Wednesday, 21 August 2013

I’ve seen the fusca and it works

few rather strange months in Brazil

It was last month’s graduation ceremony that reminded me of Brazil. Several friends had completed PhDs and posted pictures of themselves in their finery, waving certificates and throwing hats in the air. It brought to mind a drizzly English summer day five years ago when I lined up to get my own scroll, wearing our academic dress, which resembled something Thomas Cromwell might have worn; it was designed by the photographer Cecil Beaton, who should have known better. A few weeks after that ceremony I left for a new job in New York, and for a long time I thought little about my PhD and the way I got it. In particular, I forgot the fieldwork. I had nearly failed; but in the end I did not, and the work was done now. We push things from our minds if they vex us, or if they no longer have a claim on our attention. So I hadn’t thought in years of the bright sunlight, the lush vegetation, the heat or the drive across to Niterói on the long bridge; of the bare hills with their yellow grass and brown gullies, or the hard beds, or the flock of macaws that startled me late one afternoon as they took off from the Federal University campus and flew towards the city.
Rio: the postman calls on campus (pic: M. Robbins)
I had never seen a macaw in flight. I was walking down the unmade road between the bungalows where the scientists from the research institute lived, as did the lecturers from the rural campus of the Federal University across the road. It was early May 2005, autumn in Rio de Janeiro, but very hot, and I moved slowly, weighed down with a bag full of empty bottles I was returning to the bar. As I came towards the main road, eight or nine large, bright-green macaws passed straight in front of me, flying in loose formation. Behind them the sky had just regained its colour after the heat of the day and was a gentle blue. By the side of the road in front was a tradesman’s van piled high with intensely vivid oranges. Above the van a large silver full moon was rising into the pale blue sky above the first low hills of the Serra do Mar in the distance.

I had been in this small town, just outside the city of Rio de Janeiro, for a fortnight or so.  I had been interested for years in the potential for agriculture to remove more CO2 from the atmosphere, converting it to soil carbon and thus slowing climate change. In so doing, farmers would also increase the organic matter in the earth, which is, for a number of reasons, a good thing. The idea was not new. Farmers in the US, in particular, were interested. But few people had considered its potential for the developing world, and no-one had done much work with farmers there to see how it could be made to happen in practice. Now I was doing a PhD at the University of East Anglia, in England, that I hoped would answer that question.

I had not thought through the wisdom of this. Most of my fellow-candidates were in their late 20s or early 30s. If they failed, their careers would have time to recover. I was 48, and mine would not. There was another problem: where to do the fieldwork. You cannot just dump yourself in a country and start talking to complete strangers in the countryside; rural people are cautious, and often rightly so, for in many cultures information is power and may be used against you. You must have an introduction through a project, or a mutual acquaintance. I had planned to work with pastoralists in the grasslands of western China, under the auspices of a World Bank programme, but that had fallen apart. A further plan, to work with Swiss scientists in Kyrgyzstan, was abandoned when the Swiss did not respond to my proposal. (I found out a year later that they had, but that their email had got lost.) Perhaps as a last resort, John, my supervisor, put me in touch with an English-born scientist who lived in Brazil, where he specialised in soil fertility with the federal agricultural research institution, EMBRAPA. Receiving an enthusiastic reply, I decided not to hesitate. “I’ve booked a ticket to Brazil. I’m leaving in a week,” I told John. “For how long?” he asked. “Dunno,” I said.

I bought two items for the journey; a cheap new laptop, and Nab End and Beyond, William Woodruff’s three-volume trilogy about growing up in the Depression. I would, I thought, need something to read during those long fieldwork evenings. It weighed more than the laptop, and would be used mainly to squash bugs.  I packed a few shirts and jeans, some underwear, a tie for emergencies, a few medicines, printouts of one or two journal articles, and a Portuguese dictionary. I had a small copy of the Rubaiyyat of Omar Khayyam, given to me by my boss when I left for Africa 18 years earlier; for some reason I had always thought it a talisman, and I packed it too. I had my laptop and one small squashy bag. That, I thought, was enough. I had no idea how I was to mount a research project. 

