- For three centuries communities of “flower-gatherers” have lived self-reliantly in the Serra do Espinhaço, a mountain range bordering Brazil’s Cerrado savanna on its east. Many are descended from former slaves, but they’ve mingled with Indigenous and descendants of Portuguese migrants.
- Their several hundred communities have long fostered a cooperative relationship with nature, using fire judiciously and a code of sustainable rules to keep their communal pastures and natural landscapes in balance.
- In 2020, the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recognized their way of life, designating the flower-gatherers’ traditional farming system as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System. But encroaching mining and agriculture, and a national park all now put this unique culture at risk.
- “The struggle of the flower-gatherers is a profound struggle. It is a struggle for a way of life, a way of thinking the world, of relating with the Serra [mountain range], and constructing a future they want for their children,” says one academic.
“The mountain range is our soil, our life,” affirms Maria de Fátima Alves, head of the Commission for the Defense of the Rights of Extractivist Communities (CODECEX).
Known as Tatinha, she lives in the Serra do Espinhaço, a mountain range more than 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) long in Minas Gerais state, that marks the eastern transition from the Cerrado savanna biome to Brazil’s semi-arid Northeast.
Tatinha is one of many inhabitants in hundreds of Serra communities who earn their living by gathering flowers, known as sempre-vivas (always-alive), that grow wild in the hills, and selling them.
The name, sempre-vivas, is apropos: the Serra’s beautiful flowering plants are hardy survivors: blooming again and again despite being rooted in shallow, nutrient-poor sandy soils, atop rocky outcrops. Unable to grow long roots to access water and minerals from subsoils, these flowering plants have evolved alternative strategies for surviving drought. These include producing few leaves, so the plants don’t wilt in long hours of sun, and flowers that survive for weeks or even months without losing their color, allowing them to attract pollinators — and admirers.
The “sempre-vivas” are in big demand by Brazilian flower arrangers and artisanal craft producers. The rugged long-lasting blooms also provide Tatinha and others like her with sustainable livelihoods, along with a vibrant symbol of their own survival.
Staying hidden, blending in, thriving
The Serra has a rich, though often tragic history. It was exploited intensively for gold and diamonds by elites during the Brazilian colonial period. Simultaneously, an unknown number of enslaved mine workers, mainly of African origin, escaped and took advantage of the rugged mosaic of Serra peaks and valleys to hide.
Invisibility and familial alliances became their survival strategies. Marcello Broggio, the representative of the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in Brazil, tells how the runaways met and intermingled with other groups, with other histories: “The slaves, fleeing from deadly exploitation in farming or gold mining, merged with Indigenous peoples native to the region, and with the descendants of European settlers, carrying out itinerant cattle-rearing,” he explains.
For some, this brutal work under conditions analogous to slavery continued for generations. Fernanda Monteiro, who has studied the flower-gatherer way of life for more than a decade, says that her research revealed people still enslaved as late as the 1960s.
Flower-gatherer Andreia Ferreira dos Santos told Mongabay something similar: “The oldest people in my community started work [on the big farms] as children and weren’t properly paid, often receiving food in return for their labor,” she recalled. “My uncle Zé Carreiro told me something really powerful — that they worked in the fields and in the mine for a man who made them sleep in his paddock and, when he went out on his horse, they had to wait for him to arrive, as at night they used his saddle blanket to protect themselves from the freezing cold.”
“A profound struggle”
Together over time, the hundreds of communities, populated by these peoples of very different origins, constructed an alternative livelihood to slave labor — an independent way of life based on the common use of the highlands.
Monteiro says gathering flowers became much more than a way to earn money: “The struggle of the flower-gatherers is a profound struggle. It is a struggle for a way of life, a way of thinking the world, of relating with the Serra, and constructing a future they want for their children.”
Because the flower-gatherers are always working with future generations in mind, their vision is inherently sustainable. Broggio explains: “The ingenuity of these hybrid communities was to develop over a short timespan a lifestyle and a survival strategy fully integrated into the environment and sustainable enough to be efficient, long-lasting, and resilient.”
