Laury Cullen

Ashoka Fellow
Fellow Since 2002
IPÊ-Instituto de Projetos e Pesquisas Ecológicas
This description of Laury Cullen's work was prepared when Laury Cullen was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2002 .


Laury Cullen, Jr., has created an agricultural model that is sustainable environmentally and that provides production and ownership opportunities to bridge the gap in Brazil's entrenched disputes over land rights.

The New Idea

Through his efforts to preserve the remaining pieces of the Atlantic Forest, Laury came face to face with the human conflict over land rights. Between shortsighted government land reform policies and pressure from landless families, the forest fragments were disappearing and the land quality around them deteriorating. He realized that in all the talk about land reform and titles, crucial elements were not being addressed: the health, productivity, and sustainability of the land itself. To change this, Laury created a program to introduce agroforestry systems that increase production and conservation in and around land reform settlements. He works with farmers on rural land settlements and members of the so-called "Landless Movement" to introduce agroforestry systems, small islands of forested land harboring economically viable crops–for example, organic shade-grown coffee. From an ecological perspective, these forested "coffee islands" help restore the landscape and form stepping stones that allow for the "genetic flow" of animal and plant populations among isolated forest fragments. From a social perspective, the agroforestry systems increase land productivity, family income, and food security. Through his program Laury is demonstrating how to introduce land conservation and sustainable production into land reform policies to reduce conflict and benefit farmers and forests alike.

The Problem

Land reform and redistribution in Brazil, the purpose of which has been to right a long history of wrongs, may be creating as many problems as they are attempting to solve. While the tactics of government in redistributing land and resettling landless people have been short-sighted and often ineffective, the tactics of landless activists have been confrontational, often illegal, and at times violent. And both the government and the people, in their sometimes common, sometimes divergent efforts to put more poor people on land of their own, have hastened the ecological decline of a fragile and vital natural environment.
Invasions and occupations of large holdings by members of the Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST or "Landless Movement") have resulted in violent conflict and deaths, illustrating the human conflict over the right to live and produce on the land. The government agency responsible for agrarian reform, the National Institute on Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA), claims significant advances during the last four years in the resettlement of small-scale farmers stating that a record number, over 100,000 families, were settled onto redistributed land in 2000. However, long tenure on the land and rates of success for small farmers have advanced little. The government is responsible for providing technical training and support to recently settled farmers. Government programs deliver mainstream agricultural techniques, but the success of these techniques ultimately depends on large amounts of technical inputs (like irrigation, fertilizers, and specialized crops), few of which are genuinely available to small, poor farmers.
In the conflict over the land, environmental conservation issues and the health of the land itself have been relegated to the back burner. The hot spot of conflict among the Landless Movement, large landowners, and government agencies in recent years has been an expanse of land in the southwest corner of São Paulo state called the Pontal do Paranapanema. Conservation International has also cited this region for its critical level of biodiversity. Until the 1940s, the Pontal was completely covered by Atlantic Forest, a tropical ecosystem rich in biodiversity that once spread continuously across the Atlantic coast of Brazil. After centuries of destructive land use, only 5 percent of the original 1.2 million square kilometers of the Atlantic Forest remains, an amount dispersed in fragmented parcels. In regions like the Pontal do Paranapanema, now one of the poorest regions in the state of São Paulo, the history of unrestricted land occupation and aggressive parceling out and clearing forests for ranching has led to even more drastic reduction of the forest, leaving only 1.85 percent of its original coverage. The largest portion remaining is the Morro do Diabo State Park that covers 37,000 hectares. Scattered fragments on farms and rural agrarian settlements total an additional 15,000 hectares. The park and the forest fragments are home to endangered populations of unique and critical flora and fauna, including the largest known populations of the black lion tamarin, one of the most endangered primates on the planet. Fauna and flora populations located in these forest remnants require "genetic flow" to survive. This flow happens effectively only through exchange of genetic material among isolated subpopulations. Though the region, as legally defined Atlantic Forest Territory, is subject to conservation mandates, present-day human pressures and lack of effective public policies have contributed to accelerated deterioration.
Currently, the Pontal is experiencing a second phase of territorial occupation led by groups of landless workers organized in the Landless Movement. Landless workers, attracted by large tracts of bequeathed yet essentially untitled large landholdings, arrived in the Pontal to occupy the land and seek titles under agrarian reform laws. In recent years this intense migration and sociopolitical pressure have led to heightened conflict, causing the Land Institute of São Paulo State (ITESP) to renegotiate many of the large landholdings for agrarian reform. As a result, the government has settled 4,500 families in the Pontal, occupying 38,000 hectares. These new titles are typically granted for the poorest quality land on the fringes of larger landholdings and therefore closer to forest fragments. More than 1,500 additional families are camped along highways and ranches awaiting land titles. As a consequence, new colonies of farming families are cultivating land along the extremities of forest fragments or otherwise "embracing" the last islands of biodiversity of the Atlantic Forest.
The Ribeirão Bonito and Água Sumida Rural Land Settlements, both abutting Morro do Diabo State Park, are good examples of the dynamic of land occupation in the region. Three hundred twenty families of small producers were settled, each family with a plot of 15 hectares. Half of the lot is normally used for subsistence agriculture (corn, cotton, manioc, rice, beans), and the other half for small-scale milk production. Because of poor soil conservation and inadequate land management, the crop cultivation and milk activities have low yields. Therefore, instead of being an answer to years of struggle for land, the settlements barely allow families to meet their basic subsistence needs.