It was harebrained, but I had done it before. At 30 I had gone to a remote town in Sudan to do a job that I had found did not really exist.  (I invented one, and stayed.) A few years later I had travelled to Ecuador to learn Spanish armed with a single overnight bag. Soon afterwards I went to Bhutan for two years, again taking only what I could carry. It was not hubris; rather, it was a sort of fatalism, in-for-penny, in-for-a-pound.  I suppose I felt that things would work out this time too. Thus I found myself in Rio, wondering what to do next. The Brazilians were not unfriendly, but were nonplussed. I did not speak Portuguese; I had been told I would manage with Spanish, but this was not true. The two languages are far more different than Anglophones realise, and the orthography of Portuguese is hard.

At a garden party in my first week I met L., a woman in her late 40s who offered to translate and to drive for me, both services I would need in abundance. Very short and thin and pale with bright red hair, she often wore white, and always wore it on Fridays; this was, she told me, part of her religion. She was an adherent of one of the branches of Candomblé, one of the Brazilian faiths that has evolved from a syncretic admixture of African beliefs and practices with Catholicism or occasionally Islam. Candomblé did, I was told, have adherents across the racial spectrum. Some of the rituals are beautiful, especially those connected with the sea-goddess Iemanja, the figure best known outside Brazil.

However, white was not going to be practical in farmyards churned up by cattle. Neither did she admit until too late that her ancient car wasn’t taxed or tested, and could not be taken through the checkpoints on the main roads. I started to have misgivings about L., but it was too late for a plan B; my colleagues in EMBRAPA had identified a group of farmers I could talk to in the Muriaé valley near Itaperuna, seven hours’ drive away up in the Serra do Mar, on the state border with Espirítu Santo. I needed a car. The cheapest answer seemed to be a Beetle. Known in Brazil as the fusca, it was built there in large numbers and brought back into production, briefly, as late as the 1990s.
It was clear that L. had increasing misgivings about me too. I think she expected a few days’ light touring in an air-conditioned EMBRAPA twin-cab, interspersed with sightseeing and perhaps a little light flirtation. Instead she was going to ride for many hours in an ancient fusca, would be away from her beloved poodle for days and would be dragged through farmyards full of cowshit and flies. She must have needed the money badly, because instead of bailing out she trawled up a character who wanted to sell a 30-year-old fusca. We met. I drove the fusca; it sounded like a demented lawnmower, as Beetles do. But I liked it. He then told me he was desperate for money because his wife had cancer, and named a price. I went back to the office. “I’ve seen the fusca and it works,” I said. A senior scientist, Segundo, said that sounded a hell of a lot for a fusca and settled the matter by calling the licensing office in Rio, who confirmed that a non-resident could not own a car. At this point an acquaintance recommended a car-hire firm on Copacabana Beach.  They turned out to be very helpful, and I decided I would drive myself. One day in early May I put L. in the car; in the back was a taciturn young agronomist from the northern state of Maranhão, who had been working on soil fertility with farmers in the Muriaé valley, and who Segundo felt could help.

L. was navigating and got us lost straightaway. We found ourselves off the main road into central Rio de Janeiro and totally lost in the sort of streets that the police clear out, now and then, with teargas. This is not good in Rio. I made my displeasure clear. We then did find our way and I steered us onto the bridge that crosses Guanabara Bay between Rio and Niterói, its sister city across the bay, and capital of Rio de Janeiro State until it was merged with the city some years ago. The bridge is one of the engineering wonders of the world, with a length of over eight miles, more than five of them over water. My spirits lifted. Guanabara Bay is one of the most beautiful natural formations on earth, shimmering in subtropical sunshine, the city of Rio rising above it, fronted by the strange Pão de Açúcar (Sugarloaf) mountain, with the outrageous Christ the Redeemer statue towering behind. Rio de Janeiro was scary, yet I never failed to appreciate is natural beauty, and I wonder what the Portuguese made of it when they first sailed into it in 1502. If indeed they were the first; the American explorer Robert Marx has claimed that there is a Roman wreck in the bay.

