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A Push for Sustainable Agriculture, My Time at Belterra.

Author: Lucas Duchrow, Research Intern at Belterra Agroforestry.


Belterra

When I dropped out of Sciences Po in France, I knew I wanted to go beyond a degree in political science and economics and focus on environmental issues as well. Part of this drive came from growing up in Brazil, which made me passionate about conservation and climate change. I spent a lot of time in vast savannas and tropical forests, understanding both the power and, at the same time, the fragility of nature.


Throughout my life, I have witnessed the biomes I grew up in becoming increasingly threatened and I always found myself thinking that it doesn’t have to be this way. There must be a way to live in harmony, or at least to peacefully coexist, with our natural environment.


This line of thinking led me to a degree in Geography, which I am currently in my final year of, having focused primarily on ecology and environmental economics. I paused my studies and spent most of 2023 working. Something told me I need to break my routine in London, at least for a while, and come up with new ideas. The first half of the year I spent working for an Agroecology startup in Morocco which was an amazing experience, especially doing a lot of hands-on organic farming and dealing with the distribution side of the business as well. The second half of the year was really eye-opening for me, I was in Brazil working for Belterra Agroflorestas. The work we did at Belterra was and is exciting, and I feel it is worth sharing with a broader audience of students interested in the sector.


Belterra's business model involves leasing lands from family farmers and small producers that have been degraded, either by pasture or monoculture, to implement Agroforestry Systems (AFS). This way, in addition to the environmental impact (e.g. biodiversity preservation, soil fertility, carbon sequestration), Belterra can generate a positive social impact, restoring productivity and profitability to the properties. I was glad to witness this first hand while traveling through southern Bahia for the company. I visited a number of farms and got to see the agroforestry systems in their full productive capacity. The first thing that hits you is the sheer scale of everything, writing about a 200 hectare farm on paper is very different from seeing a horizon of green hills and not knowing where it ends. It is breath-taking, especially when you think about the logistics of running such an operation, these are dense plantations and each plant whether it be Cacao trees or Açai Palms needs to be cared for diligently, there are hundreds of thousands of them.


Belterra

The supervisor of these farms, Tyrone, was incredibly kind and drove me around all day for a week through these massive plantations in a chevy 4x4. He was helping me collect data and interview people for my dissertation, at the same time I got to see his work though, and I know that you need a special eye for detail to be a good farm-worker. To me all I saw was endless rows of palms, trees, plants, and weeds but Tyrone would stop the car every so often, get out, and take note of the soil quality, invasive plants, and the state of the crops. He would then call someone on the farm to take a look, it was easy to tell that as diverse and untamed these farms might look there was also a great care and attention that was paid to every part of the ecosystem. Everyone I talked to was passionate and proud of their work and I had a number of interesting conversations about what life was like working in the fields and their lived experiences, these were conversations I won’t ever forget.


Belterra is growing fast and is approaching 4,000 hectares of agroforests planted under its management this year. The work carried out by Belterra has attracted national and international investors, including Amazon, Vale S.A, Cargill, Santander, and others. This is indicative of the growing market interest in solutions and investments that combine environmental regeneration and profitability. In this scenario, we observe a growing space for agroforests to surpass monocultures and replace them as the primary mode of agricultural production. However, we are still far from that; currently, 40% of the Cerrado, a tropical savannah the size of Mexico representing one of the largest biomes in South America, is covered by soy monocultures.


Belterra

This problem arises from the fact that, although the National Forest Code stipulates that 80% of lands acquired in the Amazon must preserve their natural vegetation (in the Cerrado, it is only 20%), the implementation of this policy is extremely challenging to be enforced. There is also much less international attention on the Cerrado than the Amazon, even though it is equally important due to its vast reserves of groundwater and biodiversity. Not to mention the issue of livestock farming and deforestation in Brazil; in fact, 57% of pastures in Brazil are degraded, and the country loses about 10,000 km² of tropical forest per year. However, we are seeing improvements, and deforestation has fallen significantly this year. Data released by the National Institute for Space Research (INPE) on 05/01/24 show that, in 2023, the area under deforestation alert halved compared to 2022, marking the lowest deforestation number since 2018.


Recently I read a book that gave concrete shape to a lot of questions I had coming in to work for Belterra, it is called The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf, and follows the life of perhaps the first modern geographer, Alexander Von Humboldt. In it, she describes Humboldt’s journey to map nature and better understand natural systems. He worked everywhere from government to mining but he was foremost determined to be an explorer and unravel the unknown. I’m not sure why but while reading his adventures and descriptions of various natural phenomena, I couldn’t help but think that natural systems are perhaps more efficient than our man-made ones because they are inherently sustainable and renewable. This was especially true of his description of the climate and how it self regulates.


I think this form of thinking can be applied directly to agriculture.

Instead of destroying forests for vast monoculture farms that deplete the soil, exhausting the land and its nutrients, it is more practical and healthier for the ecosystem to produce alongside forests, in a system that combines productive and forest species.

This is the principle on which agroforestry and Belterra’s business model is based.


Currently, Belterra is rapidly advancing and expanding its business; showing the power that environmental-impact businesses have in forming, what some refer to as, the new green economy. That is, an economy that combines profitability and conservation, progress and environmental protection, productivity, and climate resilience. There are surely critics and proponents of this philosophy and how effectively we can merge climate positive initiatives and capitalism but that is a conversation for another time. For now, I am grateful and happy to have gone on this journey with Belterra, a company I am certain is moving us in the right direction.


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Lucas Duchrow is a current student in geography at King's College London and a research intern at Belterra Agroforestry. In this broad field his interests lie in ecosystem services, emissions trading, and connecting climate change mitigation with development initiatives. I is writing his dissertation on the implementation of Biochar within agroforestry systems.

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