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Feet planted in history

Researchers record the struggles of the remaining members of fugitive slave communities in Vale do Ribeira to preserve their lands and traditions

A tradition is reborn: a rice harvesting mutirão. In the picture, Leide Miranda Jorge

EDUARDO CESARA tradition is reborn: a rice harvesting mutirão. In the picture, Leide Miranda JorgeEDUARDO CESAR

“We are doing two important things here. We’ve left behind the ‘I’ in order to work for ‘us,’ and the ‘my’ to work for ‘ours,’” was how Benedito Alves da Silva, better known as Seu (Mr.) Ditão put it, as he sat at a heavy low wooden table in front of the altar of Our Lady of the Rosary of the Blacks church in the heart of the rural district of Ivaporonduva, municipality of Eldorado, in the middle of the largest continuous area of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil, located in southwestern São Paulo State. His calm voice echoed through the church with its white painted walls, wide wooden doors painted green, and wooden beams reinforced with steel plates, It was built by slaves and held its first service in 1791. Out front, early in the afternoon of May 11, 2015, was a group of preteens from a school in Uberaba, Minas Gerais State, surrounded by teachers and monitors in orange t-shirts. “What is mine? The house, the clothes,” continued the tall man, now 60, with white hair and black skin as smooth as if he were 30 years younger. “And what is ours? The land.” Seu Ditão divides his time between taking care of his banana plants and vegetable garden and talking about his people and answering questions from the groups of schoolchildren who visit almost every day.

“Are you sort of the mayor here?” asked one of the boys, fascinated to hear the stories of suffering, sacrifice, and resistance that had been recorded by researchers from the University of São Paulo (USP) and University of Campinas (Unicamp) since 2003. Seu Ditão, now smiling broadly, explained that he was only one of the community’s leaders but had once been president of the residents’ association that runs the inn where the visitors had checked in to spend that night and the next day. After half an hour of conversation, everyone left, walked a short distance, and stopped in front of a house of wattle and daub construction. Seu Ditão explained how it was built—with wood and lianas for the frame, mud for the walls, and sapé grass for the thatched roof. Then the boys amused themselves by squishing mud with their feet and using it to plaster one of the walls.

074-081__Quilombolas_232Beside that house, now seldom occupied, is another house, built of masonry and sporting three TV satellite dishes. These signs of modernity and comfort are recent. It was only 10 years ago that, after continual demands, the residents of Ivaporonduva finally got electricity, their first school—children used to have to get up at 3:00 a.m. to take a canoe to go to school in the city—Internet access, and a concrete bridge over the Ribeira de Iguape River. Other districts still have to be accessed by boat or raft—one of them can only be reached by following a trail through the forest for three hours.

What has changed the most, still sparks conflicts, and defines the social relationships and lifestyles in the 66 communities that call themselves descendants of quilombolas, i.e., descendants of fugitive slaves in Vale do Ribeira, is the manner of appropriation and use of their territory. Quilombolas were slaves or former slaves, blacks who took refuge at sites known as quilombos during and after Brazil’s period of slavery, which was officially abolished in 1888. “In the course of 200 years, we have gone from a time when the State was completely absent in our territory to the complicated situation that prevails today—involving many actors, public and private, with laws that are increasingly restrictive as to land use,” observes Célia Futemma, biologist with a graduate degree in anthropology and researcher from Unicamp who first visited the quilombola districts in Vale do Ribeira in 2008. Her work expanded the studies begun five years earlier in the region by anthropologist Rui Murrieta and ecologist Cristina Adams, who then went on to conduct post-doctoral research in ecological anthropology, one of the fields in which the group coordinated by Walter Neves at the USP Biosciences Institute (IB) is working.

Stand of pupunha,/em> on the hillside, hugging the forest: with government incentives, it competes with the family plots of corn and sugarcane that belong to the nearby houses

EDUARDO CESARStand of pupunha, on the hillside, hugging the forest: with government incentives, it competes with the family plots of corn and sugarcane that belong to the nearby housesEDUARDO CESAR

Cleared fields have little impact
The most recent studies by the IB group have reinforced the theory that the method of planting adopted by the quilombolas—which at first glance appear aggressive because it entails clearing and burning areas of native vegetation—has little impact on the forest and the animals that occupy it, as the farmers themselves have been saying for years. “Does fire destroy?” asked biologist Alexandre Ribeiro Filho on the morning of April 1, 2015 at the USP Institute of Energy and the Environment (IEE), where he presented the results of his doctoral research in a discussion organized by Cristina Adams about the methods of quilombola land use. “Not always,” he answered. Using sensors buried in the soil, Ribeiro Filho determined that the fire used to clear a field for planting makes the temperature of the soil rise by an average of 10 degrees Celsius. His analyses indicated that although spectacular, the flames burn primarily the leaves and thin branches. This means that 85% of the vegetation resists the fire and its nutrients remain in the soil. “In general, fire does not alter the quantity of organic matter,” he concluded.

