A Farmer Turns Wasteland into Rainforest

Crop productionEnvironment and climate changeTrees and agroforestry



The story you are about to hear tells how a farmer and his family created a rainforest from empty fields and wasteland.

Sound impossible?

Well, this farmer was determined.

And he understood the ways of nature — how plants and animals regenerate and renew themselves.


Fifteen years ago Mr. Ernst Gotsch left Switzerland, his homeland, and moved to Brazil.

His dream was to start a new life, living and farming in the rainforest.

He intended to sell forest products such as cocoa and bananas.

But when Ernst arrived on the land, he was surprised.

There were very few trees left on the farm — just cleared, barren fields.

Much of the forest had been cut.

The soil was poor and unproductive.

It was beginning to erode from the force of the heavy rains.

The neighbours called the farm a wasteland.

But Ernst believed that he could improve the soil and some day establish a new forest.

He planned to re-create the forest.

He still hoped that some day his family could live by selling and eating food from the forest — food such as bananas, cocoa and peppers.

You might be asking yourself: “How can someone RE-CREATE a rainforest?

Stay tuned for the answer to this question.

And to learn whether or not Mr. Ernst Gotsch would realize his dream.


We know that Ernst Gotsch wanted to re-create a forest.

It seemed like a difficult task; how could a person improve soil enough to grow a new forest.

Fortunately, Ernst was a farmer and a scientist, and he had some very good ideas.

He knew that the first priority was to cover the cleared land with green plants — like a cover crop.

The crops he planted would have to survive on cleared land in poor soil.

And they would have to grow well in the local climate.

Faced with this situation, which crops would you choose?

Listen now to how Ernst made his decisions.

He observed the countryside surrounding his farm.

He paid careful attention to the kinds of plants that were growing in nearby barren or cleared areas.

Those were the starter plants that would provide the first cover on the soil.

Some of the starter crops were manioc, pigeon peas, bananas, and native trees such as eretrinas and ingás.

These plants grew well on cleared land.

They could survive in poor soils.

So, Ernst and his family planted manioc and pigeon peas and bananas all over the land.

Many native plants also grew.

After a few months, Ernst cut leaves and branches from all the plants, and placed them on the soil.

With this, a layer of mulch started to form.

This was the beginning of the new soil.

Tiny creatures — the kind you can’t see that live in the soil, and other bigger ones like earthworms — moved in and started to eat, breaking down the dead plants into tiny pieces, increasing the fertility of the soil.

In a few months’ time, the soil was rich enough for Ernst to start planting the seeds of the future forest.

He planted the tree seeds very close together, so they would help and protect each other.

Soon the field was covered with tiny trees.




After five years there was a new forest.

Ernst had created the forest step by step.

Let’s review his steps.

First he had covered the soil with crops.

He chose crops that he knew could survive in poor soils.

As these plants matured, he pruned the leaves and branches, and placed them on the soil.

Tiny animals began to eat and break down the leaves and branches, turning them into soil.

As the soil formed he planted more seeds of different crops and larger and larger trees.

He planted the tree seeds directly into the leafy mulch on the ground.

He planted the trees close together.

Eventually, his field was covered with large forest trees.


Today, there is a forest on the land that Ernst farms.

Among the many trees on the forest farm, Ernst grows bananas, cocoa, peppers and many other forest fruits and nuts.

He has many forest products to sell.

His chickens eat the fruits and leaves of the forest and lay plenty of good eggs.

He also grows vegetables in the forest clearings.

In fact, almost all of the food his family needs is from the forest farm.

Ernst believes that using this system any family can live from only two hectares of forest.

He has proved it is possible.

Perhaps you can too.


Contributed by: Jennifer Pittet, Managing Editor, Farm Radio Network.

Reviewed by: Marsha Hanzi, Permaculture Teacher, and member of the Bahian Institute of Permaculture, Brazil.

Latin names for crops mentioned in this script:

Cajanus cajan — pigeon pea
Manihot esculenta, Mamhot utilissima — manioc, cassava
Erythrina spp. — eretrinas
Inga spp. — ingás

Information sources

“Recreating a rainforest,” by Marsha Hanzi, in The Permaculture Activist, #25, December 1991.

“Rainforest regeneration,” by Matt Kovacs, in The Permaculture Activist, #40, December 1998.

Forest Farming, by J. Sholto Douglas and Robert A. de J. Hart, 1985. Intermediate Technology Publications, London, UK.