Past Niterói, we settled down to a five-hour slog on BR101, the two-lane blacktop that goes north from Rio de Janeiro, parallel to the coast. It was hot. Brazilian drivers are not the worst, but they do pull out to overtake and expect oncoming traffic to pull onto the hard shoulder to get out of their way. My eyes burned. L. chattered incessantly and I wondered if there was an ejector-seat button.  

Pasture in the Muriaé valley; this is much better than some (pic: M. Robbins)
After a few hours we came upon an area of large sugar-cane plantations; then, in the town of Campos, we turned inland up the Muriaé valley. Bit by bit the landscape I had come to see unfolded along the road; low hills of scrubby pasture, scarred here and there by bare-earth gullies where water had concentrated and caused erosion, exposing the earth to the air and allowing its precious organic matter to rot, heating the planet instead of feeding it. A few fields were in much better condition, their bright green showing that the farmer had improved the pasture with Brachiaria species. For the most part, however, the grass was yellowish, suggesting nitrogen deficiency. Some of it, I learned later, was what farmers called natural pasture, with less productive grass species that the farmers sometimes took to be native. In fact it was mostly colonião, invasive species that had been brought in the bedding carried in slave ships.

The mention of slaves is apposite, for what I was seeing was the legacy of cheap labour and abundant land.

When we think of Brazil and forest, we think of the Amazon; but when the first Portuguese made landfall on Easter Day 1500 the Mata Atlântica, or Atlantic Forest, covered maybe 16% of what is now Brazil, including pretty much the whole of the east of the country. In the mid-1990s, Brazil’s statistical institute, the IBGE, estimated that about 7% of the Atlantic Forest was left – down from about 1,363,000 sq km (847,000 sq m) to 100,000 sq km (62,000 sq m) today. It’s said much of this has gone since. With it has gone much of the habitat of some rare plants and animals, for there was and is a high level of endemism. As I wrote later in my thesis, the forest was still a refuge for the maned three-toed sloth, the woolly spider monkey,the red-browed Amazon parrot, the black-headed berryeater, the solitary tinamou,the plumbeous antvireo and the buffy tufted-ear marmoset. (“Are you joking?” John wrote across the draft.)

The destruction had begun soon after the Portuguese arrived.  It is recorded in depth in a wonderful history of the Atlantic Forest, With Broadax and Firebrand,  by Warren Dean of New York University. Dean died in an accident in Chile 1997, just before it was published; a serious loss, for the book must be one of the greatest achievements there has been in the field of environmental history.

Dean records that the new arrivals planted cereals, fruit trees and sugar-cane and, within 30 years or so, they imported cattle. These had no natural predators – at first; then jaguars got a taste for beef. But cattle were the first big driver for forest clearance, and with ample land there was always somewhere else to go if the land became overgrazed and exhausted. This process was sped not only by the abundance of labour, but its nature, says Dean.  “Not only were the short-lived slaves only briefly attached to the soil … The conservation of natural resources was to prove irrelevant in a society in which the conservation of human life was irrelevant.”

But it was not cattle that really did for the Atlantic Forest,  at least not then. A month or so later I would drive from Rio de Janeiro to Vassouras, about 30 miles to the north, through a series of very steep valleys. I found to my surprise that they were heavily wooded. The forest was an almost aggressive green in the sunlight and looked magnificent against the deep blue of the sky. I could have imagined that this was virgin Atlantic Forest, but it wasn’t; that had been cut down and burned in the mid-19th century for coffee. The steeply-sloping land was perfect for it, with heavy rainfall but without waterlogging. However, the owners of the big fazendas had no idea that, with the right husbandry, coffee could be replanted; instead they tore every last berry from the land, planting downhill so that they could supervise the slaves more easily, but creating erosion. When crop and land were exhausted, they abandoned them, and planted anew on freshly-cleared land. When they finally ran out of new land they used their slaves as security for loans, and when slavery ended in 1888, they went bust.

In the Vassouras area, some forest regrew. Elsewhere, however, the wrecked and shabby land became poor-quality cattle pasture. Meanwhile coffee marched onwards across the Atlantic Forest region and into the neighbouring states. It was a process that would not end until oversupply caused a market collapse in the late 1920s, and then many of the newer fazendas went bust, too. They left the land they had abandoned in the hands of smaller farmers who grazed their cattle extensively on this blasted landscape, and did little to help it recover.  It was the end of that process that I saw as we drove up the Muriaé valley.

