Leontino Balbo: Listening to Nature Sustainablizes Big Agriculture [Transcript]

Walter Link in dialogue with Leontino Balbo

WATCH full episode HERE – Leontino Balbo: Listening to Nature Sustainablizes Big Agriculture



[00:01:28.01] ‘Cause I love telling this story. I love the fact that we are producing cane and have big cats in these cane fields. The big puma three times were watched in these cane fields.


I took 15 years to learn how to replicate a natural production model into a commercial production model.




Today I invite you into a surprising dialog with Leontino Balbo. He is a leader of Nativa in Brazil, the world’s largest biological sugar cane operation. I first met Leontino when we organized a two-year global leadership program for top executives of Triodos, Europe’s leading sustainability bank. We all left deeply inspired. In a time when the UN warns that 30% of the world’s agricultural surface is so degradated that it might become unusable for future generations.


Nativa’s groundbreaking agricultural method demonstrates how we can combine commercially successful mass production with the revitalization of soil and water, biodiversity and human community. At the core of Leontino’s incredible creative capacity is his deep connection with nature and spirituality. As a result, he learned how to translate life’s fundamental principles into a largescale production system that could hold an important key to solving both hunger and sustainability.


After succeeding on 50,000 hectares in Brazil, Leontino is now following the call of leaders from around the world to make his method more broadly available. Join us to discover what could be at the heart of saving the earth.



[00:03:29.26] The properties of my family together totalize around 20,000 hectares. And we buy sugar cane from 300 growers which together own another 30,000 hectares. So its a 50,000 hectare operation. So we hold 35% of the organic world sugar market. We are talking about around 70,000 ton of organic sugar but we foresee we are going to double this volume within four-five years.


Because now big companies, food, big food industries are joining the organic concept and principles and we started now selling to Mars, Starbucks, Pepsico and lots of big companies. We tried to make the farm a way of life instead of a way of production. And the result is more production besides getting the life.





Nativa is a very interesting combination. On the one hand its a agricultural company that has advanced very far in the direction of sustainability, both in terms of the environment, also in terms of the social conditions, but it is also extremely productive, more productive than commercial fields, and very profitable. So it really shows that you can have a new kind of business model where you can benefit from all different directions and benefit a lot of different stakeholders. What are the fundamental principles and what’s the essence of this approach, and how does it also come in a time where there is much more need and interest in the world?



So after 27 years of practicing conventional, organic and bio-dynamic agriculture, I could realize that we could advance more. So I kept doing tests which a new agriculture production method, I have called ecosystem revitalization agriculture.


So in this new kind of agriculture, we will revitalize the agriculture ecosystem as well as the surrounding natural ecosystem in the farm, while we produce food and beef or chicken all in the same area. You can do, you can make compatible environmental issues with production issues. So it has been tested in 20,000 hectares in the last ten years, and the result is we have gotten 15% more yield per hectare than in conventional areas.


The principles behind this agricultural management is to activate the alive forces which are present in the ecosystem and how we do that? So I learned it observing in the forest, how the ants, how the termites, how the earthworms used to act along the different the stages of the year. Winter, summer and so on. And some arising, I took 15 years to learn how to replicate a natural production model into a commercial production model.


So it considers replacing chemical fertilizers by grinded rock, almost for free. The results are better with grinded rock. Replacing agro-chemicals against insects by biological control or taking the cane to a situation where the cane tissues can’t be digested by plagues. So, many many steps many many challenges were overcome until we could put together the whole production system from planting until harvesting.


It’s ready to be applied in the cane in Brasil, so we can have at the same cost of conventional, we can have 15% more yield. Or we can have the same yield they have at 15% less cost. You know? Besides having far very important environmental services we provide to the community, increasing the biodiversity of vertebrates and microorganism, decreasing the carbon emissions, recovering sweetwater in the soil and streams and recovering the soil fertility.


So this is more or less what this new production model can offer to the society because the soil is considered one of the most important resources regarding sustainability which we have, we must preserve in order to guarantee the survival of the next generations.




And this success has not only benefited you as your company, but it has also turned on a lot of your conventional agricultural neighbors to also change their production methods so that they can sell under the Nativa label. So you are also spreading in a very concrete way the message not only as an idea but changing the action of land, one and a half times more than your own land.




Yeah, one of the concepts I have, have tried to sell to our board nowadays is we don’t need a mule, we don’t need a land. We have this knowledge, you know? We have to be more businessmen now, we have to use this knowledge so its just a matter to approach some neighbors, ok, let me do this in your company, you know and then we are going to change your company profile into a much more sustainable company, we are going to improve your image. We are going to improve your natural resources like soil, water and so on… And we can sell together the product and so on. Lots of neighbors are angry on doing that.


