Polyculture in Brazilian Drylands

Brazil 05.10.2015 Ecosystem: Semi-Arid

Background Story


Brazil contains a large semi-arid region of about 1,000,000 square kilometres. Much of this is severely degraded, due to large-scale deforestation, ploughing, and goat-herding beyond the support capacity of the land. Rain in this region is erratic, often coming in downpours followed by long dry periods even in the rainy season. The farmers plant corn and beans, which depend on rain, practically programming themselves for agricultural failure. The older local model of farming was far more appropriate than the present “modern” version with large-scale deforestation and chemicals. Agriculture in this region is collapsing, with many of the able-bodied men and women migrating to the slums of San Paulo and other cities to look for jobs as construction workers and maids. It is in this scenario that the Polyculture project, which began in 1999, showed an alternative to an agricultural system that had come to depend heavily on irrigation and chemical inputs. Today the project boasts of 500 demonstration fields on farmers’ plots and works directly with 1000 families of farmers.


Although known for its rainforests, Brazil also contains a large semi-arid region, of about 1,000,000 square kilometers and growing! Much of this is severely degraded, due to large-scale deforestation, ploughing, and goat-herding beyond the support capacity of the land. It is the home to 28 million people, a mosaic of small-holdings with large ranches.

Marsha Hanzi (IPB) with farmer José Toyota in a field of castor and sorghum (Photo: Henrique Souza)
Marsha Hanzi (IPB) with farmer José Toyota in a field of castor and sorghum (Photo: Henrique Souza)
A group of Brazilian farmers talking to Ernst Götsch (in beige hat) in Jacobina (Photo: Henrique Souza)
A group of Brazilian farmers talking to Ernst Götsch (in beige hat) in Jacobina (Photo: Henrique Souza)

Rain in this region is erratic, often coming in downpours followed by long dry periods even in the rainy season. In spite of this, the farmers plant corn and beans, which depend on rain, practically programming themselves for agricultural failure. Worse, they clean-till and hoe the land, leaving it open and exposed to the sun and drying winds. In the 400 years of occupation of this land – as far as we know, the Indians only passed through on hunting trips – there has yet to be developed a sustainable form of working the land adapted to the climate. However, the older local model of farming was far more appropriate than the present “modern” version with large-scale deforestation and chemicals.

Agriculture in this region is collapsing, with many of the able-bodied men and women migrating to the slums of San Paulo and other cities- 60% of its 11 million inhabitants live in slum conditions -to look for jobs as construction workers and maids. The physical and economic collapse are accompanied by a general depression and disbelief in the potential of the region, unless one has sophisticated irrigation equipment, which is also unsustainable because of the cost and dwindling water reserves. It is in this scenario that the Polyculture project, which began in 1999, showed an alternative to an agricultural system that had come to depend heavily on irrigation and chemical inputs. Today the project boasts of 500 demonstration fields on farmers’ plots and works directly with 1000 families of farmers.

Brief History

In late 1999 Marsha Hanzi, professional Permaculture teacher and consultant, with vast experience in agroforests, travelled out to the drylands of Bahia. She went to see the castor plantations with managers from a local factory, with the intention of seeing how to avoid dramatic fluctuations of this crop due to erratic rain patterns. During this trip she pointed out that the problem of crop failure was not lack of rain but rather lack of strategies to maintain the water on the land. Castor plants were planted at very large spacing (3.5 – 4 metres), with empty space between. The constant dry wind blew unimpeded down these corridors.

At the same time, they noticed other fields with pigeon peas, cassava, elephant grass (for fodder) and local fruit trees surviving under the extreme conditions. The idea was to put all these crops together in one field, taking maximum advantage of space, while improving castors performance, thanks to better humidity conservation and fertility of the soils, due to organic matter and nitrogen fixation by the leguminous plants. All soil area was to be covered with something growing, combining tall and low plants, short and long-season crops as well as trees, which would protect the land over the long dry season.

In November 1999, with seed money from the castor industry – which was interested in a more reliable source of raw materials – Henrique Souza was contracted to implant the first 15 experimental polyculture fields on farmers’ lands. Henrique is an agronomist, well-versed in Ernst Götschs famous agroforest system – which Ernst has adapted for dryland conditions – and worked under Ernst’s orientation.

