Early each Monday morning, the Soares family gathers at the table in the rural municipality of Juruti in Brazil. Their remote town, surrounded by lush forest on the banks of the Amazon River, is a 45-minute flight in a small plane or 5 hours by boat from Santarém, the second-largest urban hub in Pará. In the flour mill they use to process cassava, a root vegetable native to South America, the family meets for breakfast and to discuss tasks for the week ahead.

The Soares family has lived on this land for almost two decades. While they originally grew cassava to produce flour, the family business has since expanded to offer more than 30 cassava-based products—everything from biscuits to cakes to desserts to tapioca. They’re now embarking on a new project, one that will allow Messias and Nilda Soares’s children to dream of bigger things.

Monday breakfast defines the week ahead. (Photo: Asteroide)

The Soares family is one of several participating in a pilot project to shift away from slash-and-burn agriculture, where farmers clear forests to prepare land for planting, to one focused on agroforestry systems that combine trees and crops. The Soareses are planting native tree species and other annual crops on their farm in addition to their cassava. Through agroforestry, the families engaged with the project will be able to boost its cassava-based income through the sale of fruits, essential oils and other tree-based products that also foster greater food security and increased resilience.

And in the process, they’ll help restore the landscapes that they and so many others call home.

Meet the Soares Family

The Soares family are like a team, tightly knit and united.

Like many men from this region of the world, Messias was born into a family that grew and processed jute, a fiber used to make clothes and other goods. Later, he earned a living with a chainsaw, clearing trees for farm owners to make way for agriculture. Felling trees, some more than 100 years old, had always been an arduous task for his hands, and one that weighed heavily on his heart. “I didn’t like cutting down trees, but there really was no other choice,” he said. “It was that or my kids went hungry. That was until my plot of land began producing.”

Messias purchased his land in 2000. Slowly, after the cassava plantation began to provide returns, he no longer needed to cut down the forest to earn money.

Soares family during a boat ride in the Amazon River (Video: Bruno Felin/WRI Brasil).

Meanwhile, Nilda had to learn the long and taxing process of transforming cassava into flour, step by step, a skill indigenous peoples pass down verbally (though each mill has its own special secrets). Messias is proud of the fact that he invented a series of tools to peel, grate, toast, sieve and thereby increase the quality and volume of cassava the family processes. As the years rollined by and their daughters grew up, the family came up with new ideas on how to make better use of their raw material.

Cassava, the queen of Brazil

Cassava has long been a staple of the ancestral peoples of South America. Highly nutritional, it is easily digested and an excellent source of slow-release, long-lasting energy.

There are two types, popularly known as mansa (tame) and brava (wild). The biggest difference is that the mansa variety can be cooked and served directly, while the brava variety has a high concentration of hydrocyanic acid, which is extremely toxic. Indigenous peoples were the first to develop a process for extracting all the liquid from cassava to transform it into a flour, rendering it safe to consume.

Below are the steps to making cassava flour:

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Peel. The Soares family use small knives or peelers. Next, the cassava is washed.

Today, besides three types of cassava flour (common, tapioca and farofa), the Soareses supply seven varieties of biscuits, tucupi (the juice from grated cassava used in sauces), cassava gum, carimã (a fine form of flour used in baking) and an array of cakes. Cassava delicacies are rooted in the cuisine of northern Brazil, a rich blend of indigenous, African and Portuguese influences. The Soareses sell their goods to local grocery stores, at the weekly street market in Juruti, and also organize coffee tables for events.  

The quest for more knowledge provided the Soares family with alternatives that set them apart from other farmers.

Cassava Products

Beiju with Brazil nut

Beiju d'água and Beiju cica

Beiju of tapioca

Cassava cake and Puba cake


From left: Mariele, Marliane, Melissa and Marlice, the daughters of Messias and Nilda (Photo: Joana Oliveira/WRI Brasil).

The Next Phase of the Soares Family Farm

While many women in Juruti lack decision-making power thanks to longstanding gender inequalities, this is not the case for the Soares family. “Dad has always given us the opportunity to learn and propose things,” said Marliane, 24, the eldest of the four Soares daughters. “He used to do things his way, the way he was taught as a child. Nowadays, he asks us what we think. If we say we need more fertilizer, he asks how to make it. He really respects our knowledge.”

She and her sisters have helped bring the Soares farm into a new phase of operation. First was the vegetable garden, part of Marliane’s final project in a technical course on agriculture and livestock. Marliane and Maiele, 19, have internet on the farm and study Environmental Management through University of Amazon (UNAMA). One eye on the computer, the other on the forest.

The girls are now playing an integral role in one of the farm’s biggest endeavors yet: implementing agroforestry systems.

Interested on sustainable solutions for farming, Marliane brought to the family the proposal to work with agroforestry (Photo: Asteroide).

Agroforestry: Production Without Deforestation and Degradation

Most of the land in this region of Pará is prepared for cassava and other crops by slashing and burning the forest. The process not only results in deforestation, but can severely degrade soil when the land is subjected to repeated slash-and-burn within a short span of time.

