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An antidote to monoculture farming? Terra Booma and agroforestry in Chapada dos Veadeiros

This article was published in the fourth issue of Tribe, our digital magazine. It’s a better reading experience in the app. You can read Tribe now on Android or iPhone. Become a Tribe subscriber here.

“How long is the drive to your place?” I asked.

I had a splitting headache, the result of a redeye flight followed by a late night spent drinking Japanese whiskey and smoking Cuban cigars. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of masochism when it’s done for a good cause, I told myself unconvincingly.

I was in Brasilia and Rudá Iandê was driving us to his home in Alto Paraiso, a beautiful town in the heart of Brazil’s Chapada dos Veadeiros region. This environmentally-protected area is known for its old rock formations and stunning waterfalls.

“It will take us two and a half hours to get there,” Rudá told me.

That’s not too bad, I thought. I was looking forward to arriving in the pristine environment and natural beauty of Alto Paraiso and the surrounding area. But to get there we had to drive through hundreds of kilometers of agricultural land.

As we drove from one monocrop plantation to the next, our conversation turned to the pernicious effects of the agricultural practices on the local environment.

Rudá told me how the problem isn’t just the carbon that’s emitted when land is cleared for the plantations. There are many more environmental impacts of monoculture, from deforestation to the harmful disruption of natural ecosystems.

I sat back and stared out the window at the monotonous horizon, with row upon row of soybeans leaving me in a stupor. I tried to wrap my head around the situation. Big agricultural companies are increasing profitability by buying up large swathes of land and achieving economies of scale. Increased profit demonstrably results in economic growth: an important outcome for a developing country like Brazil.

But what’s the good of economic growth when it doesn’t factor in the environmental and social consequences of economic production? Should Brazil and other countries pursue the goal of economic modernization even when it destroys the land and the ability of future generations to profit from and coexist with the environment?

Is there a middle path where we can embrace the good that comes from economic growth – such as innovation, employment and increased living standards – while committing to a system of farming that is kinder to the environment and local communities? Can economic growth be achieved in a more balanced way?

This was the overriding question I asked Rudá as we turned into Alto Paraiso.

“Do you know much about permaculture and agroforestry?” he asked me.

I told him that I’d heard the terms but knew very little. Rudá suggested we visit a local agroforestry farm to learn more.

Raphaelle Gaia Chapuis and the Terra Booma Farm

Terra Booma is an agroforestry farm located 9 km from Alto Paraiso. They’re located on a plateau cradled between the peaks of some stunning mountains. It’s a beautiful location for a project with a unique vision for transforming our relationship with the land, and ultimately the relationship we have with ourselves.

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A few days after we arrived in Alto Paraiso, Rudá organized a visit with Raphaelle Gaia Chapuis, one of the team members at Terra Booma. Raphaelle was kind enough to give us a tour of the farm and their facilities.

She also graciously agreed to being interviewed so we could share what we learned with the Ideapod community. As we walked around the farm, Raphaelle explained that Terra Booma is directly involved in fighting deforestation and the destruction of the surrounding environment.

Justin: Can you tell us more about what projects and causes Terra Booma is involved with?

Raphaelle: “We support numerous projects. Sometimes they burn the forest around the river, so there’s a project of replanting native trees for them to come back. So we opened up a place in our nursery to grow seedlings for them to plant.”

As Raphaelle also outlined, Terra Booma is also looking for ways to work more with the younger generation and spread awareness and activism.

“We haven’t started yet, but we hope to work with schools,” she explained.

“We’d like to have a partnership, so kids could come here and see how to live off the land in a sustainable way, and see the use of water, bioconstruction, and how to take care of the national park.”

As Raphaelle said, the area around Terra Booma is filled with monoculture farming, so kids rarely get to see alternative ways of farming.

“Booma, on a larger scale, is connected to other companies that aren’t from Alto Paraiso, such as WeLight, an NGO that connects philanthropy donations around the world to NGOs in Brazil.