The first results were far beyond expectations, doubling castor production in the very first year, as compared to neighbouring fields, and offering a number of products for the farmers table from space which otherwise had been empty.

That was the birth of the Polyculture Project, which today (November 2005) counts on 3 agronomists and 3 agricultural technicians, orienting 500 demonstration fields on farmers’ lands, in four cities of Bahia. Each plot, of ½ to 1,000 m2 in size, is being accompanied by a group of farmers, some of whom are women. They have monthly field days, where they accompany the process through the year, thus working directly with some 1,000 farmers. Each plot will be accompanied for three years, to witness the evolution of the system.

Besides the field observations, a theme is developed every month with the group. These range from mulching to budgeting to nutrition to food preservation. The program has thus become a professional course for farmers, who will receive a certificate at the end of the year; this is significant for many of those who are illiterate. Besides rescuing degraded lands and guaranteeing production, the project is thus rescuing the farmers own self-esteem as a professional, while proving that there IS hope for their homeland.

Socio-economic and ecological context

In the latest census, Bahia was shown to be one of the poorest states of Brazil. The mean income is little over US$100 per month, which is below survival level. The “Basic Basket”, a calculation of the cost of the most basic foodstuffs and sundries, is close to US$284 per month for a family of five. That means that even with two members of the family working, they barely earn enough to eat. (Exchange rate April 2001)

In the countryside, income is even more fragile, due to crop failure. Many families survive on the pension of an elderly member of the family, which is usually a minimum salary of US$90,00 or less. When the situation is extreme, the government- both federal and local – supplies food packages and water trucks. This extreme dependence of the dryland farmer is not without its political implications.

The Polyculture Model

In the countryside income is even more fragile because of crop losses. Many families survive thanks to the pension of a family elder, which generally is equivalent to a minimal wage of 136 U$ or less. When the situation is extreme, the government -federal as well as local – provides food packages and water by means of tank trucks. This extreme dependence of famers in drylands is not exempt from political implications.

The strategy of the polyculture model is to imitate a natural ecosystem, which is resilient in the face of climate variations and improve over time, as natural ecosystems do. This model integrates low, medium, and tall plants, as well as plants of short, medium, and long life cycles, including trees. Thus the field, once implanted, is not left exposed to the sun, conserving water and increasing in fertility over the years; the field will never again need a tractor, which is economical for the small landowner.

Besides food crops, such as corn and beans, there are two major cash crops in the Bahian drylands: the castor bean and sisal. The castor bean is a bushy plant that lives for 2-4 years and has been a major cash crop in the drylands since the beginning of the century. It produces abundant seeds, which are rich in oil and useful for many purposes, including airplane lubricants and biodegradable plastics. Therefore, it is potentially an important substitute for petroleum products, with a growing market potential. (Until now the main barrier to new developments has been the extreme fluctuations in supply of raw materials due to drought). Although the mainstay of the dryland economy, castor planting was virtually abandoned in the late 80´s due to low prices and is only now being revived, with the growing market demand, mainly as a result of a strong campaign by the Brazilian government to boost the use of castor as bio fuel, although the existing exchange policy is not favorable in terms of costs. Yet, while castor is relatively resistant to drought, production falls dramatically in dry years.

Sisal is a “permanent” plant of the pineapple family and very resistant to drought. Its leaves are rich in fibres, which are extracted in the field with very primitive and potentially mutilating machines. As the farmers are paid in terms of production – which is low due to the inefficiency of the machine – and the prices are low, sisal is considered a poor mans crop. Yet, sisal has tremendous potential, as it never fails. It is also an excellent mulch plant, remaining green when all else fails, thus having an important role in the polyculture fields. Its green residue is also a good emergency cattle fodder.

