COMDEKS Project: Jequitinhonha Valley, Brazil



  • United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); Ministry of the Environment, Japan; Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity; United Nations University (UNU)


  • 06/03/2017

  • REGION :

  • South America


  • Brazil (Minas Gerais State)


  • The Community Development and Knowledge Management for the Satoyama Initiative Programme (COMDEKS) was launched in 2011 to support local community activities that maintain and rebuild target production landscapes and seascapes, and to collect and disseminate knowledge and experiences from successful on-the-ground actions so that, if feasible, they can be adapted by other communities throughout the world to their specific conditions. The programme provides small-scale finance to local community organizations in developing countries to support sound biodiversity and ecosystem management as well as to develop or strengthen sustainable livelihood activities planned and executed by community members themselves. The COMDEKS target landscape in Brazil is in the upper Jequitinhonha Valley of northern Minas Gerais state in the southeast of the country.


  • Water, Agriculture, Market access, Food security, Conservation


  • United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)

  • LINK:


Summary Sheet

The summary sheet for this case study is available here.

The Landscape


The landscape for COMDEKS in Brazil is in the upper Jequitinhonha Valley of northern Minas Gerais state in the southeast of the country. The target landscape is a semi-arid region covering roughly 40,000 ha that encompasses 14 rural communities in the municipalities of Veredinha and Turmalina. Surrounded by an 800-meter plateau and intersected by rolling hills running through the center, the topography of the valley creates a stunning landscape. However, due to inappropriate land management practices and impacts from surrounding large-scale eucalyptus plantations, the region is facing increasing pressure through depletion of water resources, soil degradation, and loss of regional biodiversity. The resulting water scarcity and loss of agricultural productivity have exacerbated poverty in the region. Socioeconomic conditions in the local communities are deteriorating, characterized by poor infrastructure and basic services as well as rural exodus.

Biological Resources and Land Use

The target landscape falls within the Cerrado biome, the vast tropical savanna typified by wooded grasslands and gallery forests. A spatial analysis of the target landscape shows that it can be broken into two main geographic zones that dictate overall land use: the highlands, with altitudes ranging from 800 to 900 m, where the eucalyptus plantations are concentrated, and the central area, with hills between 600 and 800 m in elevation, where most of the communities are located. Within this larger landscape, four specific land uses predominate:

  • Small-scale agriculture takes place on 11.0 percent of the land area—mostly using natural and planted pastures;
  • Eucalyptus monoculture takes place on 3.7 percent of the land area;
  • Degraded areas, consisting of exposed and eroded soils, account for 27.7 percent of the land area; and
  • Remnant and/or recovering vegetation covers 50 percent of the land area, comprised of steep plateau edges, hillsides, gullies, gallery forests and disturbed areas that are in the process of recovering, but are still considered degraded vegetation.

Other land uses account for the remaining 7.8 percent of the land area.

Socioeconomic Context

Although forestry, and particularly eucalyptus production, plays a significant role in the local economy, poverty is still endemic in the region. The community faces pressure from water scarcity, prolonged droughts, and low agricultural productivity. These factors, coupled with the low level of public and private investments, poor infrastructure and basic services, contribute to a high poverty level and a significant rural exodus over the last decade.

The municipality of Veredinha, where most of the communities in the landscape reside, typifies conditions within the landscape. From 2000 to 2010, the municipality’s rural population dropped by 16 percent. During this time, the municipality’s Human Development Index (HDI) showed some improvement in education, but by comparison to the HDI of Minas Gerais state as a whole, Veredinha is still well below average, especially in terms of family income.

Health services are underdeveloped, and patients in serious condition or requiring hospitalization need to be transferred to neighboring municipalities. The water supply and sanitation services are also poor and do not cover rural communities. In addition, rural communities are only accessible through hilly dirt roads, which become increasingly difficult to traverse through the rainy season. As a result, the communities remain largely isolated.

