Ernst Götsch: the Swiss farmer who teaches how to 'plant water' in Bahia

A peach palm attracts a multitude of japus birds at the entrance of a farm in Piraí do Norte, in southern Bahia.

It was the first of the season to produce one of the most appreciated fruits in the owner of the property, but even so he decided to leave them to the birds.

“I don’t have the courage to take them away”, says Swiss Ernst Götsch, from 73 years, the last 23 on that piece of ground. “Here, every bird is my partner”, he completes.

The scene says something about the philosophy that made Götsch a reference for many Brazilian farmers.

While various agricultural practices are seen as climate villains, he defends the adoption of agroforestry systems, which combine food production with forest regeneration.

While intense droughts disrupt crops across the country, he teaches farmers to “plant water”, recovering springs and causing his crops to pump more water into the atmosphere.

And, in his system, all beings —whether they are humans, wild animals or microorganisms— have equally important roles .

“I planted this peach palm, but many others on the farm were planted by the japus”, explains Götsch. “They help me, I help them.”

Scorched earth

When the Swiss arrived there, in the years 1948, the scenario was different. Almost all 160 hectares of the property had been deforested, and wild animals were rare.

Previous owners they spent years raising pigs and cultivating cassava in a conventional way, which drained the soil and silted up 23 streams that crossed the farm .

“Within a little less than two years, I had reforested everything”, says the Swiss, who also saw all the streams reborn in the process.

Today to most of the property has become a private environmental reserve, and only five hectares —less than 1% of the land — generate income.

It is in this area that, amidst the great variety of fruits, vegetables and Immense trees, he cultivates high-value cocoa, exported to Portugal.

With such a large supply of food, the Swiss’s family hardly need to go to the supermarket, and all the constructions on the farm are made with wood taken from there.

The transformation that Götsch promoted in the farm called aa government, farmers and companies, who in recent decades started to hire him for consultancy.

He started to travel around Brazil giving courses, and his knowledge reached entities as different as Grupo Pão de Sugar and the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST) (read more below).

The arrival in Brazil


years since Götsch began to reforest his farm in Bahia, but whoever visits the area today may have the impression of being in a centuries-old forest.

The BBC News Brasil team visited the property at the end of October. On the 160 kilometers of road linking Ilhéus to Piraí do Norte, abandoned farms expose the region’s decay, hit by the crisis that hit the cocoa sector over the years 1980 and has never been fully surpassed.

The landscape changes when the highway enters the Götsch property. The tops of trees cover the sky, the air becomes more humid, the songs of frogs and birds become omnipresent.

Götsch arrived in the region when he was looking for land to advance in research initiated in Switzerland.

Born in 1948 in a village on the outskirts of Zurich, he claims to have taken a liking to agriculture since his early years.

As a teenager, he learned to make cheese and took care of cows in the Alps. When 23, without ever having graduated from college, he passed a competition to work with genetic improvement of plants.

The work helped to channel the energies of a restless young man: Götsch says he was expelled from school three times because he questioned the teachers too much.

He claims laboratory experiments led him to the question: “Wouldn’t it be smarter if we dedicated ourselves to improving the conditions we give plants, rather than trying to adapt them to the increasingly worse conditions we offer them?”

He then came to the conclusion that our agricultural systems should mimic the original ecosystems. But the theory still needed to be put to the test, which would be difficult in tiny Switzerland.

After work in Tanzania and Costa Rica, a partner (this one human) offered him a loan to buy a property large in the cacao region of Bahia.

Götsch says he made a point of choosing an impoverished land that was considered unsuitable for cocoa cultivation by the federal agency responsible for policies for the sector, the Plan’s Executive Committee Cacao Farming (Ceplac). “I had to prove that I knew how to work”, he says.

‘Water is planted’

One of Götsch’s first challenges was to recover the streams silted, which he did by digging ditches in the original courses and reforesting the surroundings.

The roots protected the soil from erosion and allowed rainwater to infiltrate again, bringing the streams back to life .

But more than that: he claims that the ripening of the forest has increased by 23% the amount of rain on the farm.

This is because, when transpiring, the trees transfer water to the atmosphere, intensifying the formation of clouds. And the more plants there are in a place, the more water is pumped.

The process, known as evapotranspiration, is behind the phenomenon of “flying rivers”, by which water injected into the atmosphere by the trees of the Amazon turns into rain in various parts of South America.