“So it’s also a platform for fundraising, and connecting the two bits of big corporations that need to invest their money into sustainability. So connecting the two and making this in a transparent blockchain. We also work with Impact Bank, which is a new bank where you can have a bank account that donates a percentage into investments that are positive impact projects on the world.”

Justin: What does sustainability mean to you and others at Terra Booma?

Raphaelle: “We try to live our lives in a sustainable way. What does it mean to be sustainable? Meeting our own needs without compromising the future generation’s needs. This is the principle of what sustainability is – it’s about keeping a balance between the natural resources we have on an environmental, economic, social, and even individual level.

“So, trying to keep all these different aspects, whilst also integrating people socially, making sure they’re paid well, that their needs are being met, that our own human community have security, health, and that on an individual level we know how to take care of our own bodily resources so we know how to keep contributing…

“It basically means learning to take care of what was given to us here, how to not think just for ourselves but to think for everyone. Not just thinking about today but thinking about the future.”

Justin: That’s an amazing project. I love the ideals and commitment to live by your values but to also extend that to everything that you do – and everyone and everything you’re touching.

Raphaelle: “They say profit is not profit until one side is not profitable. On the economic side, we’re profitable, but we’re completely losing on an environmental level, there is no balance, so there’s actually no profit. It’s an illusion of profit. A profit is when everything socially, environmentally, economically, is profitable.”

Justin: At Ideapod, we’re always exploring ideas and themes behind what we do. I can see you guys are just covering so many different key ideas for what it means for us to prosper in this world.

Raphaelle: “Yeah, to gain independence as well somehow…”

Justin: Independence from what?

Raphaelle: “If you know how to plant, or take care of the land, take care of yourself and others, when you learn how to do this you are more independent in the sense that you’re not depending on the government or others. If something happens you have your food and your community.

“Socially, everyone is included in helping each other. In a sense, it’s independence from having to wait on the government for something that you might not ever get.”

Justin: During the pandemic, we found we’re so dependent on these transnational institutions whether it’s the supply chains for getting our medicines, through to supply chains of food, or you’re depending on the government’s approval to interface in the world. We’re really inspired by the philosophy of anarchism and bringing it to all these different realms of life. One of them is how we organize ourselves to decentralize more.

Raphaelle: “Exactly. It’s decentralizing and sharing. In agroforestry, we try to copy nature. It’s still not perfect, but it’s a path of learning. In every biome it’s different. But you don’t need to make a big thing. The principle of agroforestry is basically the opposite of monoculture in the sense that the soil is always covered.

“You never expose the soil, it’s always covered with organic material that will decompose and feed the earth. The other main point is in a small space you have a great diversity of species. Which is how it is in nature.”

The Difference Between Monoculture and Permaculture

Justin: One thing I know our readers will be interested in is monoculture vs permaculture… What’s the difference? And what is monoculture really doing to the environment?

Raphaelle: “Okay, so with monoculture, it is unnatural. We need a lot of fertilizer and herbicides to keep it going.”

Justin: Monoculture is like the plantations where you have just one crop, right? Which is completely optimized for efficiency and profit?

Raphaelle: “Yes, some of them are transgenic, some of them aren’t, lots of fertilizer and herbicides, a lot of soil exposure.

“The soil is so important. Once you lose it, it doesn’t come back, it takes thousands of years to come back.

“There are many places in the states where they can’t use the soil anymore because they’ve depleted it over the last 50 years, so then comes desertification because the source is dry.

Permaculture is a bit different from agroforestry, although you can implement agroforestry within permaculture. It would mean you are trying to copy the natural order of things. A great diversity for all the different levels of microbiome, animals, insects, everything that feeds the earth, that creates oxygen, that decomposes material to feed the earth. That would be the principle in agroforestry: to create diversity that copies and keeps the soil intact.”

Justin: With agroforestry, you’re still producing crops here, right?

Raphelle: “Yeah!”

Justin: Something I’m curious about is can the principles of agroforestry be applied in larger-scale plantations if there were agribusiness owners who wanted to replenish what was going on?

