Banner Saving the Brazilian rainforest one drop at a time

Saving the Brazilian rainforest one drop at a time

"The grass is always greener” some say. Not for me. I live in Brazil and I love everything about it; its food, beaches, weather, people and its diverse nature, especially the Amazon rainforest. Spreading over two million miles of land, the Brazilian rainforest is the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet; home to an incredible diversity of birds, plants and animals. But the Amazon rainforest is way more than just a wildlife haven. Many call it “the lungs of the planet” for its role in absorbing greenhouse gases, stabilizing the climate, providing medicine and food, and supporting the livelihoods of over 1.2 billion people around the world.

Paradise lost to deforestation

Unfortunately, this picture-perfect scene I’ve painted, is far from being perfect. For years, the Amazon has been known as the biggest deforestation site in the world. 20% of its rainforest has already been lost as a result of unsustainable economic development; the complex interaction of many direct and indirect drivers such as mining, logging, infrastructure, and agriculture.

While I can’t talk about all aspects of this complex issue, I feel confident talking about the farming angle and I can say this with certainty, Brazilian farmers live in a complex reality. They love their country and appreciate, just like me, its natural beauty and resources. But they need to survive in a market which is getting more and more competitive. Farmers who want to stick around for the long run need to grow more and their first and only course of action, for many years, has been to cultivate more land.

Government on a mission to prevent an irreversible disaster

The Brazilian government, supported by global organizations, has been taking legal action to safeguard our rainforest. In 2016 it began to implement the Environmental Rural Registry (CAR,) a digital system designed to georeference preservation areas within farms and to monitor the use of land in all agricultural areas. It means that farmers are becoming legally responsible for maintaining and protecting the georeferenced preservation areas, and the government can inspect and punish any illegal land use using advanced satellite images that automatically indicate abnormalities.

By January 2020, over one million properties, covering 220 million hectares in the Amazon rainforest (an area more than six times the size of Germany) have been recorded and entered into the platform.  Many of them were grain farms.

Grain farmers put in a tight spot

Brazil is a market leader in grain production. Most of the grain-producing land is spread around the rainforest area in farms whose average size is around 15 thousand hectares. Between 1990 - 2017, Brazil’s grain-producing land grew by 61%, from 38 million to 61 million hectares.  With restrictions and government monitoring of land use, law-abiding grain farmers were required to abide by the preservation law. This puts them in an impossible situation. How are they going to increase their yield to meet the growing worldwide demand for grain without having access to more land?

Many have realized that in order to survive and stay competitive they have to make better use of their land. They need to explore new ways of increasing their yields while keeping the cost of water, energy and nutrients down.

Same land, more grain, sustainable future

Having joined Netafim 16 years ago, as an intern fresh out of college I felt fortunate to be able to offer farmers a more sustainable course of action.  We started out here working with coffee growers who were early adopters of drip irrigation and were able to triple their yields once adopting it.  In 2012, with the introduction of subsurface drip irrigation solutions in Brazil, we were able to offer local grain farmers a way to drive growth in their operation while farming sustainably.

You may ask, what has this got to do with the Amazonian rainforest? The answer is that rain-fed agriculture as carried out in the past for coffee and today for grains in the Amazonian area is not sustainable and drives farmers to expand their production by expanding their farm size. If we can implement technologies like subsurface drip irrigation into corn and soybean farming, farmers can increase their productivity per hectare and will not be forced to expand by deforestation. It's that simple.

The technology has already been here for ages: Subsurface drip irrigation (SDI) is a variation of traditional drip irrigation where the dripline (tubing and drippers) is buried beneath the soil surface, rather than laid on the ground. SDI offers many benefits to farmers and beyond:  In 2015 Ricardo Doná, a grain grower from Araçatuba City chose to implement SDI on his 65 hectares of soybean for these very pragmatic reasons; “My area is an irregular shape and irrigating it is challenging. I chose subsurface drip irrigation because I realized it was the most efficient irrigation system in the market and it allows me to irrigate 100% of the farm. With subsurface drip irrigation, I get more yield, using less water than other irrigation systems and I keep my business profitable.”

Ricardo Doná, Brazilian grain grower

“Before using SDI my average yield was about 60 bags but with SDI I get 90 bags!  Now that’s productivity, I get to harvest more crops from my land using less water.”

Ricardo Doná, Brazilian grain grower

SDI offers many benefits to Brazilian grain farmers; It eliminates surface evaporation, extends the life of irrigation systems, prevents weed germination, eliminates herbicide wash-out and also reduces labor requirements and maintenance costs. It enables safe and efficient delivery of fertilizer and chemicals and reduces animal, human or mechanical damage to the dripline.  Using subsurface drip irrigation enabled Ricardo to run a more efficient operation: “I can plan an irrigation program and control fertigation automatically as well.  Before using SDI my average yield was about 60 bags but with SDI I get 90 bags! Now that’s productivity, I get to harvest more crops from my land using less water.”

Ricardo Doná, Brazilian grain grower

“If I can improve my yield and maximize the potential of my land, I don’t need to expand to new land, so using SDI is a good thing for me and for the environment.”

Ricardo Doná, Brazilian grain grower

Ricardo Doná, Brazilian grain grower

Grain heroes win on both fronts - sustainability and productivity

Looking back at all the SDI projects we have implemented in the past 8 years in the rainforest region, I realize that the real magic is not just in the efficiency, productivity and profitability SDI has to offer to these farmers.  If you look at the big picture you see how the choice of drip irrigation reaches far beyond the dollar sign. Being able to grow more crops and generate higher yields from your land means farmers don’t need more land. They can do well with what they have.  Ricardo understands that as well, “If I can improve my yield and maximize the potential of my land, I don’t need to expand to new land, so using SDI is a good thing for me and for the environment.”

Ricardo is the first of many grain farmers to reap the benefits of SDI. With 60 projects underway covering an area of 4000 hectares we have a long way to go on this win-win road; helping farmers grow more with less and saving the rainforest, one dripline at a time. I am proud and honored to take part in this revolution for sustainable agriculture.