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Monoculture: an outdated model

Fritjof Capra v. René Descartes

The mechanical world view of things presupposes simple linear mathematical thinking. Primary school maths, year 3: taking the example of an area measuring 100 metres by 100 metres, which makes 10,000 square metres or one hectare, an agro-industrial farmer harvests around ten tonnes of fruit from the area of one hectare. From then on, this numerical value counts as the measure of all values for a business plan. You can use it to calculate your profit in advance, get easier access to EU subsidies, or even a bank loan. So, the investors’ expectations about the profitability of a monoculture fruit plantation are based on 10,000 kg of fruit per hectare per year, which they can turn into cash. A sellable avocado, for example, weighs an average of 250 grams. So much for the calculation, so much for the mathematical rule of three. Three variables remain. What price will the fruit achieve in the market? How and to where will it be transported, exported? And, last but not least, has the farmer calculated everything correctly or will the great unknown, Nature, give him cause for concern?

monocultura abacate

If the fruit is an orange, it will be worth no more than 25 cents per kilo. If we take lemons, the price is nearly double that. But people are greedy, and clever too. It could also be a few cents more, because, as is well known, a hundred cents make one euro. Perhaps the fruit that plays the main role in this story will even achieve a price of one euro fifty a kilo? We’re talking about the scarce green gold of vegans and vegetarians, the avocado. It is intended for export from Portugal and Spain to northern Europe. For every harvest, 76 hectares can earn the tidy sum of 1.08 million euros a year at a price of one euro fifty a kilo. A pre-tax profit in the third year of business of almost a hundred percent, assuming an investment of 1.3 millon euros at the outset. And, if you have a few friends who, for their part, sit on a commission that supports you with EU subsidies worth 600,000 euros, the story is almost perfect. An inspired business idea indeed. All that’s missing is the ground, the soil. No sooner said than done. We’re in Barão São João in the municipality of Lagos in the beautiful Algarve.

ECO123 leaps from year three maths, jumps a few years and lands in year twelve biology, chemistry and physics, adds in philosophy, psychology and moral education and dives into a circular thinking process. Because one’s view of things doesn’t stop at the spectacles on the tip of one’s nose. All school subjects taken together produce an overall picture that is as exact and as accurate as possible. This places several current scenarios at the heart of its cyclical observations.

Risks: what would happen to the harvest of a whole year if a plague of grasshoppers ate all the leaves of the avocado trees in the monoculture; what would happen if bad weather with storms, tornados, hail, heavy rainfall and floods destroyed the whole of a year’s harvest; and what if artificial irrigation had to be severely restricted owing to a long period of drought?


Three possible scenarios for a plantation of 21,000 avocado trees on a 76-hectare site. None of it is a problem, an agro-industrial farmer tells the authors of this story. It’s all well insured. He said they had found a good insurance company that would pay him for every harvest in the event of loss. Really? Are insurance companies in times of climate change still so credulous that they will insure major linear projects and monocultures? The Munich company Allianz has a very different view of things.

The authors of this story claim that the agro-farmer, let’s call him CITAGO, had – figuratively speaking – been reckoning without his host. Because how could he know today that the vegans and vegetarians in northern Europe, the markets in France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg are not going to ignore the heaps of agro-industrial fruit from humble Barão de São João when they go shopping at the supermarket because they have heard that such fruit are firstly harvested unripe so that they only ripen on the long journey to far-off northern Europe – and because they have also found out that secondly the whole crop was sprayed with the herbicide glyphosate throughout the growing process? Take care, there’s danger ahead!

With every journey, our world becomes a little smaller these days. Anyone flying to the Algarve not only leaves a sizeable ecological footprint, but also has their smartphone with them at all times, in their pocket or handbag, and in any case people will find out sooner or later via the internet. At a time of climate change in the year of our Lord 2018, monocultures in general, and this avocado monoculture in Barão de São João in particular, (the biggest plantation in the whole of Europe, as the weekly newspaper Barlavento claims to have learned from the plantation owners, the Gonçalves brothers), are becoming increasingly questionable both ecologically and economically, and therefore more risky as well. The subject of monoculture harbours so many potential landmines concealed in the business plan that they represent huge risks in the agro-farmers’ profitability calculations: a loan that CITAGO would like to take out to finance the necessary investments for a further 50-hectare plantation is perhaps hanging in the balance? So why don’t they invest in mixed cultivation? There are so many other wonderful fruits that grow in the Algarve, such as mangos, figs, apricots, bananas. If the authors were bankers by profession, rather than journalists, they would think thrice before providing loans for monocultures. The risk of defaulting would simply be too great for them. And, if they were in the insurance business, they would pass the avocado plantation straight over to the competition.