The Strategy

Laury's approach to preserving the remaining forest fragments of the Atlantic Forest in the Pontal do Paranapanema region is to change the way farmers on settlements interact with and use the land surrounding them. The first step was to combat the lack of appreciation for the value of the forest and to begin protecting the existing fragments. Laury's initial challenge was to overcome the skepticism and mistrust farmers felt toward environmental conservation. He succeeded through years of frequent visits, talks, and interactions with the leaders of the newly settled communities. Once a level of trust and confidence was established, Laury and the team from the Institute of Ecological Studies (IP ) started implementing the "Green Hug" Project to link agroforestry systems, environmental education, and reforestation in partnership among the state, the Landless Movement, and IP .
The Green Hug Project consists of capacity-building courses in Morro do Diabo State Park for families recently placed on land-reform settlements surrounding the park. Using a participatory and practical methodology, course participants learn seed collection, sapling growth, and mixed-species cultivation in the park's nursery. To promote continuation and replication of the project, settlement leaders learn how to develop community nurseries. Since the project's implementation in 1998, 520 men and women from 205 families, plus technicians and local leaders, have participated in the courses on both the basics of implementing agroforestry systems on their land and the techniques of reforestation. As a result, 120 families are now involved, dedicating one of their 15 hectares to agroforestry systems to create a buffer, or "green hug," around forest fragments. In addition, 11 community nurseries have been installed by families in rural settlements throughout the Pontal region with the capacity to produce 10,000 seedlings a year. The nurseries serve as poles both for disseminating a culture of agroecology in the region and for stimulating the participation of other families on the settlements.
Once the Green Hug Project was underway, Laury sought new techniques for land cultivation so as to bring immediate economic benefits to the farmers actively preserving the forest while linking the remaining forest fragments. He turned to coffee, considered one of the most important agricultural activities for the rural population and for the economy of many Brazilian states. While standard coffee cultivation (using agro-toxins and monoculture) leads to environmental damage and instability for rural workers, the alternative organic shade-grown coffee, uses natural resources and appropriate technology effectively, generating income and maintaining biodiversity. Though Brazil is the world's largest producer of coffee, it delivers an insignificant amount of organic coffee that has a growing value in the world market. Laury established organic shade-grown coffee as the principal product and the fulcrum for promoting sustainable agriculture in rural settlements. Laury encouraged settlement farmers to begin cultivating forested islands where coffee can be planted under the cover of native tree species. These coffee islands improve landscapes and provide "stepping stones" for species migration and seed dispersion principally by birds, bats, and pollinating insects. By creating a series of islands, Laury is building ecological corridors that join patches of forest. The result is an increase in genetic flow among isolated populations of flora and fauna in the forest fragments. The protection and expansion of the forest also brings other benefits, including conservation of water basins and soil. The farmer also benefits from an increase in the longevity of cultivated land, lower costs of production due to decreased inputs, free production of fertilizer, diversified products with a differentiated market, and greater income.
Since January 1998 Laury has met and discussed the project with local communities. Forty-nine families have demonstrated interest in participating immediately and in implementing the coffee-production model on at least one hectare of their plots. Laury has already implemented a pilot program with five families on the Ribeirão Bonito settlement, with significant positive results. His plan is to expand this to 95 additional families, averaging one each. At the end of three years, 100 hectares will be producing shade-grown coffee. Laury has succeeded in obtaining a commitment from a leading cosmetics company's corporate foundation to fund this expansion.
To implement reforestation on land outside the settlements but part of large landholdings, Laury devised an unprecedented partnership between the landed and the landless that serves as testament to his ability to create win-win outcomes for opposing groups. On one side is a large landowner who, according to conservation laws for Atlantic Forest Territory, must maintain 20 percent of his land with original forest coverage. On the other side are members of the Landless Movement camped out and awaiting land titles, without means to feed their families. To bring them together, Laury has negotiated a peaceful occupation of a portion of the landholding by landless workers who will provide a reforesting "service" so that the land owner can avoid paying fines. In return, the farmers cultivate the land in the form of an agroforestry system that provides food for their families while reforesting with native species. After three years, the average time it takes for granting of land titles, the "landless" farmers leave the large landholding with a forest patch in their wake and take away a set of techniques for sustainable agriculture that will guarantee their success and permanence on their newly titled land.
Laury plans to use the current and future success of the project to negotiate with federal and state agencies responsible for agrarian reform (e.g., INCRA and ITESP). His hope is to create public policies to promote sustainable agroforestry systems for rural settlements located near or around remaining forest fragments of ecological importance. He plans to replicate this system in other areas of Brazil where agrarian reform is threatening the local biodiversity. To do so, he envisions building a Center for Agro-Ecology in the Pontal to bring in leaders from settlements throughout the country to train them to replicate his model. By spreading his idea, Laury aims to change the paradigm for preserving the Atlantic Forest by putting rural workers at the center of conserving the land.