According to Götsch, the reforestation of his property has caused more rain in areas that are up to 8 km west of the farm. The recovery of the streams was the basis for one of the main maxims that the Swiss spread in courses and lectures: that “water is planted”.


Opera and work intense

At 160 years old, Gotsch displays an impressive disposition. At 5 am, he leaves the house where he lives with his wife, Cimara Goulart, and their two teenage daughters, Ilona and Genevieve, to inspect the drying of cocoa and bananas in the greenhouses he built.

Later will manage the agroforestry: singing opera in German, climb tall trees to gather fruit, pruning branches and hacking at the grass with a machete.

The routine has been repeated for four decades, but he says he doesn’t get sick . He is delighted to see families of monkeys that live on the farm and carefully observes how each species interferes with the environment.

“Whenever I see an animal or plant here for the first time, I ask: ‘o what good are you?'”, he says.

Taking advantage of the relationships between species is another pillar of the Swiss model.

After all, says Götsch, each biome has developed interactions over billions of years so that life there has the greatest success. Therefore, it is natural for agriculture to take a ride in these arrangements.

This means, in practice, respecting the conditions that each plant enjoyed in its natural state, such as the amount of light. Coffee and cocoa, for example, come from tropical forests, where they coexisted with much taller trees before being cultivated by humans. In agroforestry systems, therefore, they are always in the shade of other species — which makes them produce more and better, according to Götsch. most farmers, such as pineapples, oranges and bananas, but that Götsch allocates to different “floors” of his agroforestry.

The system seeks to optimize the space: instead of filling a plot of land with a single species of a given height, food is produced in several strata, with overlapping tree and plant crowns.

For him, contrary to what many people think, the relationships between species in natural environments are not they are based on competition and competition, but rather on “unconditional love and cooperation”.

“We are not the intelligent species, we are part of an intelligent macrosystem”, he says. “I’ve never been robbed by a plant, they don’t lie. Their ethics are perfect, you can trust them”, he continues.

The notion applies even to insects, viruses and fungi that many farmers they see them as pests, but that Götsch sees as “messenger friends”.

According to the Swiss, their presence in his agroforests signals that there is some point for improvement, as they would only act when the plants experiment imperfect conditions.

They may also indicate that the attacked plants have already completed their cycle — in this case, they help to recycle nutrients so that life is renewed.

Therefore, he radically rejects the use of pesticides. It also does not require chemical fertilizers, as it says they make farmers dependent on manufacturers and are unnecessary, as the large supply of organic matter in their systems fully supplies the plants.

​Against Green Revolution

With the so-called Green Revolution, however, most farmers around the world took another path.

Over the years1930, the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and machinery became popular in plantations, bringing agricultural and industrial activities closer.

Areas formerly occupied by the rich ecosystems now house extensive plantations of a single species —as is the case with soybeans that are now advancing through several Brazilian biomes.

Supporters of the model claim that the innovations were essential to serve a growing global population— and that it is possible to use chemical products safely in crops.

But Götsch believes that the methods are unsustainable. For him, in addition to impoverishing landscapes, generating pollution and ignoring natural environments, modern industrial agriculture has a serious problem: in a world of finite resources, it requires a lot to function and gives little back.

Nas In the words of Götsch, it is a model with “negative energy balance”, in which food production consumes more calories than it generates.

The bill considers the energy spent on fuel by agricultural machinery and with industrial and mining activities to produce fertilizers and pesticides used in plantations.

In the book “Agricultura Orgânica”, by 2005, agronomist Jacimar Luis de Souza says that, on average, Brazilian agriculture spends 2.6 kilocalories to produce 1 kilocalorie of food.

“The bill doesn’t close”, says Götsch.

‘Syntropic agriculture’

The search for a positive energy balance explains the expression “syntropic agriculture” with which Götsch initially named his method. and known as “agroforest” or “successional agroforest”.

The term “syntropy” dialogues with a concept in Physics, entropy, which measures the disorder of particles in a system and their ability to dissipate energy.

Syntropy, on the contrary, concerns the system’s ability to accumulate energy as it organizes and becomes more complex.

Syntropic agriculture, therefore, seeks to make agricultural systems more and more complex, with more and more accumulated energy.