Within the municipality of Veredinha and surrounding areas, several civil society organizations are working to improve the local quality of life and train smallholders. Of the 14 communities in the COMDEKS Landscape, four have Community Associations—officially recognized local civil society groups. The most active NGO regionally is the Centre for Alternative Agriculture Vicente Nica (CAV), whose goal is to create livelihood alternatives that would enable families to remain in the region in order to reduce the seasonal migration of rural workers. The CAV is the key local partner supporting COMDEKS activities in the region, and the target landscape was determined in consultation with its team in consideration of their field experience managing umbrella projects in the region.

Confirming landscape boundaries, COMDEKS Brazil

Key Environmental and Social Challenges

The principal environmental and social vulnerabilities in the target landscape center around water availability, poor land management, and the cultural and economic impoverishment of the area. These challenges include:

  • Poor access to water in sufficient quantity and quality to meet the domestic and productive needs of the communities. Much of this lack of access is due to extensive production of eucalyptus in the headwaters of springs and inadequate livestock management, as well as climatic factors. Water scarcity is undoubtedly the greatest vulnerability in the landscape, undermining food security and fueling rural exodus in the region. In some communities where water scarcity is particularly acute, farmers have moved to town and only go to their farms on weekends. Another more recent development is the subdivision of farms for building weekend houses or condominiums.
  • Soil degradation due to inappropriate land management techniques, particularly cattle grazing, as the stocking rate often exceeds the carrying capacity of pastures, and renovation of pastures is not performed properly. This degradation is also due historically to the removal of vegetation for charcoal, although this activity has declined substantially over the past few years.
  • Eucalyptus monocultures. Installed in the 1970s in high plateau areas and extending to the edges of the mesas, plantations have caused serious environmental and socioeconomic impacts in the region, reducing water availability and undermining the livelihoods of family farmers. Particularly in locations where the eucalyptus occupies the plateau edges, family farmers and their cattle were left to pursue their activities in the gullies and slopes, leading to soil erosion and a decrease in streams flows. Grazing in low areas increased trampling around springs, and felling of trees for firewood and charcoal contributed to the drying up of water sources.
  • The exodus of rural youth due to lack of income and leisure opportunities. From the perspective of the young people consulted for the baseline assessment, water scarcity and soil degradation also figure prominently as factors in the youth exodus.
  • Loss of biodiversity due to suppression of native vegetation for Eucalyptus monocultures, logging for charcoal, and intensification of livestock and agricultural activities.
  • Widespread use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. According to observations from farmers, this practice is increasing the amount of certain pests that previously did not occur in the region and contaminating water sources.
  • Low degree of social organization among farmers, since their associations generally lack the technical, administrative and financial capacity to defend the interests and rights of farmers vis-à-vis public agencies and policymakers.
  • Cultural degradation due to a lack of interest among young people in participating in local activities such as traditional festivals, dances and regional cuisine. The community of Monte Alegre is the only one in the landscape noted for producing local handicrafts, mostly ceramics with flower designs using natural materials extracted in the region. Other communities have embroiderers, whose products are sold informally at fairs and in the towns Veredinha and Turmalina.

COMDEKS Activities, Achievements, and Impacts

Community Consultation and Baseline Assessment

In order to assess the situation in the target landscape, three Brazilian NGOs (Instituto Salvia (ISSA), Instituto Sociedade, População e Natureza (ISPN, the national host institution of the Small Grants Programme), and Centro de Agricultura Alternativa Vicente Nica (CAV)) designed a baseline assessment comprised of four components:

  • A desk study and analysis of documents and studies on the region, including previous project appraisals.
  • A compilation of statistical and spatial data on socioeconomic and environmental factors at the municipal level, including the generation of maps (hydrology, soils, topography and land-use classification) at the landscape level. The land use map was prepared through analysis of satellite images. These maps were validated by the community during the participatory workshop.
  • A field survey through 14 communities that focused on biophysical aspects: soil conservation, vegetation, water resources and land use patterns. These field observations were also aimed at verifying and fine-tuning the spatial analysis (land use classification) on the ground.
  • A two-day participatory workshop, where 1-3 representatives from each of the 14 communities within the landscape, as well as other stakeholders, scored the set of landscape resilience indicators through facilitated focus group discussions. The participants were evenly divided between men and women, and some younger people participated as well.