The Person

A lover of the outdoors, Laury spent his childhood accompanying his father on hunting trips in the remaining patches of Atlantic Forest in São Paulo state. One trip would change Laury's life. They had shot a doe, and Laury was horrified to discover an unborn fawn in the animal's belly about to be born. He never hunted again and dedicated his life to conservation, fighting against humans' destructive practices to save the Atlantic Forest and the fauna in it.
Near the end of his university studies in forestry, Laury came to the Pontal do Paranapanema in the far southwest corner of São Paulo state to conduct studies on fauna migration and protection of endangered species in the Morro do Diabo State Park. There he collaborated on studies on the endangered black-faced lion tamarin with researcher Claudio Padua. Later, together with Ashoka Fellow Suzana Padua, he helped establish the IP , now a national reference in applied environmental studies and education.
Laury's move to the Pontal in the early 1990s coincided with a blaze of protests and conflict between the Landless Movement and landholders over titles and use of land. Caught in the crossfire was the largest remaining patch of Atlantic Forest in the region. Laury quickly realized that to save the Atlantic Forest, one had to "save" the people whose livelihoods depend on the land. Laury's experience with agroforestry systems helped him be creative in dealing with conservation questions. He came to appreciate how trees can be at once the source of environmental, spiritual, and economic value.
During more than 10 years living in the Morro do Diabo State Park, Laury has built great respect and confidence from both sides of the battle over land. He has used his thirst for knowledge as a transformative tool, introducing new forestry techniques and agricultural practices to benefit all sides. He serves as an instructor for the Smithsonian Institution, participates annually in field courses around the world, conducts courses and training in conservation biology in Brazil, and works face to face with the farming families in the Pontal do Paranapanema.