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In Brazil’s Ribeira Valley, traditional communities combine farming and conservation

  • The Traditional Quilombola Agricultural System (TQAS) of the Ribeira Valley was declared part of Brazil’s intangible cultural heritage in 2018.
  • The slash-and-burn farming system practiced by the Afro-Brazilian communities in this area is based on land rotation, thus bringing together production and conservation in the largest contiguous remnant of the Atlantic Forest.
  • The communities, or quilombos, here have a long history of struggling to practice their traditional agriculture, threatened by lack of proper land planning and the imposition of various restrictions by the authorities.
  • But they persevere, growing organic food for their own sustenance and for sale, as well as establishing a seed bank that both saves native tree species for use in restoration projects, and generates an income for community members.

“This is a good time. It’s when we used to wake up to cast our net on the river,” Adan Pereira says. “The hard part was to play odds and evens to see who’d get in the water. But I’d feel sorry for my father and do it.”

It’s 4 a.m., and we’ve just boarded a boat to cross the Ribeira de Iguape River in Brazil’s São Paulo state. The sky is starry sky, the moon is waning, and the wind blows a brisk 9° Celsius (48° Fahrenheit) on this early winter morning. We’re headed to where Adnan and his father, Antônio, farm the left bank of the Ribeiro de Iguape. Along with other members of their quilombo, or traditional Afro-Brazilian community, of Sapatu, they produce mainly bananas and palm hearts.

“What a nice breeze,” says Adan, 33, a farmer for whom the weather is never bad.

Dew drops glitter as the silvery moonlight hits the banana grove. A wood stove soon crackles into life: coffee, roasted bananas and taiá, or boiled taro root. That’s how Adan likes to start his day.

“Our ancestors used to work in this place, and it has been passed on from generation to generation,” he says. “We clear the land, then we burn it and plant on it. And then, at a certain point, we leave that place to rest, regenerate, and we plant in another place. That’s a rotating system, that’s quilombola land management.”

In 2018, the Traditional Quilombola Agricultural System (TQAS) of the Ribeira Valley was declared a practice of “intangible cultural heritage” of Brazil by the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute (IPHAN).

Dawn in the banana grove of Antônio and Adan Pereira, on the left bank of the Ribeira de Iguape River, Sapatu Quilombo. Image by Fellipe Abreu.

Sowing in the waning moon

A legacy of the Indigenous peoples and enslaved Africans who occupied the Ribeira Valley, this form of Itinerant agricultural system, known locally as roça-de-toco or coivara, is an ancient farming system practiced by traditional populations in tropical forests, based on rotating cultivation areas, thereby combining production with conservation.

“We arrive in an area that is all forest, it’s capoeira [secondary vegetation]. We clear the land and then, at some point, that area will dry out,” Adan says. “We cut down the trees, chop the wood, and everything dries up. Then we burn it. Many people say that this burning degrades the soil, but it doesn’t. There are several studies proving that it doesn’t burn all the nutrients.”

While it’s often considered controversial and requires adaptations in times of climate change, partial and controlled burning of the land helps boost the potassium, calcium and magnesium levels in the soil, as well as the accumulation of organic carbon, which is a fertilizer for tropical forests soils that are often poor in nutrients.

The quilombo members, or quilombolas, work on the same area for three to five. Then they move on to a new plot and leave the old one to regenerate into forest. About 15 years later, the area is once again closed forest, the low vegetation known as capoeira.

This type of farming comprises the basis of the knowledge of the Ribeira Valley quilombolas. From it, they’ve derived their practices of crop management and diversity, food preparation, trade networks, transmission of ancestral knowledge, as well as handicrafts, religious expressions, music and dance.

The form of TQAS practiced here in the Ribeira Valley includes observing the phases of the moon to start planting. “It’s always three days before waning or on the first day,” Adan says. “Why do we plant on the waning moon? To avoid using pesticides. If you plant the seed during the waning moon, there won’t be pests later. All this is part of the quilombola system, you know? Everything is based on a tradition and a reason. We don’t use any pesticides. Nature takes care of everything for us, so we have to follow nature’s cycle too.”

João da Mota, left, and Adan Pereira practice a traditional form of slash-and-burn agriculture in the Ribeira Valley, which has been declared intangible cultural heritage of Brazil. Image by Fellipe Abreu.

For farmers, potatoes are sweet

The slope is steep and the road uneven. In the back of the four-wheel-drive truck sit a scythe, a basket, and Rosana de Almeida. When we reach the end of the road, Rosana takes the scythe, hangs the basket made of braided straw on her back, and declares, “We are going to work the land.”

As she heads off up a trail that’s just as steep, the sun warms the hills in this patch of Atlantic Forest and the bodies swathed in coats.