Besides castor and sisal, the polyculture fields include the traditional foodstuffs: corn, beans, sesame, sunflower, pigeon peas. To these are added short, medium and tall legumes for nitrogen fixation and production of organic mass, such as jackbeans (Canavalia sp.), pigeon peas (Cajanus cajan) and leucena and gliricidia trees. In the beginning even some vegetables are harvested, such as tomatoes, parsley and radishes. Finally, native and adapted fruits and lumber trees are planted as well as native legumes and fodder plants, guaranteeing that even in the worst years the farmer will harvest something from the fields. In three years time he has the option of leaving the fruit trees as a dryland agroforest fruit/fodder system, or he may opt to cut all the vegetation (which will then resprout) and begin another cycle of short-season crops. Thus a farmer with more land will gradually reforest his land with agroforest systems, whereas a farmer with little land may opt to leave trees around the edge and return to short-cycle crops in the fields. However, this time the conditions would be far better, due to improved fertility, tilth (soil structure) and wind protection.

The key to this model is the right combination of plants and the correct management of the phases, over the whole system. It was observed, for example, that castor does well with short-cycle corn if its tassel is cut at the right moment, but does not do well with sunflowers, which should be planted at a certain distance. On the contrary, castor and pigeon peas are a “happy marriage” if one chooses a tall castor, which needs to be emergent in the system, and a short pigeon pea, which belongs to the next lowest level. However, castor does not mind having a gliricidia tree over it.


In Brazil, as in the world over, the sustainability of agriculture began to collapse when agricultural products became commodities for distant markets.

In the old days, farmers in the drylands cut small clearings in the local brush. In these they planted a mixture of plants – an informal polyculture – with plants of various heights. As these were protected from the hot winds by the surrounding brush, crops were more sustainable, even though the land degraded due to slash and burn and clear-hoeing. When crops failed, the farmer survived by hunting and gathering in the caatinga, as the local ecosystem is called. His products were for the table and the local market.

Tractors came with the advent of commercial farming and made it possible to clear much larger areas, virtually destroying the caatinga in many regions. Due to the increased inputs now required the farmers needed to turn to the banks for financing. The banks, basing their models on the commercial monocultures, required that cash crops be planted in “modern” monocultures. This in turn meant chemicals and machines, and created a vicious circle of degradation and indebtedness.

The result, as can be imagined, was disastrous to the fragile soils and equally fragile local economy. Even so, most of the banks continue insisting on the agro-industrial model, refusing to finance farmers who wish to practice intercropping, a situation that is fast changing due to the success of the polyculture fields.

Thus, we have on the one hand the traditional small-scale model, cheap and relatively stable, though degrading to the land. This was feasible as long as there was plenty of caatinga available to open new planting areas. With each generation this has been reduced, as the farmers divide up their land with their sons. On the other hand we have the devastating agro-industrial model, which has dragged farmers everywhere in the world into debt and dependence on purchased inputs and distant markets.

Thus, the gratest challenge to the polyculture project is to bring the farmer to a completely different strategy of long-term management of the soil, something which had never been done in the 400 years of occupation. This includes accepting to cover the soil instead of leaving it “clean”, of admitting trees and native pioneer plants into a short-term cropping system. Although superficially similar to the old ways, the time frame is totally different. We are actually dealing with profound paradigm changes. This takes time.

This change of habit has been gradual and is being facilitated by the formation of leaders, who multiply the techniques in their communities and are always willing to solve their concerns.


Farmers like to look over the fence. This project has the advantage of not only being practical but also of occupying a long time-frame, giving the farmers opportunity to look at the field time and again, exchanging opinions and making suggestions for improvements. With the variation in microclimates and soil types arose variants of the polyculture model, each adapted to a particular situation.

This is a gradual, non-linear process. At present (November 2005), it seems as if four years will be enough to anchor the system in an area. As polyculture models are more complex than monocultures, their management is also more complex, though based on simple principles. Instead of being one-on, one-off, they are ongoing systems, which in the end integrate fruit and forage trees with annual crops. As the system matures, each year will be different and the farmers need to be clear about the management strategies, whic l successive plantings when crops are harvested and judicious pruning of the trees and bushes at the right moment. Each group has revealed natural leaders among the farmers, who quickly grasp the principles of the system and are able to explain it to others. These leaders receive technical and practical training to become local teachers. Today, at least 3 farmers trained by the project are working with a technical team or are consultants in other city town halls and institutions.

The program has moved with surprising velocity. From 15 farmers, during the first year, it reached 1.000 families in 2005, representing about 5 thousand people, in four cities.