Participatory consultation, COMDEKS Brazil

The first three components of the baseline assessment were carried out by the NGO ISSA, with the collaboration of ISPN and CAV. The fourth component—the two-day workshop—comprised the primary community consultation of the assessment. In preparation for this workshop, the landscape resilience indicators developed through the Satoyama Initiative were adapted by ISSA to tailor them to the cultural and biophysical reality of this landscape. The indicator language and concepts were rendered in language that was simpler and more accessible to the key stakeholders, mainly smallholder farmers, many of whom have low schooling levels. Thus, basic concepts in the Satoyama approach such as “multi-functionality,” “heterogeneity,” and “landscape components,” as well as the scoring criteria, were translated to terminology and concepts that could be easily understood by farmers. Similarly, the criteria for scoring these indicators were also adapted.

“The baseline assessment and the inception workshop promoted an integration among the communities, which led to a coordinated planning of the activities of all grants. The expectation is this approach will be incorporated in the communities’ actions even after the end of the project.”

–baseline assessment participant

Moreover, some indicators that were not deemed relevant in this context were discarded and, at the same time, three new indicators were added to reflect the particular vulnerabilities of this landscape. These were: a) access to water; b) quality of soils/adoption of agroecological production systems; and c) amount of social/political resources.

The discussion on the indicators during the workshop helped the community representatives think about the landscape from a different perspective. The scoring exercise and methodology helped them to develop a more systemic and complex vision of the landscape, as well as specific strategies and solutions to address the main vulnerabilities identified for each indicator. These laid the foundation for designing the proposals for local community-based projects to be funded by COMDEKS. It was a significant moment when the workshop participants realized they had their own answers to the challenges they are facing within the landscape.

Landscape Strategy

Using the landscape assessment as a basis, the three NGOs developed the COMDEKS Landscape Strategy for Brazil, which describes and analyzes the landscape data and findings from the baseline assessment, describes expected landscape outcomes and indicators that communities have agreed to jointly pursue, and lists potential community-based activities to achieve these outcomes. The participants set priorities for interventions based on key socio-environmental vulnerabilities, including water scarcity, soil degradation, climate conditions and changes, low agricultural productivity, rural exodus, poor infrastructure (mainly roads) and weak social/political assets. Designed initially in the workshop focus groups as strategies for overcoming these vulnerabilities, the priorities were then joined, complemented and agreed on collectively by the entire workshop group as a whole.

Table B-1 lists the four Landscape Outcomes around which the strategy is built, as well as the performance indicators that will be used to measure these outcomes.

Table B-1. Landscape Outcomes and Indicators from the Brazil Landscape Strategy

Landscape Outcomes Key Performance Indicators
Outcome 1:

Increase in the quantity and quality of water available to farmers in the landscape as a whole through the adoption of integrated water resource management systems.

·         Flow and quality of water in springs and storage systems (small-scale reservoirs and cisterns).

·          Capacity to cope with stresses and shocks related to changes in the environment and climate.

·          Number of families with access to water.
Outcome 2:

Adoption of sustainable farming and land management techniques that enable improvements in soils, recovery of degraded areas, and conservation of native vegetation connecting farming systems.

·         Number of farmers adopting sustainable production systems on their property.

·         Area (ha or % of property) managed through sustainable production systems.


Outcome 3:

Improved livelihoods through increased income, food security and market access, thus increasing the number of young people staying in rural areas.

·         Number of farmers selling their products in local markets.

·         Increase in household income as a result of supported activities.

·         Availability and variety of food in communities (food security).

·         Extent of market access.
Outcome 4:

Strengthening of community organizations and other collective forums such as committees and councils for participatory natural resource management through agreements (formal and informal) on land use at the community and landscape level.

·         Existence of natural resource management agreements (formal or informal).


Protecting water resources, COMDEKS Brazil

Community-Led Landscape Projects

To guide the selection of local projects, the Landscape Strategy for the Jequitinhonha Valley suggests a number of activities that together would contribute to the Strategy’s specified Resilience Outcomes:

Outcome 1: Increasing water quantity and quality:

  • Construction and maintenance of small-scale reservoirs, containment basins, swales, cisterns, and spring protection;
  • Implementation of on-site wastewater treatment and re-use systems;
  • Reforestation around springs and water courses;
  • Monitoring and evaluation of quantity and quality of water available to farmers.