“This is no easy job. [The land] is very steep, so you can’t use tractors,” says João da Mota, a farmer who accompanies us along the trail from the Nhunguara quilombo to Rosana’s patch of land. Here, sweet potato thrives, alongside banana, pumpkin, cabbage, beans.

“These products have been important to us since our elders’ time, right? They used to plant all this diversity for their own consumption,” says Rosana, a quilombola farmer from Nhunguara. “When we were children, the elders already planted sweet potatoes to feed the little babies, right? My father always said that when a woman got pregnant, she had to have sweet potatoes right away; it was the babies’ food. Now things are different; it’s milk.”

Potatoes and yams are daily staples for Rosana, who also serves as the financial officer for the Quilombola Farmers Cooperative of the Ribeira Valley (Cooperquivale), She shows off the diversity of sweet potatoes that grow in her soil: “They took advantage of the goodness of the land; they branched out a lot,” she says, pointing to a white variety.

Malvina de Almeida Silva prepares lunch with food grown in the Nhunguara quilombo. Image by Fellipe Abreu.

Most of the food consumed in the communities is produced by the quilombolas themselves. But each day poses new challenges, and there are no guarantees. “I planted corn in this area, but birds came and ate much of it,” Rosana says. “The weather didn’t help either and the corn didn’t yield what we expected.”

Such adversities increase the importance of intercropping. In addition to contributing to food security, it promotes diversity in their diet and reduces insects and diseases in the farms. In addition, constant field management of traditional seeds contributes to the evolution of more robust strains of food crops and the conservation of germplasm. The Quilombola Seed Exchange Fair is also a place for trading and promoting heirloom seeds.

“We used to produce a lot, but we had no place to sell it,” Rosana says. “We’d plant it and then eat what we could. What we didn’t eat, we’d give to the neighbors. We used to lose a lot. Then we thought about creating the cooperative.”

Established in 2012, Cooperquivale sells the surplus production of 19 quilombola communities and has more than 240 members. It sells around 80 types of food items to government programs at a weekly fair in the municipality of Eldorado, and at trade agencies and projects in the city of São Paulo.

As we walk with Rosana through her farm, we see an abundance of tangerine and lemon. The ground is scattered with the fallen fruits. She talks about the need to expand sales opportunities, including participation in government schemes such as the Food Acquisition Program (PAA-DS) under the Simultaneous Donation system and the National School Meal Program (PNAE).

“We produced, so we also wanted to sell,” Rosana says. “We wanted the authorities and public policies to consider that we were small farmers, but we could produce and put our produce on the table for them too. Our produce is organic, right? We work without poison.”

Adan shows the diversity of his crops in the Sapatu quilombo. “Family farming is what you see here. There is no monoculture,” he says, pointing out lemon, papaya, taro, yam and jacataúva (Citharexylum myrianthum), a nectar-bearing tree that attracts birds, all intercropped with a banana orchard. “There’s no reason to cut down this tree. It will return the organic matter to the soil and there will be diversity.”

On the left, João da Mota, Malvina de Almeida Silva and Rosana de Almeida display the food they produce at the Nhunguara quilombo. On the right, Adan Pereira shows a leaf from one his taro plants in the Sapatu quilombo. Image by Fellipe Abreu.

A colonial conservation model

We fly a drone up over the Ribeira de Iguape River. From here, it’s possible to see the greenery described in the numbers: With about 80% of forest coverage, this region is home to Brazil’s largest contiguous remnant of the Atlantic Forest, accounting for a fifth of the 7% of the biome that remains. The Ribeira Valley, which connects the southwest of São Paulo state with the northeast of Paraná, covers more than 2 million hectares (5 million acres) and is home to more than 80 quilombos.

“They have been working in the fields and then leaving them fallow since the time of my great-grandfather — that’s amazing!” Adan says. “Look at it now: Sapatu has 90% of its territory preserved. All our springs are preserved. All we need to have a good life is 2 or 3 hectares [5-7 acres] of well-tended crops, a well-tended banana orchard, a well-planted little grove for palm hearts, and then know how to sell it — for example, through the cooperative that knows how to distribute it.”

Quilombolas like Adan’s forebears had been working in the Ribeira Valley for hundreds of years when, around the 1980s, the government began to see their activities as deforestation. From then on, they were required to obtain environmental licenses to plant on land that had always been theirs.

The process was long: a license request submitted in January might only be issued in December, for instance. “When the authorization arrived, the right time to plant the crops had passed,” Rosana says.

In another move restricting the quilombolas’ farming practices, the government in 2008 established an environmental protection area, part of a mosaic of 14 such areas conserving a continuous stretch of Atlantic Forest remnants. Both the Nhunguara and Sapatu quilombos are located within the environmental protection area.