Raphelle: “It’s definitely a thing that has existed. They’re trying to make these huge machines that could help with agroforestry on a large scale. There are many problems though. It works better on a small or middle scale, but it doesn’t mean you can’t do certain things in a less monocultural way…

“Maybe this time you plant this and the next time you plant that. Or, you plant two or three things: like at the moment we want to plant coffee and native trees, so it’s not like we’re planting thousands of things but at least we’re planting two or three things, and we’re covering our soil.

“Most of these huge monocultural farms are corn and soy to feed cattle. They’re not even for human consumption. So maybe we don’t even need to have monocultural farms the size of Holland, which plant just one thing on that entire land. This is the reality of what’s going on here.”

Justin: The idea of breaking down the food production systems of the world so we start eating locally much more, and that these principles get shared more widely so that a bigger percentage of human beings can become farmers…

Raphaelle: “Yeah, and that’s where you get the most minerals out of food, when it’s planted with good water, with just the sun, and you know what’s in it. It feeds you in a different way than if you have a plant that never saw the sunlight.”

Land Can Protect us During an Apocalypse

Justin: You mentioned the original inspiration for the farm here was the idea that the world might come tumbling down at some point, and having land could be pretty strategic. It kind of happened right? Like with the pandemic?

Raphaelle: “Yeah! And we were so glad to be where we are and have what we have. To have our community, our little social network, and our own food.”

Justin: And then the pandemic happened…

Raphaelle: “It definitely came true, and people say ‘oh, you’re lucky.’ No we’re not lucky, we made a conscious decision to be here! Sure, we are lucky but it’s because we thought about that.”

“There is some agroforestry where we implemented the greens, salads, carrots, and there is some agroforestry where we left fruit trees, trees, and things like pineapple.”

Justin: Do you guys sell these to local markets? Is that like a big part of what you do as a business?

Raphaelle: “It’s a big part of what we do but it’s not the most important. It’s not the place where we get the most of our money.

“If you go to the city, organic food is a lot more expensive. Here we don’t get that price but we do sell to one of the supermarkets and another shop that we have with other partners which is all to do with vegan and organic stuff.”

Rudá: Booma also has a food store in the town, right?

Raphaelle: “Yes. It’s ours and some friends who are super vegans. It’s a part of us, they live here too. They also work with WeLight and Impact Bank.

“This was a place that was focused on greens, carrots. So we were planting because we decided here to study and implement the greens into the agroforestry. We had to plant a couple of lines every week and then we renewed this place after a one-year cycle. We used a whole bunch of things and then we planted again.

“So here we took one hectare and we basically opened every week or twice per week, a group of four and so after a one year cycle of finishing this hectare we came back to the beginning and we renewed them with other new things. There’s always going to be a two-year cycle, because after the trees have grown sufficiently to create shade. So we can’t plant any more salads but there is coffee.

“So in the second time that we renewed it we took off all the greens and we planted coffee and passion fruit and there are a couple of Curcuma roots and pineapples. And these can stay in the shade of the trees.

“We can also observe, for example, coffee that is planted on bare land doesn’t do as well as coffee that is implemented into an ecosystem that already has shade.”

Justin: How do you feel when you drive through monoculture plantations? It must be super depressing right?

Raphaelle: “I literally cry. From here to Brasilia it’s just monoculture, I’ve had some epiphanies when driving and just driving for hours and realizing that this is one thing that will never stop. It’s very sad.”

Justin: You’ve had some epiphanies…. Oh, you mean bad epiphanies? It is sad.

Raphaelle: “Yeah.… So in this area, we’ve planted without irrigation for one year now. Things like potatoes and greens need irrigation in the beginning.

“Here you can see that because there is no irrigation, we basically planted it at the beginning of the rainy season because here we have 6 months rainy season and 6 months dry season. So they don’t grow as fast as where there is water, and also because here it’s the cold season when it’s dry, so the vegetables are smaller. But they still grow. In December it’s going to be two years since we planted those.

