November 2009

The Greenline - Focus on Biodiversity


Projeto Sertão: Applying the agro-ecological approach to ensure sustainability in the semi-arid Brazilian Northeast

J. Quintana, Programme Manager, IFAD; F. Jalfim, Project Coordinator, PDHC; L. C. Mattos, Specialist in Environmental Services, PDHC; and I. Cossio, Country Programme Manager, IFAD

An alliance for sustainable rural development

IFAD, a specialized UN agency, is the only international financial institution mandated to reduce poverty and food insecurity in rural areas of developing countries. Its defining strengths are the promotion of community-based natural resource management, especially water and land, and targeting of the world’s poorest people. IFAD became a GEF executing agency in 2005, with specialization in land degradation, to assist in the provision of global environmental benefits and the promotion of sustainable development in arid and semiarid zones.

On its part, the Dom Helder Camara Project (PDHC) is a joint endeavour of IFAD and the Government of Brazil, through its Ministry for Agrarian Development, to fight poverty in the semi-arid Brazilian Northeast region (Sertão). The project supports national efforts for agrarian reform in 6 states, promoting sustainable agriculture based in social inclusion and wide participation. PDHC and IFAD prepared in 2005 a complementary proposal for GEF financing, Projeto Sertão, centred in the promotion of sustainable rural development. The project started activities in 2007.

Projeto Sertão: Fighting poverty, managing sustainable agro-ecosystems

The objective of the Sustainable Land Management in the Semiarid Region Project, known as Projeto Sertão, is to strengthen and complement the PDHC with an environmental approach, seeking to generate environmental benefits compatible with the promotion of rural development and sustainable livelihoods.

This project strategy aims to demonstrate the reconciliation of productive activities with the preservation and proper use of natural resources in the Caatinga, notably soil, water and biodiversity (box 1). At the same time, Projeto Sertão is fed by the PDHC strategy, seeking to implement changes in the relationship between the State and civil society regarding territorial approaches.

As a result of this interaction, the objective of Projeto Sertão is based on the promotion and implementation of agro-ecology, considered as a technological reference for sustainable agricultural production, as a valid tool for sustainable land management, and as a methodological reference for the promotion of new, and more inclusive, social relations (box 2).

Applying the agro-ecology principles in the semi-arid environment

The Projeto Sertão‘s agro-ecological approach towards smallholder farmers goes beyond the design of more sustainable and drought resistant agro-ecosystems. In addition to the promotion of an agriculture based on low dependence of external inputs, the project is developing new forms of processing, commercialization and consumption of agricultural products which reduce the distance between farmers and consumers. This approach is at the same time helping to achieve several global environmental benefits, from enhanced soil and water management, to reduction in biodiversity loss, better control of water source pollution, improved sequestration of soil carbon and reduction in GHG emissions.

Agro-ecological systems increase productivity, enhance resilience to external shocks and support diversification (crops, fodder, timber, etc), thus having a special added value in combating the rural exodus that affects the small farmers during severe drought periods that cyclically affect the Brazilian Semiarid Region.

To meet its objectives, the project supports capacity building with extensive use of participatory field trials and peasants exchanges. Through this strategy, it has been possible to broaden the farmers’ knowledge about the agro-ecosystems’ functions and services, increasing in this way their motivation, and capacities, for sustainable management.

The Projeto Sertão agro-ecological approach has been implemented involving farming families through a strategic and integrated action among different actors (NGOs, universities and research centres, rural extension institutions, etc). Complementing this learning process, the project has strengthened the dynamic of social organization in the local, municipal, territorial, state and national levels. This increases, on the one hand, access to the available public policies for the peasants, and, on the other hand, creates references to advocate for new policies that take into consideration ecological aspects.

Towards social and ecological sustainability

The climatic characteristics, geographical dimensions and complex social context of the Brazilian Sertão difficult the generation of environmental gains in the short-term, and does not facilitate the sustainability of those achievements. To address these challenges, Projeto Sertão, with its focus on environmental goals, has been implemented jointly with the Dom Helder Camara Project, which intends to reduce rural poverty, creating synergies that will make this joint venture more durable ecologically and better accepted socially.  

The success of the project will be also possible due to the combination of participatory learning processes, to be carried out within the agro-ecological approach, and the strengthening of a large network of social organizations that includes representatives from small farmers, NGOs, rural labor unions, social movements, and governmental organizations. Together, they have negotiated an agenda of common interests which results in collective actions and attainment.

Although the project is still in its second year of implementation, preliminary assessments show that the approach is being successful, and widely supported by beneficiaries and main stakeholders in the Sertão region. These encouraging signs may lead to the preparation of a second phase, which will build upon the achievements and learnings from this pilot experience, scaling up to include other areas and partners in the Sertão.

Jesús Quintana, IFAD,
Felipe Jalfim, PDHC,


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Editor: Patrizia Cocca
Contributing Editor: John Wickham
Contributing Writers: Mohamed I Bakarr, J. Quintana, F. Jalfim, L. C. Mattos, I. Cossio, M. Seely, N Gaseb, P Klintenberg, B Kruger, Zhihong Zhang, Heitor Matallo, Hakan Marstorp, Sara Minelli