Because they want to be in the commodity world any more. Even big big sugar groups. They are trapped by the corporations who come here selling the fertilizer and seed, and then they go on the other side to buy the sugar. You know? So now even big sugar corporations, they are trapped by one company, or three or four companies. So nobody, nobody wants to sell price any more, everybody wants to sell value. And we can help them to do that.




My understanding is that you also are very well received now in the world internationally. You sell your products to some of the largest corporations in the world and want to be associated with this value, this ecological and humane and commercial value. You work with Kofi Annan and other people that want to change the way the world does agriculture. So tell us a little bit more, how you’re being received and what is it like to enter into that world with this kind of conviction?




Yes, the people get usually, people get amazed after getting to know about the project because its an agriculture production model which combines environmental and wildlife preservation with the need of production. So its amazing. All people gets amazed of that. And they ask, when are you going to replicate that? So, when are you going to replicate that? Usually I respond that I’m preparing for that. But, there is a lot of speculation, you know? And sometimes, when I’m being asked that from industry minister here in Brazil, I realized he was concerned about the machinery industry and the chemical industry.


So I have to take a lot of care, you know, when walking in these paths. You know? Really to identify who is supporting, able to support this thing, in spite of being good. There is a lot of financial interests involved.


A lot of economic interests involved. Billions of dollars of the agricultural chemical defensive industry. Billions of dollars in the machinery industry, you know? So, and then I think that I should start in the practice converting a neighbor mill or another mill and showing them the benefits that… and that if we’re doing a transition I would say doing certain, six, seven, eight years, you know?


All these other companies would have time to adapt their products to serve this business. Because I also have proposals to all those companies who depend on this strict conventional model. On what role they can play in this new production system. The FAO from the United Nations just launched a program to call attention of the world that one third of the agricultural land in the world is highly degradated and its going to become useless within a couple of years. Totally useless.


So the agricultural land is weak, unprotected. Degradated. Vulnerable. Eroded. Poisoned. With no guardians. So the production model I am proposing its going to cover all these aspects of the degradation, you know. We have to keep the soil as one of the most important resources for the survival of the next generation.


That’s why I told you that I’m a very, I have a very daring objective, a very hard objective but I won’t deviate one millimeter from that. That’s why I have to put my ego aside, financial interests aside, and really to focus direction and energy, focus and energy – just going ahead. Because now that our other actors, entrepreneurs companies, growers, people who are asking for that, the United Nations, Embrapa, the Brazilian, some congressman in Brazilia. They are asking for something for that.

They are launching the movement toward agro-ecological production systems. So it seems that everything converges to a moment when the launch or the proposal of these new production model will be very very favorable.




One day I had to make a choice. Years ago when after we started harvesting green cane we had to face the chemicals, you know? All the studies, all the PhDs at the universities they used to say ok we can’t be independent from chemicals. And I had to hear other voices. So I had, I decided to abandon the analytical science and to adopt the phenomenology, the learning from practical observation, you know? Which is exactly what Goethe used to preach, the father of Naturalism. Goethe.


And one day I decided not to pay attention too much to those who use too much the word no. And I decided to rely on an inner voice which we always hear somebody else say, everything is possible. Like love can move mountains, and this kind of things, and I usually use 20-25% of my time dedicated to my thoughts,


[00:18:24.15] I usually come to the field, I go to the forest, I watch the water, because the nature has a very strong voice, but if you don’t disattach from the spreadsheets, from the newspaper from the gossips, from the forecast, the terrible forecasts – economic forecast, the dollar, the euro – disattach yourself from yourself. Then you’re going to start hearing your inner voice telling you exactly what to do. And you know what? Economic and financial results become a consequence, this project doesn’t stop bringing economical results.


[00:19:08.28] The ibida of this operation is 60-70% higher than conventional and we never thought about the ibida. Its a consequence, a good consequence. So if you really do something good for the world, the results will come.






Your company which has a long tradition because already it was started by your grandfather and the whole family is working in it, started with very traditional, conventional sugar cane cultivation and then you personally at some point wanted to discover something else.


What was that story of the discovery and how did you get from there to finally becoming one of the world’s largest organic sugar producer covering one third of the world market in organic sugar. How did you start from that first inspiration and got to that?




My grandfather, my father and my uncles who used to direct the business, they used to be differentiated already so they started some initiatives regarding environmental protection, like recycling industrial waste, organic products, they were pioneers of that. So they were very supportive on my initiatives too, especially when I started the tests with the green cane harvester. But I knew that in a certain point, a cousin who is the economist, the other one who is the industrial processor, they wouldn’t you know, demand more proofs or performance, so I was forced to become you know, a hidden economist too.