And yet there were a number of ways to replace the organic matter in the soil, burying carbon with it, producing more food, and fighting climate change. What I had to do was find out which options the farmers thought would or wouldn’t work, and why. In that way I could build up a picture of the basic drivers of land use in the region, and work out what external aid could and could not do. The options more rotations and crops, in place of cattle; combatting erosion, for instance by ploughing and planting on the contour; and many more. There were a couple of left-field options too. For example, I asked farmers whether they would be willing to grow guandú, known elsewhere as pigeonpea; it is cultivated very widely in south Asia but in Brazil it is not, although it grows wild on the farms and the farmers eat it. (Quite recently I mentioned my enthusiasm for pigeonpea to a friend in New York. “That sounds great,” she said, then frowned. “But how do you get the pigeons to pee on the crops?”) 

We settled into a hotel in Itaperuna, a slightly soulless city of 75,000 or so people in the north-east corner of the state. For several days we visited farmers in the Muriaé valley.  The hills were bare and there seemed to be few trees on them. The farmhouses were mostly low concrete bungalows. Some had clumps of guandú growing nearby, or fruit trees, but the latter were few and were clearly for home consumption.

One or two of the farmers stand out across the years. There was the middle-aged woman and her teenage daughter on their very small farm of four or five hectares, deep in a valley, surrounded by hills of bare pasture. Their farm was much smaller than the others (which were typically 30 to 50 hectares), but they appeared to be growing more fruits and vegetables. They believed it was very important to take care of the soil, and were thinking of going organic. They were unusual, and nice. I remember that as we talked on the veranda, a neighbour’s tractor was ploughing up the steep hillside opposite, going straight up and down the slope. Farmers can not of course use a tractor along the contour unless the slope is very modest, or it will roll on top of them; it happens quite often. Farming is not always safe. But the slope looked so steep that I could not help but wonder whether the farmer should have left it alone altogether.

A carro de boi (Pic: M. Robbins)
I remember another incident, quite close by. It was late afternoon and we were nearing the end of an interview with a farmer who lived beside a rough unmade road that wound its way into a narrow valley. I became aware of a disturbing sound, like fingernails being drawn across a blackboard. It got louder and louder until I could barely stand it. Neither the farmer nor my two companions appeared to notice it. Eventually I looked around and saw a high, square wooden cart being drawn by two oxen. The squeak was from the axles, which were of wood. It was a traditional ox-cart or carro de boi. The racket was incredible. I found out later that there were several local festivals in the neighbouring state of Minas Gerais, at which the carro de boi foregathered and wandered along the road in lines, making as much noise as possible.

For some days we went from farmer to farmer, sometimes in the company of the extension agent (the latter is a local agriculture advisor who works for local government, and is found in most developing countries).  Because the agent was not immediately available, we returned to Seropédica for a few days. While there I replaced the car – a Gol, a Brazilian VW hatchback – with a rather smaller Brazilian Fiat Palio that I found much nicer to drive, especially over rutted farm tracks on which the Gol had flexed badly, making it very slow and awkward to handle. L. grumbled, because the Fiat was smaller, cheaper and had less status. Telling her that it was actually a better car made no difference.

This did not improve my mood. I had so far found Brazil rather cynical. It had started on the way in, when I had been changing planes; in desperate need of water, I had bought some for one or two reales at  São Paulo airport, had paid with a large note (all I had), and been refused change. Speaking little Portuguese and having ten minutes to catch my connection, I had had to leave it. The attempt to rip me off with the fusca had worsened the impression, as had an incident with a local official in the countryside; I took him to lunch and he chose an expensive restaurant and ordered lobster, something that I would never have eaten.  Moreover the countryside around Itaperuna and in the Muriaé valley depressed me; what had once been one of the great forests of the earth had been reduced to series of dull hills covered, for the most part, with mangy nitrogen-deficient fields scarred with gullies, grazed by bored cows that could find little shade. Not a solitary tinamou in sight.

