Around Itaipu Dam, restoring forests replenishes water invigorating livelihoods

Luiz Arrruda, organic producer, Cultivando Água Boa restoration program, Itaipu Binacional, in Brazil. CIFOR/Yoly Guterrez
Barbara Fraser
21 March 2018

FOZ DE IGUACU, Brazil (Landscape News) — When Luiz Arrruda bought his farm, it didn’t look like much – mostly bare ground with some scrubby vegetation and no water. But the previous owner, frustrated after having exhausted the soil with cash crops, had set a low price.

“I bought it because it was cheap,” Arruda said.

A cotton farmer, Arruda had learned about controlling pests with minimal use of agrochemicals.

He discovered that when he applied techniques he learned in a course offered by the farm cooperative to which he belonged, not only did his chemical use decrease, but his productivity boomed. He planned to take the same approach on his new land until he took a course in organic agriculture.

“That changed the way I looked at things,” says Arruda, 61, a wiry, gray-haired man with a lined face and ready smile.

He started planting trees – native species, trees for timber, 6,000 palms and a variety of fruit trees. He took care to contour the land to prevent water run off when it rained. Gradually, his 4.7-hectare plot began to green.

Four or five years after he began, a parched stream-bed became damp, and water flowed again.

Now there’s a pond with tilapia and other fish on his land. Red berries adorn rows of coffee plants, citrus fruits, clusters of bananas are ripening, and three freezers in Arruda’s workshop are filled with bags of frozen fruit pulp – raspberry, passion fruit, papaya and bright red acerola – which he sells to customers in nearby cities.

The dramatic change in the land – illustrated by before-and-after aerial photos on a wall at Arruda’s home – is part of a larger landscape restoration project launched by Itaipu Binacional, the operator of the huge Itaipu hydroelectric dam on the Paraná River between Brazil and Paraguay.

Delegates from a dozen countries visited part of the project during a two-day meeting to take stock of progress on the Bonn Challenge, a global initiative to get 150 million hectares of deforested and degraded land under restoration by 2020. The meeting was held in Foz de Iguaçu, Brazil, which is home to the spectacular Iguaçu Falls as well as the Itaipu Dam.

The restoration project began almost as soon as the dam was built, says Ariel Scheffer da Silva, superintendent of environmental management for Itaipu Binacional.

“We started many years ago maintaining natural areas because the company needs water security,” he said. “It needs to have all the ecosystem services running well to supply water to the system to generate energy.”

The reservoir catchment area was once part of Brazil’s coastal Atlantic forest. But over the past half-century, as farmers migrated to the area, the forest has been cleared and replaced by small farms like Arruda’s, as well as larger expanses of soy and corn, small cities, and meat-packing plants that process chickens and hogs.

The deforestation coincided with construction of the dam, the world’s second largest, which submerged a large forested area. The reservoir now covers 1,350 square kilometers.

When construction began in 1974, plans were made to protect or create a buffer around the edge of the reservoir, to reduce erosion and encourage water to filter naturally through the soil.

The current project, Cultivating Good Water, began in 2003 and is expanding that concept along tributaries of the Paraná to increase the quantity and maintain the quality of water flowing into the reservoir.

The project recently expanded from 29 to more than 50 municipalities, including the Piquiri River watershed, which contributes the most sediment to the reservoir, said Kleber Vanolli, who works with Scheffer da Silva. One goal will be helping farmers improve soil management to reduce erosion into the reservoir.

Because much of the land along the tributaries is private, Cultivating Good Water works with both local governments and smallholders. Infrastructure projects include the construction or redesign of rural roads, which are slightly raised so they do not channel water away during rainstorms. To further stem runoff, the roads are paved with stones instead of asphalt, so water can filter through the cracks.

To retain water, farmers are encouraged to terrace their fields of soy and corn, and the project promotes reforestation with native species to provide a buffer along river banks. Those buffer zones are also creating a growing network of corridors to link the forested areas around the reservoir with Iguaçu National Park and, eventually, Ilha Grande National Park.

To compensate for possible economic losses from land taken out of production, the project helps farmers reach new markets, including the government’s school lunch program, which is required to purchase some food from local growers.

“We promote sustainable development in the region,” Scheffer da Silva says. “We are not thinking only about our business, but about the big picture in the region.”

Farmers have not always been quick to embrace that vision. When Itaipu workers knocked on their doors a dozen years ago, Alfiu and Noirma Grassi and their neighbors were wary. The families, who had been growing soy and corn and raising livestock along a small river for decades, thought the outsiders might be after their land.

As they listened, however, the Grassis were among the first to become convinced that the proposal for forest restoration would be good for them as well as for the company.

The first task was to clean up a small river nearby, which had long been a dumping ground for refuse ranging from hog carcasses to empty pesticide containers. Farmers moved their livestock away from the river banks and planted a buffer of native trees along the river. Fields were terraced and trees planted around springs.

Results were quickly visible, as the river’s flow increased soon after the project started, Alfiu Grassi says. The water is now clear and free of refuse, with none of the contaminants that showed up in early tests.

A plan to launch a community tourism program to compensate for the possible loss of income from reduced planting area has been more complicated, with just a couple of families participating. Noirma Grassi provides meals for groups that visit, however, and caters events in a nearby town.

Most young people from the area move away to work in a nearby meat packing plant or at other urban jobs. Their income supplements that of their parents. One of the Grassis’ children lives on a neighboring farm, while the other lives in town.

A dozen years after Itaipu Binacional launched its watershed restoration program along this river, their farm shows no sign of having once been treeless fields of soy and corn. University students and others who visit the plot hear parrots squawking from trees behind the house and pass neat rows of grapevines along the path that leads to the forested river bank.

Like the Grassis’ plot, Luiz Arruda’s land has also become a showcase, drawing university classes and others who walk the trails he has laid out and hear how he turned a parched and lifeless stretch of land into a thriving organic farm.

“I like to show people that you don’t have to poison the environment,” Arruda says. “It’s very gratifying for me.”