“It’s amazing to see that you can plant without water, because some of the agriculture we’re using actually sucks the most water and leaves us with problems. So it’s nice to see that these vegetables grow so well even without water for six months.

“It’s funny because you see in the big cities all these campaigns for using less water in your house because there’s a lack of water, but big cities only use 20%, who’s using 70/80% of the water? It’s the industry and monoculture but we don’t tell them to use less. We tell the little 20% to use less.”

Living in the Cities

Justin: Imagine all of these people in the cities, and hopefully a few people reading this article, who are thinking about monoculture and then agroforestry for the first time. Or maybe they’ve thought a little about it before.

If you could share a message with them, I’m thinking about their purchasing decisions… Does it matter? Should we be much more aware of the dangers of monoculture and start to do what we can through the choices we make?

Raphaelle: “As we can see, everyone makes a difference. So it’s not that your difference is small that it doesn’t contribute. You might say, ‘but I don’t have land,’ but if you have a garden just start planting things. Plant a diversity of things.

“Do you have a lawn that’s empty? Just plant trees so that things can grow back. Try to eat local because if something happens, these are the people you want to sustain, because they will sustain you.

“Because of what monoculture is doing to our soil, we’re not going to have places to grow food unless we change things now.”

Justin: It’s such a deep subject isn’t it. It touches on so many things. But that’s what Ideapod is all about. That’s why we’re here. We’ve got a great community of people who are thinking more about the life they are living.

Raphaelle: “We can’t do everything right. But try to support the right organizations, the right supermarkets, the right people, the people that are making a good difference. Invest your money into banks that make a difference, that aren’t investing your money into deforestation. Try to be conscious of where you put your energy.”

Justin: It also touches on a lot of the themes in our magazine. About who we are in relation to the world around us.

Raphaelle: “This is also a thing that is really interesting that I tell people on tours: if you’re used to conventional agriculture, this place looks messy and disorganized. But this is how nature is. The branches break and fall on the floor. It’s not organized and cleaned. It has its own mess and the mess is actually helping the order.

Justin: Interesting, so like order in chaos. That’s pretty cool.

Raphaelle: “So as I was telling you, to get back your soil, the most important thing is to cover the ground. This is organic material you use to cover the ground so you don’t leave the soil exposed to the sun…

“Here, they’ve just renovated it. It’s small but it’s coming back. Things are growing again, and then the trees will grow. The eucalyptus will be cut down, ground, and used to cover the soil.

“We have everything: beetroot, broccoli, leek, bananas, pineapples, passion fruit,
tomato, carrot, celery, onions, potatoes.”

Justin: So you do so many crops but it’s not the main income of this place?

Raphaelle: “No, we try to sustain ourselves with that, but we have many other fronts. We have a laboratory, with in vitro plants, propagation.… So we have people who work there and we’re at the stage where so much profit is still yet to come.

“We still haven’t even got profit from the fruit and trees yet but sometimes it’s slow. You need to wait 3-5 years, so we decided to make good use of the space, let’s plant carrots and other vegetables.

“Instead of planting, for example, oranges and waiting years to get oranges, we plant other things in the meantime.”

Justin: What about the relationship with the birds, do they get in the way, or do they contribute?

Raphaelle: “Both! They eat our corn! But they need to eat too, so that’s just the way it is. That’s why it’s important to keep native trees as well.

“All animals contribute: the ants, the lizards, the birds. They know how to identify which plant needs to be eaten. Here we planted some aromatic and medicinal plants. Like the tea tree, which comes from Australia.”

Justin: You’ve really got multiple projects going on…

Raphaelle: “We have moringa (horseradish tree): it’s like a superfood. They say it could end the hunger of the world because it contains a lot of health benefits, and we use it here. So with the eucalyptus and moringa, we use it here. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that it’s illegal to sell it here because of its beneficial health properties.”

Justin: That sounds crazy…

Raphaelle: “Yeah, it hasn’t been approved by the FDA so we can’t sell it. So we use it for compost and organic matter. Like eucalyptus, it grows fast and creates a lot of leaves. If you cut it, it regrows very fast.