Some of the reasons for this may be:

  • The moment was ripe, as the farmers were already convinced that the way things were being done had no future. The government and the media have, until now, implied that agriculture is possible in the drylands only under irrigation. This is a highly depressing situation for millions of farmers who do not have access to water. All the technicians involved in the Polyculture Project are profoundly convinced that the Sertão, as the drylands are called, is a wonderful place to live, with great abundance. We must not underestimate the power of such personal convictions, which strengthen and re-affirm the deep love that these farmers have for their homeland.
  • The differences between the polyculture field and the control fields, planted by the same farmer, are strikingly evident from the first month of implantation. The polyculture field is totally covered with the intense green of the plants, whereas the control fields have large bare areas. It is immediately evident that with the polyculture system the farmer will harvest much more from the same area.

Most new participants become involved in the project after seeing the results obtained by their neighbors.

The local people participate in the activities of plantation and field management, which are developed in groups that include parents, neighbors and people from other communities. Thus, knowledge is adequately imparted and information is rapidly disseminated.

Youngsters and young women of 16 to 25 years old from city-targets have been trained to become local facilitators. 20 of them, who proved to be recognized by their communities because of their dynamism and public interest work, have been incorporated to the team and they collaborate to attract the interest of others in agriculture, besides assuring further participation of their communities in the activities proposed for the project.



Today, the Polyculture Project is being developed by the Bahian Permaculture Institute with the support of the government of Bahia province, the federal government of Brazil, BOM companie – Brasil Aceite de Rícino and the UNDP – United Nations Development Program. Although the project began to function with the castor crop, it today supersedes this limitation, being perfectly applicable in other regions depending on other cash crops. However, castor will always be an important element in the dryland system.


The Brazilian government, at all levels, is beginning to realize the importance of family farms to produce foodstuffs and to stem the rural exodus. The positive results obtained by men and women farmers who participate in the project serve this purpose of ensuring sound food for families, animals and green fields after months of dryness, in contrast to a dry landscape in non-cultivated areas of the polyculture system. Thanks to this, the polyculture project is finding support at the local as well as federal level. In 2005, the Bahia state government signed an agreement with IPB ensuring resources of about 900 thousand euros for the project to reach 3 thousand farmer families in 2008.

A partnership with the state public body will enable, from 2006, the extension of the project to cover another city, apart from improving physical structures, including tanks and wells, in tens of properties that work on polyculture.

The UNDP – United Nations Development Program, through the federal – is going to promote the marketing process and participative certification of polyculture products and will allow capacity building of 200 farmers for them to multiply the techniques.

The local castor industry is increasingly realizing that to guarantee a regular supply of raw materials the small farmer needs to be supported. Until today castor harvesting has not been mechanized and is highly labour-intensive, thus being a typical small-farm product. Today there are two large local factories and four smaller ones which buy the entire castor produced in the Bahian drylands.

The local commerce will also benefit, as the production of foodstuffs has become more sustainable locally, diminishing imports from other regions. Most of the products are sold at the local street markets or to local traders. Many organic food shops in Salvador, the capital of the State, are selling products such as sesame and Japanese bean, which are well produced in polyculture fields.

Finally, farmers and their families see an improvement of their life quality, enhanced nutrition and a growing patrimony, which is their soil. The farmers are organized in associations; they may sell the castor in local markets to middlemen or directly to the industry. Traditionally, castor brought in petty cash to the farmer, with which he bought coffee, sugar, etc; however, when castor was abandoned in the 80s due to low prices, it resulted in severe economic problems for the drylands. The initiative for the farmers association to sell directly to the industry is recent; the industry is concerned that if the prices fall too low the farmers may stop planting castor, which will cause a shortage of raw material.


Although intercropping and alley farming are well known, the systematization of complex polycultures, integrating tree elements with annual crops, is virtually unknown in literature. There are some examples from the humid climates, especially in Southeast Asia, as analog forests, but these are rare or non-existent in drylands agriculture. This is a model based on ecosystems, which can be adapted to any climate. It has been successfully adapted for all the major climates of Brazil, which include rainforest, sub-tropical, savanna and drylands.

