A young South African agronomist, Dirk van der Klinken, was the leading figure in the development of Zero Tillage in Brazil. He had gone there in 1974 as manager of a pioneering tropical forage seed production project in the state of Goiás, financed by a prominent international seed company. Despite considerable progress in obtaining top quality seed and a significant market share, the seed yields and project returns were too low.
An agronomist who worked for the agricultural chemical company that had developed the first desiccant herbicide, generically known as grammoxone, told van der Klinken about a new technology called Zero Tillage. With herbicides substituting the heavy costs of soil preparation, van der Klinken saw a golden opportunity to plant a commercial maize crop on 200 hectares of the area he managed and that were devoted to the production of perennial forage legume seed of Centrosoma pubescens and Macroptilium atropurpureum. Weeds would be controlled with grammoxone before planting, and competition from the climbing legumes would be checked until the maize was nearly mature. After harvest, the maize stalks would act as tutors to the legumes and enhance flowering and seed set.
That was the theory, but in practice, van der Klinken had not taken into account that the predominant weeds in this old pasture land were the woody Sida sp., the prolific grass weed Digitaria insularis, and a persistent Commelina sp. These had not been a problem in the first year, but they had seeded and multiplied exponentially. The first two were not well controlled by the herbicide and the result was a disaster: the weed population increased geometrically, causing a loss on the maize crop and even lower seed production on the legumes. Van der Klinken was fired because he had risked his hunch on a large area instead of trying the new technique on a small test area first. But that would have taken another year and he was under heavy pressure from his employers to increase profits.
In 1977, van der Klinken rented some land with his termination pay and took up planting soybeans and maize for seed on his own account, while also doing international consulting to generate more capital. He was quite successful at both, but his first experience with Zero Tillage, even if it had been a disaster, had made him determined to make it work successfully. He knew that its principles were sound, and that his problem had been caused by a lack of attention to detail and by not having someone with experience to guide him on the ground.
In 1982, using subsidized rural credit, he built a primitive five-row ZT planter. He also requested assistance from the chemical company that had developed grammoxone herbicide and from a second company, in the US, that had just released glyphosate, a more effective and systemic desiccant herbicide compared to grammoxone, which only killed on contact. Both companies sent agronomists to the field to apply their products, and the first plantings of soybeans and maize were generally successful on about 50 hectares. The newly developed glyphosate was only used on a test area of five hectares of sunflower, which was infested with Brachiaria decumbens grass, because it cost US$90 a hectare versus US$36 for grammoxone.
Another test on one hectare of upland rice went wrong for lack of knowledge of post-planting herbicide control for this crop and because of insufficient working capital in time for the alternative of hand hoeing. This failure in the upland rice was the hard way to learn the old English farmer's proverb that "timeliness is next to godliness". However, the rice growth had been vigorous in the early stages, showing promise for this crop. Much more research with upland rice had to be performed before reliable ZT technology for it was achieved at the end of the 1990's.
The main experience with maize and soybeans was a qualified success, however, and in January of 1983, the first ZT field day in the tropics was organized. It was sponsored by the manufacturer of grammoxone and there were 30 farmers and agronomists present. Nevertheless, most local farmers believed that such a radical departure from the traditional ploughing and cultivating of land was insane and refused to support it.
In 1988, the president of a large fertilizer company met with van der Klinken and inquired if he had technology ready to show farmers. Van der Klinken, although not completely sure himself, replied in the affirmative, and so a contract for a pilot project was set up for three years with an annual budget of some US$30,000. But as the fertilizer market slumped, this was cut to half in year two and cut again in year three. Van der Klinken put all his own savings into the project to compensate for the reduced funding, but at the end of the third year, after selling his pickup and dismissing his field assistant, he had used up his reserves.