In 2020, this unique history was recognized by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) which designated the Sempre-Vivas Flower-Gatherers’ Traditional Farming System (Sistema Agrícola Tradicional dos Apanhadores de Flores Sempre-Vivas) as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS).
According to FAO, this designation is only given to “outstanding landscapes of aesthetic beauty that combine agricultural biodiversity, resilient ecosystems and a valuable cultural heritage.” Out of the 62 GIAHS designations given out by FAO in 22 countries, the flower-gatherers are the first Brazilian community to win the prestigious title.
Living as one, together with the flowers
Tatinha tells how their synergistic relationship with nature works. Over many years, the communities have set up a meticulous nurturing procedure, handed down generation to generation, ensuring sempre-viva plants flourish. “You must pick the flowers when they are fully out, after the seeds have fallen, and you must always leave stubble in the ground, from which new flowers can sprout,” she says.
Flower collection isn’t their only activity. Tatinha says everyone clears small plots near their villages to grow food; they also sustainably manage Serra natural resources. “Along with medicinal plants, we collect over 200 species of flowers, fruit and dried leaves,” she says.
During the dry season, most families move upslope with their small herds of beef cattle (an ancient breed brought in by the first Portuguese settlers on the Atlantic coast). Once in the high country, they collect the flowers and, according to Tatinha, sleep in “lapas,” their name for caves in the rocky hillside turned temporary homes.
It’s a life lived in close cooperation: “Both the flower gathering and the cattle corralling take place in communal areas,” explains Tatinha.
A blend of the natural and human
The Serra has a long history of human occupation. Prehistoric cave paintings show that people inhabited the region’s mountain ranges, outcrops, valleys and fields long before the arrival of European colonizers.
All across the centuries, the Serra’s heights have been well conserved and so have played a key role in maintaining Brazil’s downslope ecosystems. According to Monteiro, the headwaters of springs that feed into the basins of the Jequitinhonha and São Francisco rivers, responsible for supplying cities in Brazil’s southeast and northeast with water, are found in the Serra do Espinhaço.
Just as in other unique ecosystems — such as the fynbos in the Western Cape and Eastern Cape provinces of South Africa, or the high pastures of Sinjajevina in the European nation of Montenegro in the Balkans — the Serra families use fire to preserve the habitat, stewarding a beneficial relationship between natural and human communities. At just the right time of year, after the first rains, they set fire to the pastures and slopes where the flowers grow. “The flowers cannot survive without fire,” Tatinha asserts knowingly.
The flower-gatherers say that their use of fire mimics the wildfires that occur naturally in the Serra, but systematizes and tames those blazes, making them more efficient and less destructive. Broggio agrees: “No species [of sempre-vivas] has disappeared in the traditional gathering areas due to over-exploitation, whereas in some recently-established protected areas, where the use of fire is forbidden, some of these species have become rare.” Fire is also used sparingly by the families to keep the land fertile for small-scale agriculture.
But, despite these proven, centuries-old sustainable results, some conservationists have remained critical of fire’s use, particularly on pastureland. Monteiro, however, argues that it is important to differentiate between small-scale Serra cattle rearing and large-scale cattle ranching as practiced in most of the rest of the Cerrado. “The rearing of cattle in the natural pastureland of the Cerrado, on a small-scale and focused on the social reproduction of the group [carried out communally, with strict rules], is completely different from the rearing of cattle on an industrial scale and under capitalist social relations where large-scale deforestation occurs and native plants are replaced by species of grass brought in from outside,” she says.
Monteiro explains that cattle function in the communities as a kind of “piggy bank,” a savings account for a rainy day, while all the income from flower sales, almost the families’ only other cash source, is used to cover everyday expenses.
Finally, she notes, in the flower-gatherers’ integrated pastoral system, small-scale cattle-rearing and controlled burns help reduce the risk of big, out-of-control blazes: “Within their peasant logic, which is concerned with conserving native biodiversity, cattle rearing has the function of controlling the fires because it reduces the capacity of the Cerrado grasses to burn fiercely.”