Outcome 2: Adopting sustainable farming and land management techniques:

  • Implementation of demonstration plots with agroecological and agroforestry farming systems;
  • Support for extraction, use and processing of products derived from the Cerrado’s biodiversity;
  • Setting up bee-keeping (honey and native/stingless bees);
  • Setting up demonstration plots with ecological/sustainable cattle grazing practices;
  • Monitoring and technical support for demonstration plots (field visits);
  • Farmer-to-farmer exchanges of experience and visits;
  • Collective/community labor in planting and land management practices (mutirões).

Outcome 3: Improving livelihoods through increased income, food security, and market access:

  • Support for marketing of products mentioned in Outcomes 1 and 2, including organization of production, labeling, brand development, business plans, market studies;
  • Construction, maintenance and/or improvement of small-scale agro-industrial processing facilities using Cerrado resources and other products such as tropical fruits from home gardens;
  • Production and cultural activities geared towards youth and other members of the community, including collective labor, farming activities, and festivals.

Outcome 4: Strengthening community organizations and other collective forums

  • Training courses and capacity-building workshops in administrative and financial management, project cycle management, aimed at local leaders and technicians working with associations;
  • Meetings and workshops of groups, community organizations and councils aimed at establishing land use and participatory natural resource management agreements;
  • Meetings with policymakers and other government authorities.

Using this guidance, Brazil has recently selected seven community-led landscape projects as its initial COMDEKS project portfolio (see Table B-2). Since these are still in the earliest stage of implementation, they do not yet have local project results or impacts to report.

Table B-2. COMDEKS Community-Led Projects in the Jequitinhonha Valley, Brazil

Project        Grantee (NGO/Civic Association) Contribution to Landscape Resilience Outcomes Description
Social and Environmental Interventions in Communities Along the Upper Jequitinhonha Valley: Experiences in Caquente and Gentio Communities Caquente Association


Outcomes 1, 3 Improve water management and address soil degradation through construction of small dams, water harvesting systems, agricultural terraces, and fences around springs. Increase farm income through construction of a cassava processing unit and capacity-building activities. Target communities: Caquente and Gentio.
Communities and Their Environment: Developing Sustainability Community Development Association for Family Education and Agriculture of Veredinha


Outcomes 2, 4 Promote sustainable farm production and watershed protection through better soil and cattle management, adoption of agroecology methods, recovery of degraded areas and better water resources management. Build institutional capacity through courses in running associations and cooperatives, and through creation of a Community Association in Boiada. Target communities: Gameleira and Boiada.
Water Recovery of Degraded Areas: Changing the Scenario United Farmers of Pindaíba Association


Outcomes 1, 2, 3, 4 Institute sustainable water and soil management practices though construction of small dams, terraces, and water containment systems, as well as fencing around springs to prevent cattle damage, and recovery of degraded lands. Install piping system for supplying water to Pindaíba. Recover cultural practices in the community by promoting traditional festivals. Target communities: Pindaíba and Córrego do Ouro.
Sustainable Management of Water and Vegetation: Changing the Landscape Association of Community Development in Pontezinha


Outcomes 1,2, 4 Reduce grazing damage and promote natural regeneration of vegetation around springs through cattle fencing. Construct dams and water harvesting systems to increase water supplies. Restore riparian forest around the Lamba stream. Build capacity to carry out and monitor these activities. Target communities: Pontezinha and Ribeirão das Posses.
Sustainable Landscape: Strengthening Collective Action, Knowledge, and Biodiversity Sisterhood Association Senhora de Santana


Outcomes 1, 2, 3 Increase water availability by constructing dams and water harvesting systems, fencing spring areas, and capacity building for better cattle and soil management. Increase income from local fruit production through training in fruit processing and labeling, promoting the planting of fruit trees in yards, construction of a fruit processing kitchen, and providing technical assistance. Target communities: Monte Alegre and Macaubas.
Managing the Field: Guaranteeing Land, Water and Food Association for Family Farmers of Veredinha (AFAVE)