The practice of slash-and-burn began with indigenous peoples, who lived a semi-nomadic lifestyle. They would burn an area and only return decades later, once the forest had already regenerated. Back then, the process was sustainable. With the consolidation of land ownership, farmers now remain on the same piece of land and end up slashing and burning the same area every two years.

Typical slash-and-burn landscape close to the Soares propriety (Photo: Joana Oliveira/WRI Brasil).

The Soares Family works on their agroforestry system. (Video: Asteroide)

An agroforestry system offers an alternative approach — one that can restore farms and forests, conserve land, and grow food.

Through this system, native trees contribute to sequestering carbon dioxide and preserving biodiversity. Planting fruit trees with high market value alongside agricultural crops like cassava, corn and beans help farmers and families increase their income in the short, medium and long terms.

Not only can agroforestry systems fight climate change and boost incomes, they also enhance local food security. With most agricultural expertise focused on cassava, staples consumed in Juruti, like fruits and vegetables, are shipped in from other regions with higher costs. That means that a simple salad of lettuce and tomato takes a full day by boat to reach the dinner table in a municipality of some 50,000 residents that is surrounded by forest. Through agroforestry systems you can overcome those barriers.

Marlice Soares, 9 years old, with one of the native tree seedlings planted in the agroforestry system (Photo: Joana Oliveira/WRI Brasil).

Adaptable and replicable systems

The Soares family and 21 other farmers are now experimenting with agroforestry systems through a project led by WRI Brasil and Preta Terra that started in 2018. The farmers realize that relying solely on cassava sets a limit to their success. Planting it with fruit species and native trees and other crops, however, can generate more income within the same area and increase food security.

“While chatting with these rural families and asking about their ambitions, it was immediately clear that there is no desire of selling and leaving the country life,” said Mariana Oliveira, a research analyst for WRI Brasil’s Forests Program. “To the contrary, they are immensely proud of what they do. We realized that with technical assistance and support, they could quickly rise to a new production paradigm.”

Over a span of a few months, Oliveira built a baseline of the situation alongside Preta Terra, a company that is specialized in designing and implementing agroforestry systems. The goal was to identify and engage families willing to invest in a new productive model, with strong women leaders and young people willing to remain in the area.

With the group defined, work began. The idea was to design test plots of up to 1 hectare where farmers could continually add or subtract different tree and crop species to the mix. When they see what works best, they can scale up the most successful combinations to any size. In the agroforestry system developed with the community, farmers can continue planting traditional cassava crops set at 1 m x 1 m intervals without the need to slash and burn the area.

You can check out how the plots were designed in the graphic below:

Agroforestry design

The system design starts with farmers planting their cassava without burning the fields. The cassava can also be replaced by other annual crops or even pasture for livestock if a farmer wants.

High-value native tree species that take a long time to mature are inserted in the system 10 meters apart from each other. Among the species are rosewood, cumaru, andiroba and red cedar, which are used for wood, cosmetics, perfume, seeds and other uses.

Between the bigger native trees, fruit trees are planted 2.5 meters apart from each other. The Soares family, for example, opted for açaí, mango, pomegranate, tangerine, lemon, orange, açaí, cupuaçu, acerola and soursop.

In order to build up biomass within the system throughout the life cycle of the plots, which can last up to 30 years, species that are economically valuable in the short-term can be included. For example, banana trees, paricá, urucum, taperebá, pigeonpea, millet and corn can be planted with the seed bombs.

Source: Preta Terra
Illustration: Joana Oliveira/WRI Brasil

With this new productive system, farmers diversify and increase their income in the medium and long term, while also ensuring greater food security and resilience to climate change. And this is all done without deforestation and degradation in a region that lacks other sustainable economic options.

Over time and as it scales up, agroforestry will contribute to climate mitigation and adaptation, biodiversity conservation and food security. “The change will help improve quality of life for families, who will benefit from higher income and food security with less work in the field,” explained Oliveira. “This is a true sustainable approach, with higher resilience to climate change. But, above all, it carries hope for a better future for the ones that depends on the forests for their well-being.”

Photo: Asteroide

Sometimes Messias and I take on the heavier loads, but all of our daughters help in one way or another. We work together and share the tasks. Agroforestry provides multiple benefits, both for nature and for us. In addition to preservation, we can earn from the fruit trees while waiting for the native trees to grow. And we can continue to plant cassava. I want to ensure that we secure a means for them to survive.

Maria Cidenilda de Chagas, or Nilda.

A Sustainable Future for the Soares Family

After a little less than a year, the Soareses’ plot hasn’t yet begun to produce, but Messias and his family allow themselves to dream of a future with agroforestry systems all over the property.  It may also convince their children to stay, to carry forward this type of farming in their region.

“The project is like a retirement plan for them,” said Messias, proud to provide his children with chances he never had. “But it’s not only them who will benefit, as there’s even opportunity for us to employ other people looking for work. It will also serve as a model for other generations to show that children born out in the forest can also become an expert and invest that knowledge back here. It’s not about leaving all of this behind. They will carry it forward because they helped to build it.”