The farmers, too, seemed cynical and rather despondent. They complained about the poor returns to cattle-farming, but there seemed to be so much more that they could have done with their land. A technician employed by a local farmers’ association told me that they were deeply conservative and that attempts to interest them in new ventures, such as fish-farming, seemed doomed to failure.  They were quick to explain why most of the options offered would not work. There was, they often said, no labour available, making extensive pasture farming the only way. I especially remember sitting on the veranda of a small concrete bungalow in the Macaé valley, talking to two middle-aged brothers; one, the owner of the 40-hectare (98-acre)farm, had injured his leg a few years earlier and could not work the farm, but insisted that he could find no affordable labour to do so. I wondered if they could have shared the land with the landless, who sometimes did work as sharecroppers, or parceiros. But I was always told that everyone had gone to the towns. There were even some farms that were owned by doctors, lawyers or dentists from Rio de Janeiro, who basically used them as places for barbecues; the land was farmed lightly or not at all by caretakers, who were not allowed to spend money on fertiliser. I only visited one such farm, but the local extension agent told me that as many as 30% of the farms in the valley met this description.  I did meet some farmers who were cheerful and wanted to try new things. But bit by bit I was getting a picture of farmers whose land was wasted on cattle when it could have grown more, was sometimes overgrazed, and was badly cared for, with a lack of manure or fertiliser, so that unimproved fields of yellowish colonião were all too common.

One night we were late at a farm, and left for Itaperuna, 20-odd miles away, when it was nearly dark.  L. was beside me in the front seat; the agronomist from Maranhão was dozing in the back. I came round a bend into a stretch of road that had high, steep banks. Normally deserted even in the day, the banks were alive with people, their silhouettes visible against the last of the light above us, as were the forms of rough shelters that had been built for the night. Washing flapped between them.

Sem terras,” said L.
“They will be planning an occupation,” she said.

She was telling me that the odd camp had been made by members of the Landless Workers’ Movement, or to give it its full title, the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Sem Terra, or MST.  This movement, by then also well-known outside Brazil, had arisen in the 1980s, initially as a result of spontaneous occupations. The farmers’ views on these people were, naturally, unprintable. They claimed that the Sem terras never managed the land properly, and rarely tried to for long. A scientist told me that they sometimes they occupied land being used for agricultural research. “If they seize land that does belong to real rich people, they get shot at,” the scientist said. “We don’t shoot at them, of course, so they pick on us.” As with all contentious movements, it’s hard to know the truth. What those people on the road to Itaperuna were doing, I do not know; I had a brief impression of an oddly silent crowd, watching the car. Children wandered in the road, and I slowed to a crawl to avoid them. Then they were gone, and there was only the empty dark road and the reddish glow from the Gol’s instruments. 

We returned to Rio. I worked quietly in the EMBRAPA office, where I borrowed the desk of a researcher who was in Britain; I am still grateful I was able to do this. I mapped my sample carefully onto the Brazilian statistical institute’s data for family farmers in the region, and realised it was only partly typical. The farm sizes were a little too big, but also, they were not diverse enough; they really had nothing but cattle. People in the region usually made at least slightly better use of the land. I also felt I needed more data. I rang John in England and he agreed that I should do more. The question was how.

I pushed it aside for a week or two and ransacked the EMBRAPA library, which was full of first-class papers and journal articles on soil research in the region. Brazilian agricultural science is excellent. But it was all in Portuguese, and I had to learn more of it, and quick.  I took lessons from the wife of a colleague. In the evenings I sat with a dictionary, glued to Brazilian TV, and bit by bit the words came into focus. I ploughed through the best Brazilian newspapers, O Globo and the Folha de S.Paulo, and the conservative but lively news magazine Veja.

