| Syntropic farming in the tropics
Syntropic farming may be one solution to the need of food for rapidly growing communities in the tropical belt.
In the tropics, deforestation is a major issue. When land in these regions has been deforested, the poor condition of the remaining soil has traditionally made reforestation very difficult. However, this is now less of an obstacle following breakthroughs involving cutting-edge techniques such as those developed by a Swiss farmer named Ernst Götsch.
REFORESTATION IN BRAZIL
Over the last few decades, Götsch has become well known in some environmental circles for reforesting a tract of 480 hectares (about 1200 acres) that he purchased in 1984 in the Brazilian state of Bahia. The land had been denuded by the previous occupier, a sawmill owner, and was known as ‘Dry Lands’. As a result of Götsch’s efforts, much of his land has been transformed into an example of the Atlantic rainforest found in Brazil’s southeast. Today, seventeen streams run all year round, and fourteen springs have reappeared. And in the last few years there have even been beneficial changes in the microclimate, with lower temperatures and increased rainfall.
None of this occurred by accident. While pursuing his ambitious project, Götsch drew on his background as a farmer and a scientist. In the 1970s, while still in Switzerland, he had experimented with polyculture agricultural systems. Then in 1979, he relocated to Costa Rica to work with agroforestry systems, before moving again in 1982, this time to Brazil.
While his land looks like unbroken forest from the air, appearances are deceptive. Beneath the top storey are cacao trees and a number of other food crops. His is a working farm that also possesses a high level of biodiversity, aided by his unique take on agroforestry.
THE PROCESS OF REFORESTATION
After his arrival, Götsch faced a number of challenges, including strong winds and a lack of water caused by a drought. His first step was to create a cover crop based on the vegetation that he observed growing close by, including manioc, pigeon pea, banana, and a few native tree species. Pruning yielded mulch, which returned biomass to the ground layer, where it broke down quickly in the hot climate and enabled fast recovery of the soil. After a while, forest trees could be planted, and over time Götsch developed a sophisticated multidimensional system where denselyplanted species are chosen to imitate the ecological process of natural succession.
One important aspect of his strategy is the heavy pruning, which kickstarts several processes. Vegetation accelerates its root growth, which in turn stimulates production of the hormone gibberellic acid that enhances plant growth. A secondary effect is increased delivery of nutrients from bacteria and fungi, as a natural chemical-free form of fertilisation.
Pruning also increases the rate of photosynthesis and consequently carbon sequestration. This ties in with global moves towards a regenerative agriculture that can fix atmospheric carbon in the soil and help to reverse climate change, while repairing damaged ecosystems and turning around land degradation. When agricultural processes can suck large quantities of carbon from the atmosphere if pursued on a wide scale, this may remove the impetus to work towards the same goal by pursuing potentially risky geoengineering experiments.
Götsch has chosen to call his system ‘syntropic’ agriculture, indicating the opposite of entropy (the tendency towards an increasing level of disorder). His approach shares similarities with permaculture, especially its food forest model, but has a comparatively narrower focus. With agricultural inputs created onsite, there is no need to import them from further afield. Syntropic agriculture lends itself best to the tropics and subtropics, where plant growth is vigorous. It could be summarised as intensive, organic, and regenerative, and can be applied to large acreages where it combines well with the use of agricultural machinery.
The tropical belt has a great need of food for a growing population. Syntropic farming, like other forms of agroforestry, may be a part of the solution. It has spread to different parts of Brazil, and has recently arrived in Australia, where there are two pilot projects on the New South Wales North Coast. One of these is near Byron Bay, and the other is at Chillingham, near Murwillumbah. Courses were recently held for anybody interested in seeing how this agroforestry system might work on their land, and hopefully others will be taking place in the future. ■
Syntropic agriculture lends itself best to the tropics and subtropics, where plant growth is vigorous.
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Martin Oliver is a writer and researcher based in Lismore.