Van der Klinken took stock of the promising results to date. In 1992, the project had been nominated as Brazil's entry for the International Fertilizer Association award. Furthermore, the 60 hectares of test areas had generated a critical mass of information. He decided that the way ahead was to promote Zero Tillage by carrying out short, two-day training courses. The first two courses obtained significant support from the private sector and were very successful, with 87 participants in total. It was during an evening session of the second course that it was decided to set up the Zero Tillage Association for the Tropics (of Brazil) ZTAT. It nearly failed to happen, for having to give more than 40 people at the meeting the opportunity to voice their views democratically took a long time. Van der Klinken noticed one person sneaking out through the door and promptly locked it, putting the key in his pocket and declaring that nobody else would leave until the association had been founded.
The coercion worked. There was such a positive climate surrounding the revelation of Zero Tillage that the association was immediately founded. An interim board of directors was elected to oversee the development of definitive statutes and to register the association. Van der Klinken became executive secretary to the interim board. As a foreigner, he declined a position on the board of directors and besides, as executive secretary, he would hopefully be paid for his efforts, which directors would not.
The appointment of an employee of an agricultural chemical company as a member of the interim board caused such jealousy from rival firms that he later refused to stand for re-election, in spite of having provided relevant and selfless service to ZTAT. The lesson learned from this was that an NGO must show complete commercial impartiality, otherwise support from the private sector will be limited.
During the inaugural meeting of ZTAT, and also from the demand for the training courses, it became obvious that there was a lack of organized and unbiased information on ZT. This was limiting its uptake. In effect, pioneer farmers were generating valuable experience, but they did not have the time to divulge it. ZTAT would step into the gap.
The first president of the ZTAT, was Washington Sementeira, a prominent seed producer who had also adopted Zero Tillage in the early eighties. Although he had little spare time, he invested enough to encourage van der Klinken to travel around - mostly by night bus - to visit the far-flung ZT pioneers and start documenting farmer experiences. This was necessary since there was little official government research at this time in the Cerrado region, with the exception of herbicide registration trials and some irrigated experiments. These were being conducted by Dr. Fred Pedregoso, of the Soils Centre of Embrapa (Brazilian National Research Enterprise), and there were early field trials by two French scientists from CIRAD, working with a co-operative in Mato Grosso state.
Although herbicide firms had recommendations for the use of their products, they too were in a learning situation. Indeed, a whole new farming system was being born, driven by pioneer farmers who had migrated with prior knowledge of ZT from southern Brazil, where it had expanded to one million hectares by 1990. This migration, and the consequent rapid expansion of the Cerrado arable area, were the direct result of the technical breakthroughs in solving the problem of fertility limitations in Cerrado soils. It was also facilitated by the development of high-yielding, truly tropical soya varieties of maturity groups 8 and 9 (See Appendix 1). Box 2 summarizes the chronological sequence of major steps in ZTAT's development set against this background.
1992 Foundation with interim board of directors. Drafting and registration of legal statutes (defining objectives and modus operandi). President Washington Sementeira, executive secretary Dirk van der Klinken.
1993 First Regional Meetings of ZT in the Cerrado (2 days, 200 participants and 10 supporting firms). First annual general assembly with election of definitive board of directors and full complement of officers (see Appendix 7). Training course on spraying technology and founding of the farmers' nucleus for ZT in the Federal District (Brasilia).
1994 Foundation of first Clubes Amigos da Terra (CATs). Publication of ZT Manual of Farmer Experiences (2000 copies, 17 participating companies). 12 CATs.
1995 Swedo Martinez enters as vice-president. Second Regional ZT Meeting, Brasilia, DF (2 days, 800 participants and 27 exhibitors in 20 ha demo area). Second edition of ZT Manual, 2300 copies with 18 participating companies. Worldwide Award for Environmental Actions (from a US agribusiness company) divided with CAT Rio Verde-GO. Study tour of South Brazil with 30 farmers and technicians from Central American countries, sponsored by the Inter-American Institute for Agricultural Co-operation (IICA). Meeting with board of directors of Embrapa which defined ZT as a national priority.
