Great Rivers Partnership

Brazil: 360 Degrees

Standing in a harvested cornfield on the edge of the Amazon rainforest, the world’s rising demand for food production appears as clear as brown and green.

“It’s a striking reminder that major commodity crops like corn, soybeans, wheat and cotton present dynamic challenges,” said Sean McMahon, director of the Conservancy’s North America agriculture program. “Fortunately, an abundance of natural areas in Brazil are permanently conserved on private lands. The result is a matrix of intensive agriculture amidst protected rainforest, cerrado [tropical savanna] and river corridors in highly functioning landscapes. A great example of working lands and lands that work.”  

Joined by GRP Director Michael Reuter and Global Agriculture Program Director David Cleary, McMahon met with a group of U.S. and Brazilian agriculture leaders this past October near the city of Santarém. The group was comprised of local farmers, Conservancy staff in Brazil and members of the Field to Market (FTM) alliance, a coalition of corporations and nonprofits working to improve productivity and environmental quality in the agriculture supply chain.

“Our goal as part of the FTM alliance was to meet with local producers and farmers to exchange ideas and best practices. Ultimately, we wanted to determine if we might help them implement an index like the fieldprint calculator being piloted in the U.S.,” said McMahon.

Developed by FTM, the calculator helps growers measure productivity and profitability of their individual farm operations and use that output to calculate their environmental footprint. It also offers a way to explore “scenarios” of decision making that ultimately drive sustainable crop production.

The GRP’s interest in Brazil, while heavily rooted in engaging the agriculture industry, also lies in the country’s importance as a global water resource. 

“We can learn much from South American rivers like the Tapajós and Amazon, and will facilitate that by engaging their leaders in this global network as part of phase two of the GRP,” said Reuter. “Our challenge is to bring all sectors to the table. So in addition to agriculture it will be critical to engage decision makers from the growing hydropower sector, and work with them so that dams might be constructed in a way to mitigate environmental impacts. Brazil is a water leader and because of the deep commitment its government and people have to a sustainable lifestyle we feel it can offer an excellent global case study.”

The scoping trip also provided an opportunity for the Conservancy’s Brazilian program staff to update agriculture leaders on current projects and discuss future efforts to cultivate more sustainable systems across the globe.

Be sure to check out a photo slideshow from the trip and stay tuned for future developments.

On the Water Front

Dr. Steve Haase, a GRP fellow and senior bio-hydrologist for the Conservancy, also traveled to Brazil this fall as part of a Coda Fellowship aimed at sharing freshwater monitoring practices.

Haase visited the Rio Camboriú and Rio das Pedras watersheds, where he led a workshop organized by Dr. Paulo Petry, the Conservancy’s freshwater specialist in Latin America, and Anita Diederichsen, water funds coordinator for Brazil. The workshop drew 30 attendees, including representatives from the federal water agency, six Brazilian states, several of the country’s water companies and partner NGOs.

“I was pleased with such a great response, though not entirely surprised,” admitted Haase. “These watersheds supply drinking water to several large cities. The Rio das Pedras, for instance, is a significant water source for Rio de Janeiro. So, there’s a lot of interest in safeguarding water quality in these geographies. Especially as the regions struggle to balance rice farming and land clearing for cattle ranches along their river banks.”

The goal of the workshop was to present a variety of field tools and techniques useful in assessing the condition and functionality of waterways. By helping practitioners see where a channel is in its evolution and how to detect changes, the overall management and response to river disturbance can be better implemented to help keep and store water in a watershed as long as possible and maintain floodplain connectivity.

The immediate benefits to this are three-fold, said Haase. “If communities have natural water storage, then the flood pulse is less spiky after heavy rainfall. The water companies benefit by extended use of the resource. And the extra water and functional river channels provide habitat to support natural biodiversity.”

The monitoring approach he shared with workshop participants focused on the way a river responds to a disturbance, rather than studying its flow or other characteristics. Haase structured the class so that most of the time was spent in the field where he demonstrated how to collect baseline information through surveys using laser levels and rods to measure channel cross sections and longitudinal profiles.

Monitoring results is an important aspect of Latin America’s Water Producer Program, an early GRP pilot project that compensates rural landowners who implement conservation measures to improve water quality downstream. Haase’s workshop offered an extension of that program in that it highlighted techniques that can be used to quantify the physical aspects of river health, thereby providing a more comprehensive picture of trends in river condition.
“For me, the real take home for the GRP is that these tools are scalable to any size river,” added Haase. “They’ve been used successfully on streams you can jump across, and rivers you need a boat to cross.”

He is currently working with Petry to schedule another workshop at the headwaters of the Paraguay-Paraná river system, an area where the GRP focused efforts in phase one.




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