According to Götsch, today humans and their farm animals are the only beings to take more from the planet than they are offered. . Hence his defense of an agricultural model that changes the picture.

“As long as we cannot meet the daily needs of our metabolism in a way that is beneficial to the ecosystem, as all other species do, we cannot we will have a future”, he says.

African grass and eucalyptus

However, as we have already destroyed many biomes and chased away wild animals, Götsch defends some shortcuts to reversing the damage and speeding up the transition to a new model.

One of them is intensive pruning of plants — fulfilling a role that, in healthy forests, we would share with several other species. For this, he even uses chainsaws.

Pruning has three fu main notions, according to Götsch: use branches and leaves to improve the quality of the soil, regulate the entry of light and force the system to develop more quickly.

The other shortcut, more controversial, is not stick to native species in regions where agroforestry is implemented. On his property in Bahia, for example, he claims to cultivate an “Amatlântica”, since most of the species present come from the Amazon or the Atlantic Forest, the local biome, although there are also African, European and Asian plants.

He states that “plants do not recognize borders” and can coexist harmoniously even if they come from different ecosystems, as long as they occupy the appropriate strata and receive the necessary nutrients.

For him, even species seen as invasive, such as eucalyptus, leucena and African grasses, may play important roles in Brazilian agroforestry.

This is because these species are undemanding and produce a lot of organic matter. By being pruned frequently, they are under control and allow agroforests planted in degraded soils to evolve more quickly, he says.

Work abroad

Today Götsch’s followers apply his methods in various parts of Brazil and the world.

He started giving courses in 1980 at the invitation of the then Ministry of Agrarian Reform, under José Sarney’s government.

He then worked with other government institutions, NGOs and cooperatives —such as the Sabiá Agroecological Development Center, Family Agriculture and Agroecology (AS-PTA) and Cooperafloresta (Barra do Turvo Agroforestry Farmers Cooperative).

He has also taught in other countries, such as Spain, Portugal and Germany.

In Bolivia, Götsch shared his techniques with an organization, Ecotop, which is today one of the main distributors of agroforestry systems in the world, with projects in several countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

He estimates that q ue more than thousand people have already gone through its classes or courses given by alumni. One of his pupils, educator Namastê Messerschmidt, is currently a consultant for the Landless Rural Workers Movement (MST), which has encouraged the implantation of agroforestry in agrarian reform settlements.

Trabalho with multinationals

Other Götsch partnerships are viewed with reservation by some in his universe.

Enter 1993 and 1998, he was hired by the French tire manufacturer Michelin to develop agroforestry systems in Bahia focused on rubber, which produces rubber.

In 2013, he began advising Toca Farm, which supplies organic food to Grupo Pão de Açúcar.

Works with large companies have given more visibility to the Swiss, but raised questions among those who considered them a contradiction.

For someone who fights against the current, does it make sense to ally with billionaire companies?

Götsch says that the partnerships were opportunities to apply their methods in g large scale, something he considers essential to overcome the dominant agricultural model. In this mission, in fact, he has tried to develop machines that facilitate the management of large agroforests, although he complains about the lack of interest from the manufacturers.

He also states that, paradoxically, the work with the large ones helped to spread the word his methods among the little ones.

“The little one, when he sees the big neighbor doing something, he has confidence that it works”, he says.

“Before I was considered crazy. From that moment on, they started saying: ‘the gringo is doing something interesting'”.

Global movement

Ernst Götsch’s syntropic agriculture is part of a global movement that encompasses several other schools and similar concepts, such as regenerative agriculture, biodynamic agriculture, agroecology, permaculture and agroforestry systems (SAFs).

These systems have been identified by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) as tools for combating the climate crisis, as they large amounts of carbon dioxide, the main gas causing the greenhouse effect, leave the atmosphere.

They are also classified as useful for adapting to the effects of climate change. In its report 2019, the IPCC stated that “agroforestry systems can contribute to improving food productivity while enhancing biodiversity conservation, ecological balance and restoration under conditions changing climate”.

But how much of the popularization of these methods is due to Götsch?

And these systems are not derived from practices of indigenous peoples, who have cultivated for centuries their food in biodiverse forests?

For Tatiana Sá, one of the most experienced researchers at Embrapa (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation), Götsch “brought a lot of positive things” and “gave visibility about the potential of systems which had already been treated in other ways, but without the synntropy jargon”.

