The resilience of cotton and its communities in Brazil

Solidaridad and Instituto C&A want to take up the tradition of cotton growing in a region that was once a pride of Brazil but today suffers from devastating drought.

North of Minas Gerais in the region of Catuti, the heat does not relent. The strong sun cuts through a cloudy sky in the middle of the afternoon. Rain is sure to come, but it never does.

This is the difficult reality that residents have faced for years. In the last decade, however, the effects of climate change have been felt more intensely. All agricultural production suffers, but the cotton sector is especially vulnerable. In the 1970s and 1980s, this region was one of the main cotton producers in Brazil. Characterized by smallholder producers, cottonseed brought wealth, and economic and social development until, in the 1990s, the boll weevil, a pest that attacks cotton, practically decimated the crop.

It was years and years before the boll weevil could be properly controlled. Eventually, when measures implemented by governments and producers established effective mechanisms to combat the insect, the lack of rain began to punish production.

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Ms. Zeli and Zé Brasil, cotton producers at Catuti (MG)
Photo: Cilene Marcondes (Solidaridad)

"Here, in this village, there were about 80 families producing. Each of them had eight to ten people. Today, we have 15, 16 families only," explained José Alves de Souza (49), called Zé Brasil. Married 25 years ago to Azeli Antunes de Souza Alves (43), known as Ms. Zeli, said that even with travel across Brazil to work in the most difficult phases of life as a farmer, he never stopped planting cotton.

“It is very easy to understand. In the complicated years we are now facing, this is the only crop that is still a little something. If you look at the other crops, you have nothing. But cotton resists. It is tough, it lasts, it lasts longer. It can withstand the drought. Then, in another year, if it rains a little, the plant is there, it grows again. All the leaves can fall, and if it rains again, everything grows back. The other crops, if lost, are lost for good. Cotton is resilient just like the people here,” Zé Brasil said.

Cotton culture in the semi-arid landscapes

Zé Brasil is one of the smallholder farmers benefiting from the Tecendo Valor project developed by the Solidaridad Foundation and Instituto C&A, the Brazilian office of C&A Foundation. The project has been implemented in two of the main areas of family cotton production in Brazil for the past six years- north of Minas Gerais and southwest of Bahia, in the Iuiú Valley. The project includes a set of actions developed by several actors in the production chain, in addition to the public sector, in a parallel and complementary way, which is capable of generating a lasting change in the region.

Launched at the end of 2015, it now begins the five years of its second phase, which ends in December 2021. This is the development of a sustainable cotton production model for smallholder production in the semi-arid region, which, among other objectives, seeks to attract companies from the fibre and clothing sector with a strong presence in national and international markets to include family producers as one of their sources of supplies. Another important point is the possibility of systematizing this project as a model to be replicated in other regions of Brazil and in other countries, especially in Africa.

For José Rodrigues de Souza, Zezão (59), who was born and raised in the community, the golden phase of cotton production also had its down sides.
"At that time, you made money but at the same time you did not win. It was the middleman who got everything. Not now. With the cooperative, we have power to negotiate," he said.

According to Zezão, there is an expectation that the region will resume large-scale using drought coping mechanisms. Among the improvements planned, Tecendo Valor will install 32 drip irrigation kits in both states. "These kits are being installed in Technical Demonstration Units, that is to say properties that serve as reference for the methodology and processes of improvement of agricultural production, which are transferred to all farmers," explained Harry van der Vliet, programme manager of cotton, soy and livestock of Solidaridad.


Solidaridad and Instituto C&A teams in a TDU with irrigation kit 
Photo: Cilene Marcondes (Solidaridad)

A focus on women and the family

Tecendo Valor also pays attention to the empowerment of women in the regions. To understand the issues of this group and the possibilities the project offers, participatory research was carried out in two areas, Minas and Bahia. Among the results obtained are the demand for training in alternative techniques of production for backyard vegetable gardens and small animal care, since the women carry out these activities on a regular basis. It was also pointed out the need for training in alternative techniques for the next generation, such as baking, bakery techniques, cutting and sewing and crafts.

Young people were also identified as an important group to be involved in the project to ensure local cotton business continues. "Identify the young leaders for the formation of groups of exchanges of experiences. Leadership through young women is the hallmark of women's empowerment in the regions," Van der Vliet said.

Depending on the motivation of the next generation, Catuti will once again be a major producer of cotton. "I have two boys there in Rio Claro, in the state of São Paulo. They are around 30 years old, and already have their homes there, but they both wanted to come back. They want to grow cotton too, "Zezão confided. "Every day they ask me: Mother, is it raining there? They're nuts to come back. And I want them here too, but without rain, itś no use. If it rains or we can get back to producing with the irrigation, they will come back,” explained the mother, Joaquina Rodrigues de Souza (51).