One day, for a change, I bought the popular tabloid O Povo (The People), a sort of Brazilian equivalent of The Sun, Bild  or the National Enquirer. I was holding it as I got into my landlord’s Brazilian Renault in the town centre. “Why are you buying this s**t?” he asked. “This is the worst. This, the worst damn newspaper we have.”  The front page splashed the death of a girl caught by accident in a shooting incident in some favela or other. It had been the morning of her festa de quinze anos. In Latin America a girl’s 15th is a special coming-of-age celebration, known in Spanish-speaking countries as the fiesta de quinceañer, or quince.  The pictures showed a cheap new handbag and plastic shoes scattered on a pavement against a wall; all were streaked or spattered with blood.

“That paper, God, it’s rubbish,” repeated my landlord as he pulled away. But now and then I still think of her, and her bloodstained cheap new handbag and shoes. She would be 23 now.

Paranoia about crime was a fact of life. A senior academic I met was mugged at gunpoint at his front door in Rio’s classy Leblon suburb. A friend had me to dinner and insisted on driving me the 300 yards home. Garden furniture was of concrete and could not be stolen. One night Bob, the British-born scientist, and I went to visit EMBRAPA colleagues in Niterói, and arrived home at about eight. We found out the next day that there had been a carjacking 10 minutes later on the street we took from the main road.  I asked an American how he liked living in Rio. “Beautiful and scary,” he said. A nightly programme from São Paulo seemed to consist of little more than security videos of crime, with a hysterical voiceover.  At São Paulo’s internal airport, Congonhas, I was astonished to see a large glass case labelled “No weapons on plane. Deposit them here”.  In it was a large assortment of crudely serrated daggers, shivs, trench knives, breadknives and the like, some so vile that their owners should have been in a secure hospital. Meanwhile a huge corruption scandal was brewing. This was the mensalão, the revelation that the governing party had been paying opposition members of the national assembly what amounted to a monthly salary in order to ensure they didn’t oppose its legislation.

But what stood out was not that Brazilians accepted all this; it was that they didn’t. There seemed to be a freshness about their anger that made me wonder if the cynicism had just peaked. In fact, the trend since I was there has been for crime to fall (albeit not by much), and the percentage who report being victims of crime is not especially high for the Americas. As for the mensalão, President Lula da Silva survived it but many of his close advisors and party bosses, including his chief of staff, did not. But I was conscious of being in a country that was a mass of contradictions: extreme violence and poverty coexisted with outstanding science and engineering (Brazil is a major producer of cars and has a globally important aircraft industry); politics and daily life seemed cynical, yet there was a lively and capable media, and an idealistic administration pressed for, and did achieve, change at home and status abroad. 

My own life was not so bad, anyway. My landlord’s large bungalow was split into two and I occupied the smaller part, with a living room, kitchen and bathroom mostly to myself. It was hot, even at midwinter, but I had a terrace where I could sit and read in the long evenings. The nearest shops were in the town centre, two miles or so away, but my landlord had lent me an old bike on which I could get to them; it was too hot at midday, but I would go when work finished at five, loading my rucksack with (among other things) quite agreeable Brazilian wine. Then I would take a shortcut home, crossing rough, bumpy meadows, the long grass catching in the spokes, the soft air cooling as the short subtropical dusk turned to night. In the evening I might go to a bar in town with Bob, or with an Australian scientist, Phil, who had had a career with the UN; as his wife was Brazilian, he had retired to Rio, but was working during the week at EMBRAPA. We celebrated my birthday, too, with far too many caipirinhas. If I had a problem, it was lack of sleep. Brazilian beds are very hard, to be cooler in the climate. There were also insects, mostly dispatched with Nab End and Beyond, of which I had still not read a word.   

From the high plateau at Itataia (Pic: M. Robbins)
One day Phil and I drove to the Itatiaia national park on the border of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo and Minas Gerais States. Here the wooded slopes of the Serra do Mar rose to a high plateau, capped by the Agulhas Negras (Black Needles), at 9,157 ft (2,791 metres). We found ourselves in high uplands not unlike the moorlands of southwest England, with tussocky grasses and bog flowers, criss-crossed by fresh streams.  From its edge the blue-green mountains of the Serra do Mar stretched away in the distance. In June I would read that some Brazilians had gone there to camp – it seemed they did so at that time most years, hoping to see snow. On the slopes below, steep rivers burst across waterfalls and filled clear rocky pools. On another day I went with Bob and his five-year-old son to a beach in a beautiful bay, surrounded by green hills, the sea a vibrant blue. I was starting to see how wonderful Brazil could be. 