“Eucalyptus is known to be one of the fastest-growing plants – that’s why we use it. We can use a lot of material and take it out of the system. The moringa grows even faster than the eucalyptus tree.”

Justin: Are you guys all vegans here?

Raphaelle: “No, we have two good friends who are vegan. All the people who are working here, the locals, are meat-eaters. It’s part of their culture. So we have vegetarian days in the week where we force them to be vegetarian. But we also have days where we make meat for them.

“Most of us here in our community are flexitarian, 95% vegan. It’s more about where things come from, do your eggs come from a good place, are the chickens treated well…”

The Deforestation of Chapada dos Veadeiros

I’m now back home in Chiang Mai, Thailand, reflecting on what the meeting with Raphaelle Gaia Chapuis and tour of Terra Booma means to me.

When Rudá Iandê brought me to Terra Booma four months ago, I knew next to nothing of agroforestry and permaculture. All I had was a vague awareness that monocultural agricultural methods weren’t good for the environment. I was excited to learn about different agricultural methods and meet real practitioners doing the work.

Raphaelle and the team at Terra Booma opened my eyes to the world of agroforestry and permaculture. I became incredibly inspired by the whole team.

For me, they’re real heroes for engaging in practical work that is both humble but also has global significance.

Their work is globally significant because we’re in the middle of an environmental crisis. None of us can solve this crisis alone.

Agroforestry and alternative agricultural production methods on their own won’t reduce carbon emissions enough to redress the imbalance in the atmosphere.

But this doesn’t stop Raphaelle and the rest of the team from directing their creativity towards what’s important to them. They engaging in work every single day that makes a small difference to the community in Alto Paraiso and Brazil more broadly through their education programs.

So, one the hand, when I reflect upon my time at Terra Booma, I feel inspired. But my feeling of inspiration is accompanied by a foreboding feeling of dread.

Last weekend, Rudá sent me a message saying, “Justin, whenever you can, please watch Old Lord Savanna on Netflix. It was filmed here in Alto Paraiso, and clearly explains the threat we’re facing here. It’s beautiful and shocking.”

Old Lord Savanna is a documentary made in 2018. This documentary captures the environmental and societal impact of Brazil’s Cerrado savanna suffering from severe deforestation and the attempts to defend this biome from extinction.
Watch the trailer below.

The documentary intensified my feelings of inspiration and dread. It shows the extent to which Brazil’s Cerrado (their savanna) has reached an almost irreversible extinction process. It’s taken millions of years for it to grow and may be wiped out from a few hundred years of agriculture.

The Cerrado is responsible for 75% of the water flows in Brazil. The continual desertification of more parts of Chapada dos Veadeiros will have major impacts across all of Brazil and the atmosphere that we share all over the world.

The advancement of agriculture is necessary for the Brazilian economy. It’s important – particularly for a developing country – to find ways to generate prosperity from the land.

But there’s a price to pay if we take the short-term profits that come from monocultural methods of agriculture.

Old Lord Savanna is a beautiful documentary that puts the spotlight on a range of incredible people looking for new ways to develop the land without harming the environment they live in.

The people in the documentary are truly inspirational, just like Raphaelle Gaia Chapuis and the team at Terra Booma. They’re inspirations for working towards such a beautiful vision of combining economic prosperity with a vision of a sustainable future.
Because after all, what’s the purpose of economic prosperity? Can we really equate economic growth with prosperity when short-term profit harms the ability of future generations to be prosperous?

People like Raphaelle Gaia Chapuis have clarity in their minds on their answers to these questions. And they’re pursuing creative solutions that create a better future for all of us.

What do you think?

Written by Justin Brown

I'm Justin Brown, the founder of Ideapod. I've overseen the evolution of Ideapod from a social network for ideas into a publishing and education platform with millions of monthly readers and multiple products helping people to think critically, see issues clearly and engage with the world responsibly.

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