That has effectively hobbled the quilombolas and their farming practices, says Fernando Prioste, an educator and public advocate at the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of Indigenous and traditional peoples.

“Everything has happened in this period: licensed plantations, delayed licenses, people who can no longer plant, lack of technical assistance to cultivate crops, and, of course, lots of fines and lawsuits,” Prioste says. He adds that, “instead of helping to safeguard traditional [land] management, the environmental protection area may undermine this system.”

In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the looming risk of food insecurity, the quilombolas enacted a resolution in 2020 after years of struggle. It allowed them to plant first and then seek validation with the authorities afterward. The resolution will run until the end of this year, after which it’s expected to be extended.

Rosana de Almeida grows sweet potatoes, bananas, pumpkin, cabbage and beans on her farming area in the Nhunguara Quilombo, in the Ribeira Valley. Image by Fellipe Abreu.

In the Brazilian Amazon, Indigenous lands, quilombola territories and conservation units hold the best-preserved parts of the ecosystem, according to a study published earlier this year. In addition, Indigenous and quilombola lands are particularly effective at promoting regrowth of degraded areas, the study says.

“From a national and international point of view, conservation units are less efficient for environmental conservation than territories of traditional peoples and communities,” Prioste says.

Nurit Bensusan, a biologist with the ISA who has written extensively about environmental policy in Brazil, including children’s books, calls the conservation unit model a colonial holdover.

“Everyone here cuts down the Atlantic Forest, everyone destroys the Atlantic Forest to build beachfront hotels and people think it’s great,” she says. “But the quilombolas are seen as backward rather than as those whose way of life has preserved the most important fragments of the Atlantic Forest.”

In addition to the quilombolas’ struggle to continue practicing their traditional farming system and obtain titles to their land, it took them 28 years of opposition to the construction of the Tijuco Alto dam before its license was denied in 2016. The project, which would have been developed by Companhia Brasileira de Alumínio (CBA) to power its nearby aluminum plant, would have flooded an area of 5,600 hectares (13,800 acres) where 580 families live.

View of the Ribeira do Iguape River in the Ribeira Valley, a region that’s home to the largest contiguous remnant of the Atlantic Forest. Image by Fellipe Abreu.

Foresting our eyes

Maria Tereza Vieira says collecting seeds changes the way people look at things — starting with children.

“We started to work with seeds, and many children, in their innocence, thought I was buying them,” says Maria Tereza, a farmer in the Nhunguara quilombo. “They’d come to my house to sell them. I never said no to those kids; I always found a way. I weighed the seeds, calculated the price and paid them with my money. Today, their parents are on the network.”

That network is the Ribeira Valley Seed Network, which started in 2017 as an effort to safeguard the seeds of the native Atlantic Forest vegetation and sell them to tree nurseries and restoration projects. Today, 42 collectors from four quilombos take part. In 2021, they gathered 1,400 kilograms (3,100 pounds) of seeds, generating 120,000 reais ($22,300), or around 2,900 reais ($540) for each collector.

“This changed the way we think and made us value nature even more,” Maria Tereza says. “And it’s helping many people financially, especially women collectors. It’s extra money that comes in.”

To date, they’ve sold more than 100 species of seeds, enough to reforest more than 40 hectares (100 acres) of degraded Atlantic Forest areas.

Maria Tereza Vieira works in the nursery and seed house of the Nhunguara quilombo, in the Ribeira Valley. Image by Fellipe Abreu.

In December 2021, the seeds stored at the ISA headquarters in Eldorado moved to a new home: The Seed House in the Nhunguara quilombo. Made of packed earth with gravel from the Ribeira do Iguape River, its walls are 40 centimeters (16 inches) wide and help to preserve the seeds and seedlings.

On the shelves sit various ipê hardwoods (Handroanthus spp.), goat’s eyes (Ormosia arborea) and a great diversity of other plants. I can only identify the seeds of the guapuruvu (Schizolobium parahyba), a fast-growing tree that can grow to 30 meters (100 feet) and stands out for the yellow flowers on its crown.

“I really enjoy working with this,” Maria Tereza says. “It doesn’t matter if tomorrow or the day after I’m not here — with so much forest and in the midst of so many seeds, wherever I go, I’ll take this work somehow.”

If the trees don’t go unnoticed, neither does the river. At lunchtime in the Sapatu quilombo, Adan invites us to sit on a bench with a prime view of the Ribeira de Iguape.

“Our mother says it’s wrong to watch TV while eating, right? But what can I do?” he jokes, pointing to the riverfront panorama unfolding in front of us. Indeed, there’s no show better than this.

Banner image: Adan Pereira harvests bananas in the Sapatu quilombo in the Ribeira Valley. Image by Fellipe Abreu.

This story was reported by Mongabay’s Brazil team and first published here on our Brazil site on Sept. 5, 2022.