Workwise, however, I was still in trouble. I needed to talk to more farmers. I was very worried that I would leave Brazil without enough good data. Neither did I think my sample reflected the region properly, something I knew the examiners might ask me about (they did).

In fact, I had deeper concerns. I had been 46 when I started my PhD, in 2003, and knew I should be at least 50 before I finished. Now I thought I never would. One night in Itaperuna I lay awake all night on the hard bed, staring at the ceiling and wondering how I could have been such a fool. I was a middle-aged man who had wanted to do something that was for young people, at the start of their careers, and now I was lying on a hard bed in a dull hotel thousands of miles from home, financially compromised after years of study, staring failure in the face.

I was rescued by Eli de Jesus. A Brazilian researcher in his 30s, he had recently completed a PhD of his own on sustainable agriculture. Bob put me in touch with him and I liked him at once. He offered to take me to the area he knew well, in the state of Minas Gerais.

Minas is one of the largest, most important and developed, and yet also most beautiful states of Brazil. It is noted for its cuisine, which includes great rib-sticking stews and other comfort food. But its environmental history is even grimmer than Rio’s. The name of the state means “general mines”, and the Portuguese colonists do not seem to have seen it as good for much else. The 18th-century gold miners had simply cut down all the trees and then diverted streams to carry away the topsoil. In some cases, even this was not done; using abundant cheap labour, they simply removed the soil until they found gold, with 50-100,000 baskets being carried away for a single gold-bearing one. In the first half of the 19th century, coffee arrived to finish the job. At the same time the population of the Zona de Mata (literally, “forest area”), which was where we were going, rose to 20,000 in 1828, 250,000 in 1870 and 548,000 in 1890.

We were bound for a small town in the Zona da Mata some miles north of the regional centre of Juiz de Fora. On a map of Brazil, the town was very close by – barely inland from Rio de Janeiro. But it would take us five or six hours to get there. I was beginning to understand the sheer size of Brazil. As the light softened in the late afternoon, I started to enjoy the drive.  North of Juiz de Fora a two-lane road twisted its way north through an endless parade of valleys and hills; I lost track of time as the little Fiat swept through curve after curve. A few buses, small cars and pickups passed the other way; white fences bound green meadows, and small farmsteads nestled in folds in the landscape; the light turned golden then orange then aquamarine and then died, leaving us still on the road, the headlights probing the dark.

At length, we came to Rio Pomba.

Rio Pomba means, literally, “Pigeon River”, and that may have been all it meant; or the pigeons referred to may not have been birds. According to Warren Dean, early settlers obtained slaves “through dealings with natives to whom they applied the same name as that they used in their African trade: pombeiros – referring to the pigeons set loose to lure others back to the cote.”   

But if Rio Pomba had had pombeiros, they were long gone now.  We took rooms in a very basic but clean and friendly two-story hotel opposite the church, on the corner of the town square. It was Sunday evening, and I opened the wooden shutters of my room to see worshippers streaming out from evening communion, very smartly dressed, the women in colourful frocks and very high heels, carefully coiffed. As they came down the steps the church bells rang, but there was another sound from what seemed to be a disco right next to the church wall in the square, where one or two elderly men in cowboy hats were dancing alone to forró. This is a distinctively Brazilian genre, a cross between folk and country that sounds like neither, having brisker rhythms and being led by the accordion. The loudspeakers fought with the church bells and the church bells fought back and no-one seemed to mind, the young women stopping to gossip below my window before teetering off on their six-inch heels, big hair swaying in the breeze, while the old men danced. In fact the whole town seemed to me to be pleasantly mad. One morning, while waiting for Eli to transact some business, I took a walk around; the place was full of saddlers – yet there was not a horse in sight.  In the evening we ate in one of the cheap and cheerful restaurants that lined one side of the square. In the day we visited farmers in the countryside or local officials in town. (We went to see the artificial insemination people. “Don’t you recognise me?” asked one. “I served you your pizza last night.”)