[00:21:12.19] So I developed a way of putting targets to all specific problems with change. For instance, I created a table showing how many tons of green cane per hour or per day machine should harvest in order to be more saving than the manual cut. So while going after environmental gains, I was always providing my, the economist here the financial area, economic benefits.


[00:21:56.09] And so we went on doing this switch, like ok, you let me to harvest green cane, and I’m going to deliver you operational benefit. Ok, yeah, we are going to stop with herbicides, and I will use more labor to weed, but remember I will give you that money from the harvester, now you give me it back. In the way that we did the transition with no financial stress. So, and then after then realized that I could make that kind of you know, magic with the operational between operational and economics, they said, you go ahead. And then finally I told them, the big prize is to come. Because the transition, we didn’t spend in the transition, but now we are going to sell certified products and then we will have a premium, and we will start the first year selling organic sugar for 60% premium. Price over conventional – so everything I used to suggest, they said you go ahead.




The proof of your commercial success was also that it was also more profitable; I understand now you sell for double the price of conventional sugar, because for every additional certification that you have created you were also able to increase the price. And of course you also increase the social and environmental benefit. So before that even started, you said that you were listening in a way and researching nature in a very observant way. Its like you didn’t read a book about it, you actually went into the forest and you observed and then you tried out things and you went through lots of trial and error to discover this.

So tell us a little bit about the story of your discovery, how did you discover this, how did you apply it, and how did you more and more suceed in implementing it successfully?




After improving the harvesters at a grade or a stage they could real operate harvesting green cane, then you know after overcoming one problem the other problem would come. But I usually used to say that with each problem, it comes the seed of the opportunity.


So I just finished developing the machine, then we have the trash and the trash attracted 15 different new potential plagues to the cane that time. And I started thinking, if I try to overcome this problems, or these potential problems using the knowledge of the analytic science, I will die here. Not having resolved that. So I went to the forest for days and then digged the soil, observed the ants move, the termites, the bugs. The birds. And said, ‘Yes, we have everything we have here, we can have there.’ We already have the layer of trash, we have cane shading before, there’s the trash later, and so on and I have to transfer principles, I have to switch turn the principles I am observing here into agriculture practices.


And then I started trying one here, another one there, and I went composing the agriculture stewardship like a puzzle. First it was a 50 piece puzzle, as I would discover more it would become a 200 piece puzzle, nowadays its a 2000 piece puzzle. Because I’m know a lot about, and I can move one small piece and provoking a big effect.





And all of this I understand started already very young. You started to have as a boy a very close relationship to nature where you would disappear for hours, scaring your mother and tell us about this relationship with nature, as it started and how it developed.




I was born in a sugar mill, in fact there was a sugar mill and lots and lots of farms around. And I used to be a very lonely boy. And I used to go to the school in the morning and after back from the school, I used to take my bike a fishing rod, and I used to go everyday to a different place. So I used to be amongst snakes and alligators and so on, it was my habitat. There was a very dirty, in terms of plants, very natural place I used to go, a lake I used to go fish and I remember that the lake was swallow.







Not swallow… shallow. Was shallow. And I had to enter inside the lake, very inside the lake in order to have the water covering my legs. In order to get the big fish, the best fishes, you know? And so I remember that I used to stay with one hand in the fishing rod and in the other hand I had a rock.


To throw at the big alligator because it was always approaching me. So and for me it was like it was the Mowgli, Mowgli there – one eye on the fishing rod and teh other eye in the alligator. And it was for me, totally natural. So I was in the middle of those natural elements. They were familiar to me. You know, once my father and mother, they brought a son of a couple friends of their’s to spend some days with me. So after half day, they have to bring the guy because I went straight to a small stream where I used to get snakes by hand and I was trying to get a fish which usually goes in a hole in the stream. And usually I used to get a snake, I don’t like this, and I want that kind of fish and that fish used to have teeth like this, you know? And so it was perfectly normal to me. And I think that since I was born I was surrounded by this natural element, by these living forces of the earth. And I feel very very well among these forces.


Playing, in the middle of these forces. Being part of these forces, you know. Because you just can’t develop an agro-ecological production model if you stay in the farm. If the farm feel yourself as part of it. You have to be part of the alive organisms which act in a farm.




You use a term of ecological empathy. So some kind of way of being in touch with nature where you experience and feel it directly and where you get information. Tell us about this process and how that kind of feeds you again, to understand all the way to then translate it into this big agricultural enterprise.