Back to the consumers. It is possible that they will not even want to buy the avocados produced by the farmer CITAGO when they learn that they are supporting the felling of historic forests with their purchase. They will only buy fruits that have a safety certificate: even if the avocado is supposed to have come from Malaga and its origin has been altered. These days, many people are buying locally, regionally or at least nationally, and preferably organic. One example is the strawberries from the monocultures in Lepe (Andalusia in Spain) that are harder and harder to sell in Europe. People who, in keeping with the times, clandestinely cut down hundreds of old cork oaks in order to plant avocado trees in their place, or fell hundred-year-old stone pines with a chainsaw, old gnarled carob trees, thousand-year-old olive trees, traditional almond and fig trees, people who bulldoze a biotope of flora and fauna that has been functioning well since time immemorial, must expect that they will one day have to face the consequences. It is much harder to sell your crop if it was not produced in a genuinely safe manner. Times are changing, and Youtube has contributed to this to some extent. What about the residue from chemical fertilisers, what about the poisonous glyphosate, what about the endlessly sterile, watery taste of the fruit that only ripens while being transported? We buy things with our eyes. Doesn’t the taste matter to us? Or our health? That was once the way it was. Today the customer is king. Times are changing.

Because the 76-hectare avocado monocultures are not yet enough to satisfy the owners of CITAGO, a few weeks ago they submitted an application to various licensing authorities to be able to plant avocado trees on a further 50 hectares. ECO123 asked the two agro-farmers and owners of CITAGO, the brothers Paulo (aged 33) and Luís Gonçalves (aged 47), if they wouldn’t like to present their view in a major interview. After thinking about it for two weeks, they explained that they would no longer be giving interviews on principle. A tour of the avocado plantation that had already been planned was cancelled. And so, Petra Pantera set off to Lagos to undertake a two-hour walk around the fence of the plantation. Read more about this topic in the next four pages.

The new realistic view about the elements water, earth, air and fire.

René Descartes (1596 – 1650) was a French philosopher and scientist. He saw Nature from the linear point of view, believing that, although it was God-given, human beings still had to master it. The Cartesian dualism (Principia Philosophiae) of mind and body was also referred to later on as reductionism (by Isaac Newton), according to which a system is defined by its individual components (…I consider the human body as a machine)… … it stands in complete contrast to the cyclical approach of the Austro-American physicist and contemporary philosopher Fritjof Capra (born 1939), who considers Nature and Culture to be following a holistic-systemic path. In 1982, in his book “Turning Point”, Capra describes this paradigm shift and the life of Nature as a biotope. Humans act among many others, depending on others and in a cyclical system, in which every living thing in the biotope plays its own unique part. Linear thought and action are contrasted with cyclical thought and action – monochrome monoculture versus the brightly coloured diversity of the networked biotope.

About the author

Uwe Heitkamp, 53 years old, started working after university in daily newspapers and from 1984 on in public tv broadcasting companies such as WDR (Collogne), NDR (Hamburg), SDR (Stuttgart/Baden-Baden) in the ARD (first programme), wrote several books and directed the cinema movie about the anti nuclear movement in Germany in 1986 (Wackersdorf). After emigration in 1990 he founded 1995 the trilingual weekly printed newspaper “Algarve123” and later the online edition www.algarve123.com. Heitkamp lives for 25 year in Monchique, Portugal. He loves mountain hiking and swimming in streams and lakes, writes and tells stories of success from people and their sustainable relationship between ecology and economy. His actual film “Revolutionary Roads” tells the 60 minute story of a long walk crossing Portugal. 10 rural people paint a picture of their lives in the hills of the serra and the hinterland. The film captures profound impressions of natural beauty and human life. Along which path is the future of Portugal to be found? (subscribe to ECO123 und watch the documentary in the Mediatec)

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