This story first appeared in Mongabay.

By Shanna Hanbury

  • Coopcerrado, a farmer’s cooperative of 5,000 families, won the United Nations’ Equator Prize under the category of “New Nature Economies” due to its more than two decades of work in developing a farmer-to-farmer model of mutual support for training, commercializing and setting up organic and regenerative businesses in the Brazilian Cerrado.
  • The Cerrado savanna, a biodiversity hotspot holding 5% of the world’s biodiversity is also among one of the most threatened, with almost half of the biome destroyed for agriculture and a process of desertification already underway, scientists say.
  • To save the Cerrado, farmers and traditional extractivist communities have developed an expandable model of collective support in knowledge and resource-sharing while restoring the biome and providing an income for thousands of vulnerable families.
  • Bureaucratic and logistic hurdles in Brazil traditionally leave small farmers and traditional communities out of mainstream markets and industries, but bridging this gap has been one of the keys to the cooperative’s success.

When farmer Mônica de Souza Ribeiro moved into her landless settlement in the state of Goiás in central Brazil in the late 1990s, she was overwhelmed by the sheer amount of agrotoxins and chemicals deployed in the cattle- and soy-dominated region. At first, she followed suit, using chemical fertilizers to grow the vegetables that she sold for her family business. But she became increasingly concerned as she watched the destruction around her.

Brazil’s Cerrado, a Mexico-sized tropical savanna, holds 5% of the world’s biodiversity, but almost half of the natural vegetation has now been replaced by agribusiness — mostly soy and corn monocultures as well as cattle pastures. The vast destruction is now fueling desertification, threatening regional climate stability, biodiversity, and Brazil’s energy and food supplies.

“When we moved here, I wouldn’t see a single bird. The poison would kill everything,” Ribeiro told Mongabay in a telephone interview from the settlement in rural Guapó municipality. “I wanted to take care of nature and the Cerrado, but I didn’t know how.”

That changed when she joined Coopcerrado, now a 5,000-family-strong organic farmers’ cooperative and the 2021 winner of the United Nations’ Equator Prize under the category “New Nature Economies” for its two-decade-long fight to make regenerative and organic production possible for smallholders. Coopcerrado is today made up of 238 smallholder and traditional communities across five states in Brazil’s agribusiness stronghold.

Life has gotten harder for the region’s vulnerable communities under Brazil’s anti-environment president, Jair Bolsonaro. As economic and political pressures continue to favor the nation’s powerful agribusiness lobby, traditional communities find themselves under increasing threat of violent eviction, with land conflicts breaking records last year. Even as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll on the sector, burying a number of small businesses, the cooperative offers a glimmer of hope.

“The cooperative stood out as an effective model for the sustainable use of a vulnerable biome by successfully commercializing over 170 non-timber forest products,” Anna Medri, a senior analyst at the United Nations Development Programme, told Mongabay. “It provides a blueprint for sustainable supply chains that leave ecosystems intact.”

Less exploitation, more conservation when Cerrado communities are supported

Twenty years ago, the overharvesting of a bean pod called faveira was damaging the Cerrado and exploiting its pickers. With pharmaceutical companies creating high demand for the plant, which is rich in several flavonoids used to make medication for high-blood pressure, middlemen would source it from the region’s most vulnerable, often women and children without land.

At the time faveira cost the equivalent of only 0.22 reais, or 4 U.S. cents, adjusted for inflation. People harvesting the pods could barely make ends meet, according to Alessandra da Silva, a coordinator at Coopcerrado and one of its longest-standing members. Faveira was so cheap in its raw form that it could be exchanged for an equal weight of salt.

“The lowest price was paid to the people collecting this plant. It was devalued by the exploitative supply chain, and the environment suffered too,” Silva said. “No one had an incentive to protect nature.”

The cooperative’s first project, in 2000, saw faveira collectors organizing with the help of consultants and agronomists. With organic certification and improved techniques, and without the middlemen, the cooperative was able to collectively negotiate with local pharmaceutical companies. The result was that people at the bottom of the supply chain saw a price jump of more than 1,000%, now selling their faveira for 2.60 reais (50 cents). This agreement also put a stop to the predatory extraction that was harming the environment.

For the plant to have time to regenerate, farmers need to skip a harvest every two years. The collective planning and increased income for the families gave it the time required to thrive.

Working under one unified contract also made life easier for everyone. Pharmaceutical companies no longer needed to negotiate hundreds of separate contracts and had a reliable source for the ingredient. And faveira farmers could avoid having to deal with red tape.

“It’s a win-win situation,” Silva said.

Today, Coopcerrado has applied similar strategies for 170 native Cerrado species harvested by the cooperative, sold to local markets, nationwide supermarket chains, multinational companies, and for export. The cooperative negotiates billing, packaging and sale of the products collectively as well. The cooperative also takes responsibility for transportation, providing access for hard-to-reach families and communities in rural areas.

Sharing resources and skills key to success

Members of the cooperative subdivide into hundreds of smaller units. Every 10 families make up a local nucleus that meets monthly to receive support and training from the cooperative’s agronomists and share skills. “Recently, I shared my natural remedy for fending off an aggressive ant attacking the plants,” Ribeiro said. “We share the knowledge we carry between us and also learn from the technical, professional assistance from agronomists.”

Thousands of families and communities now make a better living restoring the environment and protecting the region’s biodiversity. But the challenges are still huge.

“Banks won’t dole out credit for this kind of project. They still don’t think it’s a worthwhile investment,” Silva told Mongabay, adding that government support has also fallen under both the Terner and Bolsonaro administrations.

Resource sharing among members helps bridge that gap. A pay-it-forward cyclical credit scheme, which is not always available to due funding limitations, and a free seed bank help support new and existing members.

In 2010, the project granted Ribeiro access to a cyclical project-based credit subsidy to plant her first chili pepper harvest, making it possible for her to get started. Once she earned the money back, the funds reverted to the next farmer.

A path away from greed and exploitation

In coming years, Coopcerrado plans to reach 10,000 families. For this, it needs access to resources such as credit, grants and donations, as well as changes in public policy.

“We want to revert this path of exploitation and greed and show that there is another possible path for the Cerrado,” Silva said.

Government action could make a huge difference in expanding the horizons of sustainable land use in the region, she said, but the prospects under Brazil’s current administration are dim. For years, the cooperative’s farmers sold flour made from the nutritious baru nut to the government for public school meals. But the program was slashed in recent years, and the government terminated the contract.

Improved land rights and government measures to support traditional communities are also in dire need, Silva said. “Many communities face high levels of precarity, but the cooperative can’t replace public policy,” she said.

Ten years after joining the cooperative, Ribeiro says she sees a massive change on her own land, now an organic vegetable farm.

“People aren’t waking up to the fact that we’re killing the life on Earth. If we allow large-scale farmers to destroy everything here in the Cerrado and plant crops right up to the riverbanks, where are the animals going to live?” she said. “Today, my farm is a happier place. Nature feels more alive. Life around me has transformed, there are lots of birds in the sky. Even people around us who aren’t part of the cooperative have started reducing agrotoxins.”