When I was 13-14 years old, I started meditating. Practicing meditation. Reading books like from Paramahansa Yogananda and other yogis. And other kind of books and so on. And I started meditating. I started knowing myself better. And the more I inside used to go, the more perceptive I became. So the more I searched inside adn the more I found inside, the more I could read outside. And I reached that time when I started asking to have a gift. The gift of understanding the nature.


Because I would like to protect it. I would, I loved it so much that I asked, please teach me. I want to understand more. And I had 14-16, when I grew up with this in mind, and do I have days of revelation and finally more or less in 1994 I started what I would say, some days where I really thought I was getting nuts. I was very concerned. Because I used to drive my car in a certain points of the farm, I felt, I used to feel the need of opening the window and putting my hand out of the car. And I used to feel the green entering in my arm, and filling me up with the green force. This is one of the alive forces of the universe, of the nature.


There is the green force, besides the animal force, the water force. There are alive forces in the nature and I could connect myself with the green one. I can’t tell you, I can’t tell you, I can’t talk to a plant but I can feel what they are feeling. So in certain days I could hear, I could hear. Oh, we miss you, you shouldn’t travel so much! Stay more here. And I didn’t know if all of the that thing was for real at all. Until somebody came to me and said, that’s for real. That’s for real.




First of it, it was to break my ego. Otherwise, I already would have destroyed myself, 10 years ago when I used to appear in a magazine, I used to feel the best. Nowadays, when somebody give me a prize and so on, so I refuse and I feel, I even feel shame, I feel like I don’t deserve that, because why as a small and single person weeding in the field, they should start by that person, who believes in me, and because everybody joined me in this thing, and I can’t do anything alone. So first of all my ego was broken, I became much more humble, much much much more humble.


I learned how to respect other people’s idea. How to tolerate people who doesn’t believe in what I believe. To be more patient. To be more tolerant. To be more grateful.




How is that great sensitivity of listening to life, of being in direct contact with life, how does that translate then to the discovery of this new agriculture and doing it so concretely and successfully. Because often times people think of deep spiritual experience or inner work as something away from life, away from running a large corporation away from doing something so practical. And for you it sounds like its really all one thing. Its in a way this deep spiritual inspiration is the source of your capacity to provide the world with a third of the organic sugar market. In such a commercially successful and environmentally, socially sustainable way.




There was a time when I got a little bit lost on this fantasy, spiritual world. There’s a lot of people that just rationalize about that. So I know lots of people which lives fantasies and they rationalize about spiritual work. The Spiritual work starts on the concrete. You have to start from the concrete. We came from ignorance, totally ignorance, millions of years ago and we have evolved to the next or the next stages.


So we have to become conscious about the spirituality, but we have to start on the practice, on the material. Not just to stay meditating. Or not just to hitting the ax in the trunk. We have to understand what is spiritual behind the material. So its totally connected, there is no spiritual without material, there is no material without the spiritual in the alive human beings.




You know when I work with leaders, individually or in groups, sometimes also with meditation I say that in a way what you do may be sitting in a room doing a practice – is just meditation practice. The meditation then comes when you actually bring it into life, when you actually translate it into this world that we all inhabit together, and that somehow we are drawn, inspired to take to the next evolutionary level and that’s what I have a sense with you that you are very aligned with the kind of evolutionary force that wants to take life to another level and try it out and experiment and discover and be curious and keep doing and learning by doing.




The meditation I mean, is not a meditation in a room anymore. I did when I was twelve, fourteen. With the time I started going after explanations for meditation. I bought a book, thick like that. The psychology behind meditation. I read it two pages. And I thought, I will get crazy following this book, you know? Because I learn a bit with the Indians and so on. And then I started try something different. Contemplative meditation. In my car, in the beach, anywhere. Watching my daughter, you know? If you recognize a God’s job, the god’s presence in anything which exists, you are meditating. You are meditating, means for me nowadays feeling God. Connecting to God.


If you connect, feel connected to God, you are meditating. Because the final, the goal of the meditator who goes in a room, close eyes and they have the music is to feel God. If you can do that, outside of the room you can carry god with you wherever you go. And if you work, God will be working with you. And then God give you excellent ideas. Splendid ideas. So I never credited the ideas I implemented as mine. Never. Never. I know who was with me in those.


They say that enthusiastic person is a person who carries God inside. I’m 90 percent of the time I’m very enthusiastic about everything. Sometimes I get mad with one thing, another, but I recover very fast. But I nowadays, I meditate in the car, I meditate talking to people. I’m feeling God now. So I’m meditating now.