A Condensed History of ZTAT (continued)
1996 By delegation of BFZTF, the Brazilian Zero Tillage Farmers' Association, ZTAT organizes the 5th National ZT Meetings, Goiânia-GO (4 days, 2300 participants, 30 participating firms, and 40 ha of demo area). After this event Swedo Martinez replaces Washington Sementeira as president. Inclusion of chapter on ZT impacts in book Environmental Management in Brazil (FGV/World Bank). Launch of quarterly technical newspaper, Cerrado Zero Tillage (5,000 copies).
1997 Dr. Fred Pedrogoso of Embrapa Soils Centre begins close collaboration with APDC. Start of National Water Secretariat's support program for Clubes Amigos da Terra. 3rd Regional Meetings of ZT in the Cerrado, Rio Verde Goiás, executed by CAT (3 days, 1200 participants, one day field tour, 30 participating firms). Publication of the book The Environment and ZT (10,000 copies), four issues of Cerrado Zero Tillage. The National Water Resources Secretariat (SRH) of the Environment Ministry recognizes the importance of Zero Tillage for watershed management and begins direct support of ZTAT activities with CATs.
1998 Organization of the 6th National ZT Meetings, Brasilia, DF (4 days, 2,000 participants and 40 ha irrigated demo area). Organization of 1st World Bank study tour in Brazil (20 participants from 11 countries). Three international presentations by ZTAT members. Organization, with National Science Council, Goiás Research Foundation and BFZTF, of National Seminar on the ZT Agribusiness chain (70 selected participants). First Tropical ZT training course for extensionists (13 trainees from 4 states). SRH consolidates support by creating a specific project for the expansion of CATs.
1999 4th Regional Meeting of ZT in the Cerrado, specialized in integration of crops x livestock (500 participants, 8 firms and 4 demonstration farms). Erivaldo Finkenbinder appointed manager for training activities; 4 training courses for extensionists (127 trainees from 5 tropical states). Ministerial reshuffle causes suspension of National Water Secretariat's support programme for CATs. Modification of the statutes of ZTAT to include a Deliberative Council made up of presidents of CATs etcetera and institution of Donor Associates (see Appendix 7). Eight international presentations by members of ZTAT. Translation into English of book entitled The Environment and ZT commissioned by the FAO. Participation in second World Bank Study Tour (22 participants from 15 countries). FAO Tropical ZT Study Tour (13 participants from 12 Caribbean countries) and field visit of 160 American farmers from the Corn Belt region. Circulation of Cerrado Zero Tillage now 10,000 copies. 40 CATs/similars interacting with ZTAT. Participation in the execution of National Science Council's ZT Platform Project to detect second generation ZT research priorities, co-ordinated by Dr. Fred Pedregoso.
From the above summary it can be seen that the five main actors in ZTAT have been: Washington Sementeira (founding president), Dirk van der Klinken (executive secretary during the whole period), Swedo Martinez (vice-president in 1995 and president from 1996 onwards), Dr.Fred Pedregoso (Embrapa researcher allocated to assist ZTAT from 1997 onwards), and Erivaldo Finkenbinder (training manager starting in 1999).
Both Washington Sementeira and Swedo Martinez had been involved in early on-farm development of ZT in the region, carrying out successful plantings as early as 1982 and 1983. After his retirement from the presidency of ZTAT, Washington Sementeira continued to contribute to the ZT cause by supporting a soil-management research programme on his farm in collaboration with the Embrapa Rice and Bean Centre, Goiânia, Goiás state. The Martinez family farm in Minas Gerais state continues to use ZT in both irrigated and dryland situations. Van der Klinken had been involved with ZT since his first attempt in 1976, and Dr. Fred Pedregoso and Erivaldo Finkenbinder had both been working with ZT for some eight years before joining ZTAT, This collective practical experience generated credibility with farmers and agribusiness. It was the foundation for success.
In the following sections of this case study, different aspects of the work of ZTAT are treated separately for clarity of focus, and within these the analysis follows its own chronological sequence. Seen in the context of the overall history as described in Box 2, the reader should be able to appreciate the position of each section in the whole process.