The guiding principles can and have been applied to all ecosystems. This entails occupying the vertical space with plants of different heights; embedding short, medium and long-cycle crops in the same system; using short, medium and tall legumes for nitrogen fixation; including fruit and long-term lumber trees as well as native pioneers. Thus this project can have wider repercussions than was originally imagined.

Expected impact

Farming is the base of Northeast Brazil. For creating a stable base – an agricultural model independent of expensive inputs and productive even in dry years – the local communities have the raw material necessary for local development. Prosperous farms mean prosperous local commerce, prosperous municipalities that generate income and prosperous, well-fed families that no longer need to migrate in the bad years.

However, the impact is deeper, rescuing peoples’ self-esteem and confidence in local traditions, which are strongly rooted. Farming is once again considered a profession. “Everybody wants to play on the winning team”. A farmer who sees his land improved year by year and who sees his results improving is proud of what he does, feels himself to be on the ” winning team”. This is not the case of those who watch their land degrade under their eyes. Although this project brings in a greatly increased income per acre even from the first year, it is most important the farmers are once more becoming proud of their profession. And their sons are once again becoming interested in working the land instead of migrating to the big cities.

In 2006, actions will be devoted to strengthen the local culture to promote the consumption of polyculture products. It is perceived that farmers´ families do not take much profit of cultivated and local products – sometimes because of lack of knowledge or because they have lost or are not used to prepare their food at home.

Hence, we strive to increase food security, to value and to stimulate the consumption of the regional products to further strengthen the local market. The technical team availability and sustainability will be reached more easily through the strengthening of the program at the local level, when these practices and actions are considered as basic for the well being and life quality of the community itself.

It is still needed to elaborate impact indicators, such as data to prove that the economic situation of the people changed positively as a result of the use of a polyculture system. For the time being, data is being collected through opinion polls with farmers, mainly through a program created by the Polyculture Radio. It is a weekly event, presented by young rural community members, who ask farmers to be interviewed and give testimony on the improvements obtained thanks to polyculture practices.

In brief, it is expected that Polyculture Radio programs can be available in the Internet, by means of the Instituto de Permacultura da Bahia website (see address at the end of the document).


What is needed?In 2006, the Project plans to publish a manual – with the basic polyculture strategies – to make the system more accessible to others. Besides the farmer-teachers, new professionals and students – agronomists and agricultural technicians – are being trained and take part in the monthly field visits.

To support experts capacity building, two support points were created with a library, data bases and study rooms in two cities were the project is being developed. Now it is necessary to install computers with Internet access, in order to enable information exchange and frequent questions.

Simultaneously, all professionals are strongly encouraged to implant their own “systems”, in order to get first-hand experience in the method.


Essential browsing

The best on-line description of Ernst Götsch´s system can be seen at:


Marsha Hanzi has published one article about the model in the online Arid Lands Newsletter Issue No. 48, November/December 2000 of the Office of Arid Lands Studies of the University of Arizona:


For ongoing information about the project, see the homepage of the Bahian Permaculture Institute:


and the website of Marsha Hanzi: www.marsha.com.br/english/index.asp

(in Portuguese and English).

UNCCD – United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification and Mitigate the effects of Drought: http://www.unccd.int

Essential contacts

Instituto de Permacultura de Bahia

Contact person: Cinara Del Arco Sanches

Address: Rua dos Colibris, 79, sala 305, Imbuí, Salvador – BA, CEP 41720-060 – Brazil

E-mail: permacultura@permacultura-habia.org o cinara_delarco@hotmail.com


Phone: +55-71-32324025

Fax: +55-71-34617726

Marsha Hanzi lives in a farm in the Bahia drylands, were she is restoring, by means of an agro-forestry system, those areas that were going through a desertification process. She offers courses and welcomes newcomers and interns.

Contact: mhanzi@yahoo.com or www.marsha.com.br/english/contato.as

Ernst Götsch lives on a remote farm and does not have a telephone or electricity. He accepts trainees but, due to a full agenda, requires a few months notice. He can be contacted (in English, German, French, Spanish and Portuguese) by writing to:

Agrossilvicultura, Fazenda Fugidos, Bahia, CEP 45436-000 – Brazil


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