Outcomes 1, 2 Promote recovery of degraded areas through construction of water harvesting systems, terraces, and fences around spring areas. Build capacity in agroecology and provide technical assistance to implement sustainable farming practices such as the use of biofertilizers, natural pesticides, biological control, and mixed crop cultivation. Target communities: Grota do Porto and Porto Velho.
Conservation and Management of Natural Resources: Opportunity for Sustainable Production Association for the Community Development of Ribeirão Veredinha (ADCRV)


Outcomes 1, 2, 3, 4 Improve water availability through fencing and monitoring of water sources, and construction of water harvesting systems, underground dams, and terraces. Build capacity for agroecology and good water management. Encourage enrichment of yards with fruit trees. Target communities: Ribeirao Veredinha and Grota do Engenho.

Lessons Learned From the Baseline Assessment

  • The analysis of resilience indicators must be coupled with other assessment methodologies (on-site visits, analysis of secondary data, semi-structured interviews and focus groups) as well as participatory planning tools such as those used during the baseline assessment workshop. Adopting these other methods in addition to the indicators will enable assessing the landscape reality in a more thorough and comprehensive fashion and thus allow for planning actions that will effectively empower communities to overcome the most important socio-environmental vulnerabilities at the landscape level.
  • Adapting the resilience indicators used and the scoring methodology so that it was better suited to the Jequitinhonha Valley situation was critical to the success of the community consultation workshop. It allowed the workshop participants to gain a deeper understanding of the concepts underlying the indicators and produced results more pertinent to the actual situation on the ground. Furthermore, the use of focus groups to break up the larger group enabled facilitators to draw out qualitative data considered just as important as the quantitative data given by the resilience indicators, such as participants’ explanations about the factors driving certain changes – both positive and negative – in the indicators over time, as well peculiarities of certain communities within the landscape. This exercise in focus groups was also essential to provide inputs for the next step in the workshop methodology: planning actions and setting priorities.
  • It also proved useful to have a local NGO partner to coordinate and catalyze the assessment process and ensure continuity over time. In this case, the fact that CAV already knew the challenges, had experience with the local stakeholders, etc., really helped speed up the process of familiarizing the communities with the landscape approach of the COMDEKS Project and preparing them for the community consultation workshop.
  • The support of professional facilitators in the workshop was key to ensuring that the four focus groups achieved the expected results through rich and thorough discussions about each topic raised by the indicators. Thus, the interventions proposed for the landscape were directly linked to the vulnerabilities identified in the group discussions on indicators and their root causes. Indeed, the workshop facilitators concluded that the quantitative indicators alone – though valuable as an assessment tool – would not have sufficed to plan actions that effectively addressed these underlying causes so as to ultimately increase the socio-ecological resilience in the landscape. Moreover, the interactions between representatives of different communities in these focus groups provided a safe and enabling environment for sharing information and ideas about problems common to all, while also fostering discussions about practical solutions for overcoming vulnerabilities already adopted by some members of the communities.

Stakeholder workshop, COMDEKS Brazil

Building a Landscape Community

Improving watershed management and increasing water supplies is a central theme linking all the projects in the target landscape and providing the context for the outcomes of increased food security, higher agricultural incomes, and empowered community organizations. This commonality also forms a strong basis for building a landscape community of organizations and individuals that sees itself as part of an area-wide effort to make water supplies more adequate, and land uses more sustainable and profitable for local residents. The first steps in building an acceptance of the landscape perspective happened in the baseline assessment workshop. At the end of the workshop, most of the participants had recognized that they themselves had caused soil degradation by overgrazing and deforestation for charcoal. For the first time, they also saw themselves as part of a wider landscape with multiple interconnections that need to be preserved for the communities to be able to thrive. With local community-led activities just beginning, there has as yet been little time to build a landscape-wide network to capitalize on this realization. However, SGP’s National Steering Committee is now considering a proposal for an umbrella project that would enable engagement and exchange among communities, knowledge management and indicator measurement, as well as administrative coordination of projects.