How Brazilian farmers grow sustainable organic cotton through agroecology

Organic cotton plantations in Brazil’s southeastern state of Minas Gerais. Image credit: Courtesy of Anny Caroline Rocha

How Brazilian farmers grow sustainable organic cotton through agroecology

The cotton that grows in Urucuia Valley, a semi-arid region in Brazil’s southeastern state of Minas Gerais, doesn’t travel very far. After being processed in collective machines, the product is sold to two customers, a clothing brand from Brasília, the country’s capital, and an association of local artisans.

This plantation is an example of family farmers' switch to organic production, aiming to meet local demand. It is a successful case of regenerative agriculture while reducing fossil fuel emissions by reducing the amount of transport for the raw material.

Farmers working on organic cotton plantations in Minas Gerais, Brazil.  Image credit: Courtesy of Anny Caroline Rocha

Altogether 38 families are dedicated to this method of cultivation of organic cotton. Based in Arino’s city, Samuel Cordeiro's family is one of them.

The young farmer, his four sisters, father, and mother had small gardens, but much of the cultivation was still done with pesticides. Now all their planting is pesticide-free, they say.

“We use manioc water (the water that comes out of the vegetable when flour is made) in the holes of the ant, which is the main threat to cotton," explains Cordeiro. In addition to cotton, the family plants sesame, corn, beans, pumpkin, and watermelon and waters in the same way.

Handicrafts from Central Veredas. Artisans start using organic cotton.  Image credit: Courtesy of Anny Caroline Rocha

The experience of organic cotton planting in the region has only been possible thanks to 13 years of work, transitioning from agriculture with the use of pesticides to organic and regenerative agriculture. The work was carried out by Copabase, a family farming cooperative that transformed the local reality. Any farmer can join as long as they commit to stop using pesticides.

In little more than a decade, families saw their plantations transform. Fruit production increased, mainly cashew, mango, and other autochthonous fruits. In 2012, they also started to collect Baru, a nut of the region that is typically thrown away. Before the association, many Baru trees were cut down to make way for monocultures. Today the farmers preserve the trees and sell the chestnut at great prices.

In Urucuia Valley, hand weaving has been passed down from mother to daughter for generations.

These artisans began to desire to use organic cotton, which does not cause allergies and is thus preferable to work with and highly valued in the market.

More than 200 artisans now get organic cotton from the Central Veredas network. A funding body to this movement is ISPN (Instituto Sociedade, População e Natureza, Society, Population, and Nature Institute in English), a non-governmental organization in Brasília that promotes climate change adaptation and mitigation.

Samuel Cordeiro in his family’s cotton plantation in Minas Gerais, Brazil.  Image credit: Courtesy of Anny Caroline Rocha

Climate change poses significant challenges for producers in the region as it alters the rain cycle. Cotton has peculiar needs, rain in the first two months and dry weather at harvest time.

The Cordeiro family and other rural farmers experienced heavy rains and flooding in 2021. Even so, the growers managed to produce, and agroecology has proven resilient.

In ISPN supported farms, cotton is grown with cassava, corn, pumpkin, watermelon, and beans. Cultivation occurs in one-hectare areas, where 50% is cotton and 50% other crops.

Farmers working on organic cotton plantations in Minas Gerais, Brazil.  Image credit: Courtesy of Anny Caroline Rocha

This cotton then found its way to the traditional weavers nearby, creating clothes, linens, and other fabrics. The farmers in Urucuia Valley and the ISPN project showcase that with proper support, climate change adaptation can replace former methods of agriculture and provide more yields and sustainable abundance throughout the community.

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