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In northeastern Brazil, José Artur Padilha is developing new methods of soil and water management, energy use and agricultural production that protect fragile semi-arid environments and yield significantly increased economic returns. He is testing his techniques on a farm in Pernambuco and applying them in demonstration projects in other parts of the region.

This profile below was prepared when José Artur de Barros Padilha was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 1994.


In northeastern Brazil, José Artur Padilha is developing new methods of soil and water management, energy use and agricultural production that protect fragile semi-arid environments and yield significantly increased economic returns. He is testing his techniques on a farm in Pernambuco and applying them in demonstration projects in other parts of the region.


Convinced that inappropriate resource use and farming methods in poor, drought-ridden areas in the northeast of Brazil are at the root of the region's, and indeed the nation's, most vexing social and developmental problems, José Artur Padilha is developing, testing and disseminating new technologies that optimize the use of scarce water resources, restore the productivity of depleted soils and produce substantial and sustained increases in agricultural output. As part of that endeavor, he is building and fine-tuning a new conceptual approach, or model, for resource use and agricultural production in semi-arid regions. He is testing and integrating the major elements of that approach on a sizable ranching and farming property in Pernambuco, where he has already achieved remarkable improvements in soil and water quality and farm output. As a consultant to the planning secretariat in the neighboring state of Paraiba, he is also demonstrating the techniques that he has developed in several pilot projects and encouraging their use in semi-arid areas throughout the northeast region.


Rapid environmental deterioration, declining agricultural output, deepening poverty, and consequent mass migrations of destitute people in desperate searches for better lives are common characteristics of semi-arid tropical regions around the globe. Agricultural scientists in various parts of the world are attempting to develop improved technologies to help curb those phenomena, but their endeavors have met with only limited success thus far.

The problem is particularly acute in the northeast of Brazil, where over-intensive land use and inappropriate water-management and agricultural methods (compounded by high rates of human fertility) have resulted in massive outflows of people to crowded and dismal urban slums in the region's coastal settings and in other parts of the country. The consequent suffering and social costs are as varied as they are enormous–unemployment, crime, street children, impossible burdens on public welfare systems and a pervasive sense of hopelessness, to cite but a few.

In José Artur's view, and that of other experts in the field, there is a particularly disappointing absence of systematic approaches to the revitalization of agricultural production and environmental recovery and protection in semi-arid regions. Simple and effective techniques for addressing many dimensions of those problems are known (some of them initially used many centuries ago), but comprehensive approaches that effectively integrate such techniques are notably absent.


The strategy that José Artur is using to develop and implement environmentally and economically sustainable resource use and production practices in the semi-arid tropics has three main elements: (1) continuing theoretical and conceptual work, (2) empirical testing and demonstration and (3) the diffusion of tested and highly promising approaches throughout the region.

The project's theoretical dimension is centered on a "Base Zero" conceptual framework that uses, as its starting point, fundamental, physical principles of energy, land, and water conservation and use. It thus places heavy emphasis on practices that minimize the use of resource-depleting energy sources and rely, instead, on abundantly available solar energy. It also stresses simple technologies that are particularly appropriate in areas where there is a surplus of unskilled labor and a scarcity of people with advanced technical skills.

José Artur is testing a wide array of resource management and agricultural production technologies consistent with the "Base Zero" approach on an 860-acre ranching and farming property (Fazenda Caroá) in the semi-arid interior zone of Pernambuco. Among the several "appropriate technologies" that he employs in that setting is the "ramped, horizontal Roman arch dam," which has proved to be particularly effective in catching scarce rainwater and restoring the water table in scorched, environmentally-degraded areas. (Such dams are also cheaper and simpler to build than more commonly used technologies for water storage, in part because no cement is required for their construction.) Over the past several years, through the imaginative use and integration of a number of such techniques, Fazenda Caroá has achieved steady gains both in land quality and in agricultural production (including cattle, animal feed and honey).

José Artur's current outreach and dissemination activities are focused on the state of Paraiba, to the north of Pernambuco, where he has worked for several years in various development initiatives. In a project that José Artur is helping to design and implement for the state planning secretariat, techniques that have proved successful at Fazenda Caroá are now being introduced in some 30 pilot projects in five townships throughout the state. In the longer term, José Artur plans to extend his work to other states in the northeast of Brazil and to encourage the use of the techniques that he is developing in overseas settings as well.


Now in his mid-fifties, José Artur was born and raised in a small community in the semi-arid interior of Pernambuco. It was there that he perceived, at an early age, the twin problems of environmental deterioration and declining agricultural production, which claim his full energies and attention in the project in which he is now engaged.

In 1966, José Artur completed a degree in mechanical engineering at the Federal University of Pernambuco in Recife. Over the ensuing decades, as a state government employee, a consulting engineer and a manager of private businesses, he participated in the design and construction of more than 300 technical and industrial installations.

During that same period, however, he retained his ties with his father's ranch (Fazenda Caroá) in Pernambuco, where, as early as 1968, he began experimenting with techniques for conserving scarce water resources and restoring badly deteriorated soils. In recent years, he has also supervised a development initiative in the state of Paraiba, in which he has employed some of those same techniques in pilot communities.

In the early 1990s, José Artur took over the management of Fazenda Caroá, where he is developing an expanded experimentation and demonstration initiative. In recent years he has also authored several papers and monographs on the "Base Zero" approach, energy issues and associated topics and served as a technical consultant to several state governments and to the Brazilian Senate.