendous value to the economy, supersedes destructive practices, and preserves the structure and function of remnant patches of the Atlantic Rainforest. Through the Povos da Mata Network, we join a growing community of agroecological farmers, sharing resources and information to continually improve farming practices. With permaculture and regenerative farming techniques, we work to restore our region, build local economies, and heal our planet. It’s a mighty goal that new agriculture can achieve.