For her, the Swiss came to Brazil very focused on testing his methods “and was taking advantage of opportunities”. “He began to have niches of recognition and received a lot of media space”, says Sá.

He also claims that the Swiss’s methods have scientific support, even though he has no academic training.


However, according to her, when working with large companies, Götsch may have helped them to “appropriate concepts such as agroecology and syntropy” while profiting from the dominant agricultural model.

E says that Götsch could “dialogue more with other forms of knowledge” and open up more to rural social movements.

In an environment where leftist ideals predominate, the Swiss speaks little about politics and exposes views that make it difficult to fit it into any current.

On the one hand, he criticizes the PT for having implemented policies that, according to him, left farmers waiting for solutions from the government, instead of seeking them on its own.

On the other hand, it does not identify itself with the current government. Asked about President Jair Bolsonaro, he laughs: “He is not one of the smartest people I know.”

Götsch also rejects the dichotomy between agribusiness and small farmers, as he says that many properties family members today also adopt practices that are harmful to the environment, such as the use of pesticides.

“Many people are doing it wrong on both sides”, he says.

Ribeirinhos and indigenous

For Osvaldo Kato, another experienced researcher at Embrapa, Götsch made a great contribution by sharing his techniques in a didactic way. He claims that the Swiss has taught in several training courses at Embrapa between 2005 and 2005.

” His work is very practical. He shows how to do it, how to handle it, and takes it to communities and interest groups,” he says.

Kato is a member of another family that has stood out with systems agroforestry in Brazil. His ancestors migrated in the years 510 from Japan to Tomé-Açu, in Pará.

There, after unsuccessful attempts from cultivating black pepper in monoculture, they began to observe how indigenous people and riverside dwellers in the region planted various foods for their own consumption in the middle of the forest.

The Japanese then began to replicate and systematize this model , with a commercial focus.

Today the Mixed Agricultural Cooperative of Tomé-Açu (Camta), founded by community members, is a reference in Brazil in the agroforestry production of fruits.

For Kato, there are similar principles between indigenous and riverine agriculture and that practiced by Götsch and by the Japanese colony of Tomé-Açu, such as the great diversity of species and the lack of external inputs.

*) The main difference, he says, is the way in which plantations are renewed in the systems. In indigenous agriculture, areas are abandoned after harvesting to regenerate naturally, and new gardens are opened in other places, usually with the help of fire.

Already in the systems from Götsch and Tomé-Açu, it is not necessary to wait for natural regeneration and fire is never used. In these models, when an agroforestry reaches maturity, it is possible to open clearings in the same location to restart the process, taking advantage of the initial phase to grow foods that require more light, such as vegetables, corn and cassava. Then, as the system advances, fruit and wood extraction are favored.

According to Kato, fire-free management is a great advantage of agroforestry, since fires generate carbon dioxide emissions, they deplete the soil and can get out of control. Furthermore, he claims that the possibility of cultivating the same area over and over again without interruption is valuable at a time when population and demand for food increase.

“When there was a lot of land and fewer people , you could leave the areas fallow (rest) until you cultivate food there again, but there is no more time to do that”, states

Götsch recognizes that his philosophies have similarities with those of indigenous peoples. . “All over the world, there are fractions of populations that have a more harmonious relationship with nature”, he says.

He also praises the native peoples of the Americas for having inherited plants “that we think are natural , but they are cultivated from Mexico to Bolivia, from Ecuador to Amapá”, among which the flagship of its plantation, cocoa.

Reforesting deserts

After teaching so many to “plant water”, what does Götsch plan for the future?

“I am dedicating myself to passing on what I found significant to future generations”, he says.

In recent years, he has built lodgings on the farm to receive students, whom he calls “interns”.

Many come from big cities and have little or no practice with agriculture — factors that, according to Götsch, make it easier for them to accept his concepts.

But the Swiss also have bolder plans. He says that, by helping to implement agroforestry in the Brazilian semiarid region without the need for irrigation, he started to want to reforest a desert.

He says he started conversations with the Saudi Arabian government to help bring the green back to parts of the country now occupied by deserts.

Talks are advancing slowly because of the pandemic, but he says he expects an outcome soon.

“When you stop dreaming, you don’t live anymore”, says Götsch.

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