Nancy Marie Brown
June 01, 1987

"We should need little reminder of Francis Bacon's insight: ‘Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.' To keep development in harmony with natural forces and resources, we must apply that lesson on the largest scale—from the planning stage through the execution of every project."—Barber Conable, President of the World Bank (1986)

Kabuki music comes from the garden-ringed house; two wooden bridges cross a tiered fish pond. Takeshi Ito has lived here 32 years, farming the same small squares of former rainforest. Hundreds of his fellow Japanese live nearby, here in the north of Brazil; they have made the land produce, year upon year, crops that bring high prices in New York and Marseilles: vanilla beans, cacao, mangoes, papayas, rubber, cardamom, ginger, and, above all, black pepper. They have grown comfortably rich; they have new cars and community swimming pools, and their children attend universities. Their neighbors who farm in traditional ways scratch out a simpler existence.

Scott Subler, a Penn State graduate student, and Christopher Uhl visited Ito last summer, during two months spent interviewing Brazil's Japanese farmers. Ito and the others enjoyed the visits. They were surprised and flattered that scientists were interested in their farms, of which they are justifiably proud: well-orchestrated mixes of animals and plants—trees, vines, shrubs, grasses, and roots—layered onto the smallest possible piece of land and painstakingly managed—with a complex system of chemical and organic fertilizers so good that they say the soil of a 20-year-old plantation is better than that of just-burned rainforest—and with sophisticated cooperatives to market the produce and turn the profits into capital for new farming ventures. They invited the scientists in for green tea or coffee and carefully answered all their questions, elaborating whenever they could. It was a slow process: The elders often answered in Japanese, the younger people translated that into Portuguese, which Uhl translated into English for Subler to write down. Subler soon picked up enough Portuguese to fill out the questionnaires on his own, but he couldn't replace Uhl's singular charm: Uhl, who had begun his college career in Asian Studies, would thank his hosts in Japanese.

The six-hour questionnaires—completed in two or three sessions—are helping Subler understand the Japanese farms as systems, as groups of components all requiring precisely timed inputs of labor, energy, and capital. For his Ph.D. research, he will take the systems apart and try to understand their vitality: What do the people grow? How? How much human labor and capital-based labor is needed for what output? To what extent do the farmers rely on loans? How capital-intensive are their farms? Is their system too deeply tied to Japanese culture for transfer to Brazilian culture? Subler left in May 1986 to begin a year answering these questions.

The success of the Japanese rainforest farms has a long history. The first Japanese settlers—43 families—arrived in Brazil in 1929, lured by a settlement company's promises of cleared fields, roads, electrified houses, and stores. When they reached their model community of Tomé-Açu, however, they found it virgin rainforest. When the disappointment wore off, they mimicked their Brazilian neighbors, cutting the forest, burning the slashings, planting corn, beans, manioc, and rice, and, since they had the seeds, tomatoes, cucumbers, bell peppers, radishes, and turnips. They sent their surplus down the river to Belem, where vegetables had always been scarce. Much of their produce was dumped into the river at the end of a market day—Brazilians were not used to eating those vegetables—before the immigrants set up a marketing cooperative, patterned on the ones in Japan, and created a market for their goods.

The population of Tomé-Açu fluctuated over the next 20 years, and its prosperity teetered, until in 1947 Nanikosuke Ussei, who had arrived in 1935 with 20 seedlings of a black pepper vine variety from Singapore, discovered a way to profitably grow the spice. "It seems from the personal accounts of the farmers," says Subler, "that they woke up one morning and said, ‘Pepper!’ and everyone planted pepper. It was like a goldrush." The Brazilian Japanese were the first group in the Western Hemisphere to successfully grow the spice—and their breakthrough came at a time when pepper, since most Far East plantations had been destroyed in the war, was commanding a high price.

By the time the black pepper market crashed in the 1960s (not only had the Far East plantations recuperated, the Brazilian ones were struck by a blight of Fusarium fungus), Tomé-Açu's farmers were sufficiently rich to shrug the crisis off. Having seen the danger of a monoculture, they had begun diversifying, basing their experiments on Japanese agriculture. "Their whole attitude toward the land," says Subler, "is to put the most amount of work into the smallest amount of land to get it to produce the most it can. One of their fields can be as small as a classroom. It's an attitude they brought with them from Japan, where land is scarce."