Brazil fences in the flowers
In 2002, the Brazilian government created Sempre-Vivas National Park, which covers 124,000 hectares (30,6410 acres) in the south of the Serra do Espinhaço in Minas Gerais state. But officialdom did so without consulting the traditional communities.
Brazilian national parks represent a radical form of conservation, a model where human occupation or livelihoods are not permitted. However, the Serra do Espinhaço park was imposed on lands traditionally used and managed sustainably by the flower-gatherers for centuries. Upon the park’s establishment, attempts were made to criminalize the families for living as they always had, according to local people.
ICMBio (the federal Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation), which administers national parks, told Mongabay its policies have changed since the park’s founding in 2002. “ICMBio does not try to limit the traditional activities of the flower-gatherers in the National Sempre-Vivas Park. On the contrary, since 2012, the Institute has been developing a series of initiatives, in constant dialogue with the traditional communities, for the participatory construction of Terms of Commitment. These agreements are of fundamental importance for ensuring the dignified survival of the communities without harming the conservation of the natural resources protected in the conservation unit.”
But some tensions still exist. “Until last year, flower collectors were fined, if found working in the Park,” relates Tatinha, something she says was very unjust: “If there are still flowers and water in the Park today, it is because we’ve been taking care of the land. The authorities found it preserved, yet they want to exclude collectors. This is a serious violation of our rights.”
Monteiro agrees. “I think it is completely incoherent to create a conservation unit that is preserved precisely because of the way traditional communities have managed [the land] over the last 300 years, and then to prevent these communities from entering it.” She adds, “I was shocked by the degree and type of violence, both physical and symbolic, that these communities suffered.”
Judging by current environmental policies in Brazil, prospects don’t look good for the communities. In October 2020, the Brazilian Minister of the Environment announced the privatization of public parks to promote ecotourism. “We used to think that state agencies were responsible for the worst violations of our rights, but here comes [Environment] Minister Ricardo Salles with this idea of privatizing the parks. If I was tense before, I’m even worse now with this greater risk of expropriation,” says Tatinha.
Mining and agriculture encroach
There are also other, ongoing modern threats to the flower-gatherer communities, often presented as bringing economic progress to the region. To the north of the national park, extensive eucalyptus plantations used to produce charcoal cover 300,000 hectares (741,316 acres). “Eucalyptus has a very negative impact,” explains Tatinha. “It destroys the Cerrado and it destroys water flows, because it dries out the groundwater. Wherever eucalyptus is planted, there is no water or flowers. In contrast, we are guardians of the water.”
Science backs Tatinha’s view, with strong evidence that invasive eucalyptus in Brazil is a water hog, and that it also significantly diminishes grassland biodiversity by introducing trees. Yet there are no controls on eucalyptus plantations, as they lie outside the National Park.
Another risk: Tatinha says mining companies are encroaching on communal land. “Mining is entering in full force, especially now during the pandemic, when everything is at a standstill. [The companies] do not hold public consultations with the communities or carry out environmental impact studies. Even so, they are taking over our territories.”
According to Fernanda Monteiro, a variety of mining companies of different sizes have been arriving in the Serra, advancing exploratory plans for several ores, including manganese, iron and quartzite.
In the midst of the communities’ struggles to maintain free access to their commonly held lands, and to carry on with their ancestral ways of life, the FAO designation has given them hope, along with a new weapon — publicity.
Community members say the FAO designation allows them to campaign more effectively to gain land titles. “It makes no sense for the government to accept the designation of the flower-gatherers’ way of life as a Globally Important Agricultural Heritage System (GIAHS), and then to break up the[ir] territory, allowing in mining companies and eucalyptus monoculture, and to privatize the Park,” says Tatinha.
“We lived in invisibility for many centuries until external threats put an end to our peace,” she concludes. “Now our new visibility must bring the public policies needed to keep our way of life alive.”
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