Sat. Jun 22nd, 2024

The Horta da Terra production farm.

Horta da Terra

Imagine a farm that doesn’t look like a farm.

Instead of uniform rows of the same crop, this place is a riot of colors, textures, and heights. It feels more like a small slice of the rainforest than a conventional farm.

This modest farm of about 19 acres is located near Santo Antonio de Taua, in the Brazilian state of Pará. It contains a variety of plants from the Amazon rainforest, from leafy cariru to strikingly red vinagreira (Amazonian hibiscus). The company Horta da Terra cultivates plants here, transports them to the nearby city of Belém for processing, and then ships the resulting freeze-dried powders around the world.

But the company leaves most of the land intact. The farm is markedly different now to its previous life, when 90% of the land was used for conventional agriculture, according to Bruno Kato, a Belém native and the CEO of Horta da Terra. Now 80% of the land is for restoration. The remaining 20% is allocated to regenerative agriculture (which seeks to improve soil health by, for instance, minimizing soil disturbance) and syntropic agriculture (which mimics ecosystem processes by, for instance, paying attention to plant succession).

“It’s completely different today, because today we see a very diverse life happening in the area. Before we saw just monocultures,” Kato says. Since converting the land, he has seen more insects, birds, and diversity of life in general.

In a remarkable demonstration of the biodiversity benefits, residents of Santo Antonio de Taua have even seen an elusive jaguar around the farm, Kato reports. “To see a jaguar in the area represents that the ecosystem is very strong.”

Horta da Terra products.

Horta da Terra

Horta da Terra was one of the first companies to receive a boost from the Amazon Biodiversity Fund, an investment fund designed by the Brazilian branch of the US government’s aid agency (USAID/Brazil) and the research group known as the Alliance of Bioversity International and the International Center for Tropical Agriculture (the Alliance/CIAT).

Biodiversity monitoring, through a system called TerraBio, was an important part of this support, according to the funders. “Scientifically sound biodiversity monitoring can be very expensive, and it is not widespread,” comments Fabio Deboni, a program director at the Alliance/CIAT. TerraBio’s methods include remote sensing and analysis of environmental DNA, which are traces of DNA left in the soil and other environments.

TerraBio’s 2022 report for Horta da Terra found that the farm’s restoration area had twice as many species as a neighboring farm. Meanwhile, “the Syntropic intervention system has an intermediate number of species.” The report also estimated that over 1,000 tons of CO2 equivalent had been converted to plant biomass between 2017 and 2021.

This helps to quantify the kinds of climate and biodiversity benefits that the Horta da Terra team has been seeing itself. Now, Kato enthuses, “more life is in the soil.” One advantage is that soil teeming with microbes and other life is more resilient to climate hazards. For instance, rain is becoming less frequent and predictable. “When you have a balanced ecosystem in the soil, you can retain more nutrients,” despite drought or flooding, Kato says.

The plants Horta da Terra produces are generally little known outside the Amazon, yet have very versatile health and flavor benefits, according to the company. “We know our grandparents used these plants to cure disease,” Kato reflects. “My grandmother used a lot of teas to treat different situations in terms of health.”

The company has been collating scientific research to back up the health effects of these folk remedies, as well as agronomic research on the ease of cultivating the plants. For instance, ora-pro-nóbis is an inexpensive protein source nicknamed “poor people’s protein.” Taioba leaves and tubers are rich in fiber and a variety of vitamins.

However, the company’s marketing and labelling mention support for treatment, rather than cures. Clinical evidence is difficult and expensive to obtain, Kato says.

The company chose to turn the plants into freeze-dried powders for the ease of shipping and processing, as well as the durability of the products. In terms of durability, the official shelf life of the products is 18 months, but Kato says that the company is working to increase this to two years. Existing clients are varied, ranging from chocolate and other food companies to cosmetics and supplementation companies.

It’s important that young Amazonian companies don’t eventually become part of the problem, for instance by intensifying production to the point where they drive deforestation and unsustainable practices.

One way to discourage this is for funders to ensure good practices. According to Deboni, “ABF is investing in businesses where their growth trajectory is aligned with biodiversity conservation or restoration. No investments are made in businesses or projects where unsustainable extraction is the growth plan.”

On the social side, one of the best-known Amazonian forest products, açai, is often harvested by children. This can be dangerous work, yet poor families in the region have few alternatives to sending their children up açai trees to help keep the household going.

The Amazon Biodiversity Fund seeks to guard against labor exploitation through certain requirements, for instance that grantees pay a living wage. “The ABF has a strict ESG policy which is implemented by the fund manager. As part of this policy, any companies or projects using child labour or exploitative labour are categorically excluded from the fund,” Deboni states. “This is checked at the due diligence and monitored throughout the life of ABF investment. Fund managers periodically visit the invested business to validate.”

The Association of Campo Limpo rural producers, who are working with Horta da Terra.

Horta da Terra

In addition to the farm, Horta da Terra sources plants from an association of rural producers in Campo Limpo. And the company is eyeing other ways to scale up. It designed a 40-foot unit full of processing equipment, which Kato describes as a “factory in a container.” He explains, “We can pick up this container and put it in a community in a forest.” The aim is to train residents to do very local processing, so that more people can enjoy the benefits of Amazonian biodiversity.

All this depends on whether the company can continue to create demand. The challenge is to overcome hesitation about novel products, and to educate potential customers about the social and other benefits of items like Horta da Terra’s.

Kato remains hopeful. A question he commonly hears is what Amazonian plant will be the next to take off internationally. “Jambú will hopefully be the next açai,” he says, referring to an herb that leaves a distinctive tingling feeling around the mouth. “The applications are very vast,” Kato believes, from potential dental applications to use in food.

Jambú on the Horta da Terra production farm.

Horta da Terra

Kato himself drinks jambú tea in the morning. The infusion has a delicate flavor and a refreshing feel, he says.

He also consumes taioba, which he says gives him energy when he goes for a run. Unlike caffeine, he experiences no crash after the energy boost. “I use me as an example,” Kato says. “I look very young, but I’m 41 years old. So it’s working for me.”

Horta da Terra and others invested in the financial and environmental sustainability of the Brazilian Amazon are hoping that taioba, jambú, and other Amazonian plants can become familiar internationally in the coming years.

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