What’s God for you, you know its a word that’s so full of ideas for so many people, and you know, good ideas difficult ideas. What does that actually mean for you, like when you put other words to it than this big label. What’s the experience, what do you feel, how does it impact you?




God used to along my life, I had different ideas about who is God and how was God and so in the beginning I remember when I was 7-8 years old I used to go to the church to the initiation and so on. I’m Christian, and I used to love to read the story about Jesus and so on. I got 10 in the test, and I have test until today.


Its wonderful and so on. And so God used to be that old man with the bear and so on. With the time, with my experience reading or meditating, I start feeling God as a great spirit. A great spirit or a great force which would be everything. Which would be inside everybody.







You know we brought Triodos bank here, and what people were very touched by was the way you talked about how you worked with your team and both kind of the more inner core of the management, your family, but especially all the different people you are working with and how at the time, you say love is the raw material in a way for your leadership approach. And you bring it into the different groups. Tell us a little bit how is it that you make these things possible what is it that you invite in people? And in your teams to make these incredible successes possible?




I used to be, when I started working here, so my father and my uncles, they used to be Italians, they used to admire Mussolini. So when they used to have a much more Fascist administration than a democracy. Then my cousins and I we had to do the transition to a more professional and more adequate administration. But at the time in the surrounding area the Italians, the Spanish, Germans who came, used to administrate that way. Mr. Schmidt and everybody. So they used to be much more dictators than democrats.


So in my first years, my school was my father, my uncles, in terms of people administration, I tried hard to be like theirs. But I didn’t succeed on having a good thing for 5-6 years. And I didn’t succeed in going ahead with my plans. And suddenly when I started you know feeling connected to the plants and the trees and the water and soil and started percepting these natural elements, existence and needs. I started looking to people in the same way. Because they are made from the same material. The same energy.


So I could start reading person by person from their most deep need. Some people who did have the less scholarship, they wanted to be recognized so I used to give compliments to that people for doing so sophisticated job that just an engineer could do and so I started playing from deep in my heart, trying to see the good things and I learned that we should reinforce the positive. Before that I used to reinforce the negative and nothing was happen.


So when I started reinforcing the positive, you know I think we lost in the last 25 years less than 20% of the people, 10% of the people. So we could hold, we could hold 90% of the people and they start becoming proud of what they do. And I try to share the credit with them.




And the extraordinary thing in your company is that its not that you’re not alone, its that you are together with 7 family members. And 43 also family members who are the shareholders. And you said that for decades now you have been making these very courageous decisions growing your company very fast and in very new ways, innovative ways and yet you were able to make all decisions by consensus. And you meet once a week to talk about all that’s important. So what’s the process that allows you to have this deep kind of dialog and yet to come to real courageous decisions.




We… I think that along the time we developed our deep respect to each other. In such a way that the leader of a certain issue in our meeting is the person, which is, who is better prepared to lead that issue so in certain aspects of the business I lead the process. In other aspects of the business, the industrial director does it. So we don’t have vain or proud interfering so I think we had to work for I would say 15 years we did immersion training. We even did the transactional analysis so we cried together, we laughed together we in one opportunity we, the seven current executives decided to dismiss an eighth member of the board. Because he was not performing well, and we found a way of telling him that it was not personal and we have a good family relationship with that person, and with his family, who are supportive shareholders nowadays. Because they learned or they knew it was good for the company.


It was very tough and it was very, I would say, risky, considering our family company, but we did that. So we, in the last 25 years the period I have been here, we never decided something by force. Or by votation – maybe two times – two issues. In 25 – among thousands. We always reach the consensus.




You do a lot of work also for the community and you are invested with health care services and education and also this kind of personal development. So, it sounds like not only you as your personal family are working together in the company, theres’ also the community family and there’s also a kind of family-like feeling towards nature and towards the diversity of species that are here. So its really one family of life in a certain sense.




Steiner used to call this, a whole alive organism. James Lovelock also called the whole planet an alive organism composed by smaller alive organisms. So I can’t see people just people, or just animal or just plants. We are a community of alive organisms. And the more integrated we are, the more the diversity of this community, the more healthier we are going to be.




So we talked about that you as an individual are finding kind of the living inspiration of life to guide you. And then we talked about that you as a board and as a company you are listening also in your own way, together to the forces, to align with. And then, you of course are also an expression of a larger movement the say, sustainability movement. And that sustainability movement is also listening to some force. And so I wonder what you feel about that. How we are all in a way much more than the millions of people involved in something living…




I think… the raw material is love. The stick, the glue which keeps everything stick together, is love. I love what I do. And I could infect my people to love what they do. And so on. And now we have clients, consumers of our products who love buying our products. So, love is the most powerful glue which sticks all together.