"But the Japanese are also great innovators," says Uhl. "For example, Sakaguchi may be trying a new strain of macadamia nut while his neighbor is using a nitrogen-fixing tree as a living fencepost for his black pepper vines. Or, take the example of charcoal-making. They dig a pit, lay the wood in, and put soil on top. While the wood burns down to charcoal, the soil is sterilized—all the nematodes and fungi are killed. They use this soil for potting seedlings in their nurseries."

"Every farmer seems to have a pet project," adds Subler, "and when somebody hits on a good idea, it gets around quickly. Information is very easily shared. Farming for them is a dynamic thing, it's changing all the time, they're developing it all the time. And they have great business savvy. They're aware of prices, demand, available markets, and of creating new markets."

The lesson of Tomé-Açu's farmers is the lesson of the Bari Indians with their painstaking shkirayuna: As Uhl and Subler write, "To be successful requires a good information base." Uhl and Subler hope to discover exactly why the Japanese style of farming is successful so that their methods—and their commitment to the land—can be spread to other rainforest farmers. "It's a sustainable, perennial-based, diverse agricultural system in a place where lots of scientists are saying we need a sustainable agriculture," says Uhl. "If it's a model, what would one have to do to reproduce it? Will it work on lands already degraded by cattle ranching or logging?

"If we can understand why and how the Japanese system works, perhaps the next time the World Bank sponsors a rainforest colony, they'll structure it around this model.

"It's a bit arrogant," Uhl continues, "to be working in Venezuela and Brazil and to be telling them they ought to protect their pristine rainforest. Unless some of the basic questions of social justice are answered—equality in land use, for instance—respect for species diversity and preservation of the land can't be addressed."

Catherine Caufield writes in her book In the Rainforest, "In spite of claims that rainforest must be sacrificed to the betterment of the poor and landless, the effect of most rainforest exploitation is to redistribute wealth upward. The permanent, widely distributed benefits of the intact forest—the protection of wildlife, water catchments, and soil, and the provision of food, medicines, and building materials—are turned into immediate short-term profits for a small group of investors and consumers." Brazil without Amazonia, she points out, has the same population density as the United States: 65 people per square mile; The Netherlands holds 857 people per square mile. But 4.5 percent of Brazil's landowners own 81 percent of the country's farmland; 70 percent of rural households are landless. "The problems are not due to ignorance and stupidity," Michael Robinson of the National Zoo said at a conference on biodiversity last year. "The problems . . . derive from the poverty of the poor and the greed of the rich." As Uhl says, "The people being blamed for the loss of rainforest are the soldiers in the general's war.

"What we, as scientists, can do about social issues," he continues, "is limited. But we can look at ways land could be used in a sustainable fashion instead of just decrying what's happening to the rainforest."

Stephen Beckerman, Ph.D., is assistant professor of anthropology in the College of the Liberal Arts, 514 Carpenter Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-3869. His field work was funded by The Ford Foundation, Sigma Xi, The Explorer's Club, The Smithsonian Institution Urgent Anthropology Fund, and the University of New Mexico.

John C. (Jack) Schultz, Ph.D., is assistant professor of entomology in the College of Agriculture, 121A Pesticide Research Lab, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-4438. Colin Nichols-Orians is a doctoral candidate in entomology. Their work is funded by Penn State's College of Agriculture, the Jessie Noyes Smith Foundation, and the National Science Foundation through the Organization for Tropical Studies.

Christopher Uhl, Ph.D., is assistant professor of biology in the College of Science, 316 Buckhout Lab, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-3893. Scott Subler is a doctoral candidate in ecology. Their work is funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Geographic Society, the World Wildlife Fund, and the Jessie Noyes Smith Foundation.

In the Rainforest by Catherine Caufield was published in 1985 by Alfred A. Knopf, New York.

Last Updated June 01, 1987