A family farmer in transition toward agroecology (IPS)

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Living Laboratory for Coping with Drought in Brazil

By Mario Osava

The first surprise on arriving at Abel Manto’s farm is how green it is, in contrast with the dry brown surroundings. His beans and fruit trees seem oblivious to the persistent drought in the semi-arid hinterland of northeast Brazil, the worst in 50 years.

An “underground reservoir” made out of plastic sheets spread below ground to contain water keeps the soil moist, allowing beans to be grown on some 1,000 square metres in spite of the drought.

Various techniques for collecting and storing rainwater, including ponds, tanks, connected reservoirs and concrete surfaces, collect nearly 1.9 million litres of water in normal rainfall years on his 10-hectare property, according to Manto.

He and his wife and small daughter use 277,000 litres for drinking and cooking. The rest is used to raise small livestock and irrigate the orchards and crops. But this year the drought has reduced his water reserves and he has had to set priorities. Manto chose to save crops that require less water, such as passion fruit and watermelon.

Another surprise is the breadth of knowledge Manto displays; he calls himself a “family farmer in transition toward agroecology.” At the age of 40 he has become well-known for his inventive solutions for coping with the periodic droughts of Brazil’s semi-arid northeast.

His greatest success is the hydraulic pump he calls “Malhação” (Workout) because it is manual and requires physical effort. About 80 centimetres high, it is made of inexpensive parts, such as plastic tubes and bottles, marbles and even disposable ballpoint pens.  Each pump costs just 116 reals (53 dollars), including pipes for drip irrigation, or 70 percent more if the client prefers a metal handle to make it easier to operate. In this case it loses up to 40 percent of the flow, which in the ordinary model, the T-shaped handle pumps 1,233 litres per hour.  The pump is capable of lifting water from a depth of four metres and irrigating at distances of hundreds of metres, depending on the slope. “One buyer told me he could irrigate 600 metres away,” Manto said.

The farmer-inventor said he had sold more than 2,000 pumps in the northeast of Brazil and some in South Africa, with interest also being expressed in Europe. He employs 15 people to manufacture them.



Author: Willem Van Cotthem

Honorary Professor of Botany, University of Ghent (Belgium). Scientific Consultant for Desertification and Sustainable Development.