Eli had been lecturing at the local technical college, and invited me to give an address on my research. The students were in their late teens, from local families. Beforehand Eli gave his own lecture, on his own subject (agroecological sustainability). I knew enough Portuguese to follow him now, and thought his lecture outstanding. He knew his subject well and presented it with clarity and concision, but without oversimplification.  He was also clearly welcome on the farms and so, by extension, was I. The holdings here were smaller, maybe 15-30 ha, and the farming more varied.

The farmers were mostly friendly and cheerful, and were more interested in their land than they had been in Itaperuna, though – as so often in many countries – they complained that they could not get technical advice. I decided to interview the local extension agent, who should have been giving it. He was based in a nearby town, but he proved elusive. Eventually Eli, one of the farmers and I settled down in a bar opposite his office and drank beer until he arrived, and ambushed him.  He was then friendly enough, and we talked for some time, but he did not seem to hold the farmers in high esteem. For one thing, he insisted, they were always over-using nitrogen fertiliser. (We had that morning heard from farmers that they found it hard to get information on how much to use.) But he also wondered why they did not band together to sell their produce; about this he was clearly right – the prices they were getting were awful. I thought they were nice men who needed information and an advocate.

Once again, we returned to Rio. My sample was now far more typical. Moreover I now had enough data to reach conclusions that were statistically valid. (I would later spend some weeks checking this, using something called the two-tailed test; let’s not go there.) This is not the place to state my conclusions. They are discussed in depth in the book I later published with Earthscan (now part of Routledge), Crops and Carbon. But the land is a farmer’s main capital equipment, and he is no different from any manufacturer; he must get sufficient returns on his assets, or he will be forced to run them into the ground. When that asset is farmland, there will be environmental outcomes that we need to understand. 

I spent a further week collecting literature. One Friday afternoon I said goodbye to the scientists at EMBRAPA; they had never really been involved in what I was doing, but they had been hospitable enough. I parted from Eli with genuine regret.  He moved on shortly afterwards to a position at the Federal University of Paraná. I said goodbye to L., too; she had sometimes been a trial, but she had done what I had asked of her. My bag was heavy with papers in Portuguese. I threw it into the back of Phil’s car and we drove downtown to spend the weekend at the flat he and his wife had bought on Copacabana Beach.

Gay Pride at Copacabana Beach (Pic: M. Robbins)
It was a good weekend; Phil and I walked the length of Copacabana and Ipanema beaches, and later his wife and I went to hear culture minister Gilberto Gil address a Gay Pride rally on the beachfront. There was much dressing up, much cheering and much colour. On Monday morning I flew to São Paulo to catch the flight to London. I picked up Nab End and Beyond, of which I had still not read a word. I read most of its 700 pages on the flight. As I began to read, the lights in the cabin went down, and Brazil too passed into darkness. 

It stayed there, for me. I finished my PhD in 2007; it was examined at Christmas. Since then I have thought little about those months in Brazil, and with good reason. All my life I had begun major endeavours almost casually. But this was different. I had gone to Brazil ill-prepared, almost on impulse, and at 48 years old I had come far too close to failure. I never wanted to repeat that night in Itaperuna again. One day in 2008 I left England to start an office job in New York. It would pay for my old age.

Then last month I saw my friends in Cecil Beaton’s medieval gear and I thought about my own PhD and how it had nearly ended badly but, in the end, had not. I thought about Brazil, and how lucky I had been to see a great nation of the earth at a time of change. I thought of the moon rising in a pale blue sky behind a cart piled high with ripe oranges and bright green macaws in formation, and thought that life was a chessboard, and that maybe every piece dropped into place in the end.

Mike Robbins’s book Crops and Carbon (2011) is published by Routledge and can be ordered here or on Amazon. Warren Dean’s history of the Atlantic Forest is called With Broadax and Firebrand: The destruction of the Brazilian Atlantic Forest (1997). It is published under the Centennial imprint of the University of California Press.

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Mike Robbins's collection of travel writing, The Nine Horizons, was published in 2014 and is available as a paperback, as a Kindle download and in other eBook formats.