At first glance, creating livelihoods and strengthening food security while preventing deforestation and fostering sustainable land use may seem irreconcilable goals. Yet Brazilian institute Ecoengenho has managed to do both through its Aroeira project, which empowers smallholding farmers in northeastern Brazil to actively engage in the value chain of their products from harvest to retail. Their product of choice? Pink pepper.
In 2007, REEEP awarded a grant for the Millennium Development Goal Financing Facility Participatory Business Planning, enabling Fiorello Laguardia Foundation and Ecoengenho Institute to provide Brazilian farmers with technical support and financing for clean energy systems to add value to their crops. Farmers were able to deploy low-impact renewable energy technologies such as micro-irrigation and hydroponic systems, allowing them to increase yields in semi-arid climates with little rainfall. The project also deployed solar dryers, which allows farmers to produce high-value dried fruits and herbs, which are in high demand in affluent national markets.
After the project was completed, Ecoengenho institute requested additional support from Petrobras’ Program for Development and Citizenship to expand the initiative, implementing the Aroeira project, which deployed lessons-learned from the original project in agro-forestry harvesting in the Caatinga biome.
The Aroeira project, named after an indigenous tree, aims at building the capacity of fishermen and small farmers in São Francisco river falls (in Alagoas and Sergipe states) to increase their income by extracting and commercializing pink pepper (pimento-rosa). The project targets primarily communities suffering extreme endemic poverty.
"Productive practices were unsustainable in this impoverished area of Brazil and would generate marginal profits in a sector of agro forestry with high value-added", says Jose Roberto Fonseca, Director President of Ecoengenho and Aroeira project coordinator. "By training small farmers, we were able to reengineer their techniques so that they would become environmentally sound and yield considerably higher profits to local communities." The pink pepper is a highly valued spice used in European cuisine; it has a delicate, slightly sweet flavor and, unlike traditional peppers, it is not spicy.
Villagers recognized the improvement in their lives brought about by the Aroeira project. “Pink pepper is an expensive spice, even though farmers require only small land surfaces to produce it”, says Fonseca. “Because they would sell their harvest to a middleman, farmers were only able to collect about 1.50 Reais (about US$0.65) per kilo of this high-value crop. We taught them how to take over the whole production chain so that they could make as much as 130 Reais (about US$56) per kilo.” The Aroeira project is improving livelihoods and increasing income not just for the farmers, but also for other villagers in San Francisco who engage in the commercialization of this highly sought-after spice. Fonseca noted that the project “builds on traditional techniques, pulls away from globalization and is a low-cost solution for conserving edible produce; production scales are smaller and the value of commodities remains in the community instead of going to large corporations”. The Millennium Development Goal Financing Facility Participatory Business Planning production project was at the inception of the Aroeira project.
To galvanize the success of the project and ensure its long term sustainability, Ecoengenho Institute is tackling another unnecessary hurdle to economic development: access to short-term financing. As part of Aroeira, Ecoengenho Institute will create a revolving fund that will allow for payments to farmers between harvests. “One of the reasons why farmers often sell their harvest at very low prices is so that they do not have to wait until the next harvest before they can make some money. Receiving loans between harvests and repaying those loans later with the proceeds of their harvest will provide them with financial means to subsist until their next harvest” said Fonseca.