The cleared fields, long criticized as supposedly harmful to the biodiversity of the forest, may even serve as a source of food for the forest animals, according to doctoral research conducted by biologist Herbert Medeiros Prado, with Murrieta as his advisor, completed in 2012 at IB-USP. Using night photography, Prado studied 60 areas and identified Brazilian tapirs, jaguatiricas (Leopardus pardalis chibiguazu), white-collared peccaries, small anteaters, pacas, brocket deer, grisons (Grison vittatus), possums, and a rare creature, the irara-branca, a kind of weasel with a long body, short legs and a long, furry tail. These animals were observed living in both the regenerating or secondary forests used for planting as well as in the preserved areas of the forest.

Everyday life in a quilombo: Isabel da Costa Moraes making manioc flour

Eduardo CesarEveryday life in a quilombo: Isabel da Costa Moraes making manioc flourEduardo Cesar

“Monkeys, for example, like corn,” observed environmental manager Daniela Ianovali during field research carried out for her master’s degree with Cristina Adams as her advisor, presented in late May 2015 at the Luiz de Queiroz College of Agriculture (ESALQ – USP). The modest impact of the crops on the forest, as suggested by the new arguments, along with the increasingly strict legal limitations on the use of fire, help to explain why the forest canopy represents 81.3% to 94.3% of the current territory of four quilombola districts examined by the researchers.

Even so, researchers argue that the traditional method of farming adopted by the quilombolas could be improved. “If they changed the shape of the cleared fields from square to rectangular, the forest would recover more quickly,” Eduardo Gomes, a researcher from the Botanical Institute, told his fellow researchers at a meeting at USP. After comparing the progress of forest regeneration in 10 fallow areas—where the land is left unused in order to recover after the harvest—in tracts aged from 2 to 60 years and either square or rectangular, Gomes concluded that the forest recovers more quickly in the rectangular areas. “Forest regeneration doesn’t begin right at the edges and move toward the center. It starts about 10 to 20 meters away,” he said. “That makes sense,” agreed Antonio Jorge, a farmer from the Pedro Cubas district in Eldorado, upon hearing of the findings of the experiment.

Preserved forest in the district of Pedro Cubas: between the mountains and the highway

EDUARDO CESARPreserved forest in the district of Pedro Cubas: between the mountains and the highwayEDUARDO CESAR

Roads and their consequences
In the mid-19th century, when the land began to be occupied by slaves who had fled, been freed, or were simply abandoned by their owners, the land belonged to whoever got to it first. Early occupants prospected for gold and later planted rice and raised pigs that they sold in the cities. Starting in the 1950s, Futemma observes, the roads—initially the portion of the BR-116 highway between São Paulo and Curitiba, and then its feeder roads—brought others who were interested in the land and in growing juçara palm, which is a source of the popular hearts of palm. Under that pressure, longtime residents moved away, mainly to Curitiba, São Paulo, and the Santos Metropolitan Region, sometimes sent away by their parents.

“I left in 1965, at age 13, with a bunch of girls to work outside the community,” recalls Edvina Maria Tie Braz da Silva, 70, sitting on the porch of her house in the Pedro Cubas de Cima district on a morning when light rain soaked the terrace. “I walked away crying, I didn’t want to leave but a lot of men were coming to take our lands and mothers were afraid of what could happen to their daughters.” Dona Diva, as she is known, worked as a domestic and later in hospitals run by the city of São Paulo. In 2000, she retired, returned and helped establish the residents’ association of Pedro Cubas de Cima, hoping to recover land from ranchers who currently occupy the 6,000 hectares that have been recognized as quilombola territory.

Maria Sueli Berlanga—or Sister Sueli, because she is a nun with the Order of the Little Shepherds—noticed what was called the “invisibility” of the residents of what were then known as “black districts” as soon as she arrived in Eldorado, in 1986, having come for the purpose of mediating land disputes. The situation began to change under the 1988 Constitution, which recognized the rights that communities of remaining members of quilombos had to the land that they occupied. Sister Sueli helped residents of black districts with the difficult task of taking ownership of a past that was marked by suffering and rejection. “The quilombola identity, brought to light by the Catholic Church, helped ensure their ownership of the land,” Cristina Adams observes.

Everyday life in a quilombo: Ana Maria Galácio with her patchwork quilt

EDUARDO CESAREveryday life in a quilombo: Ana Maria Galácio with her patchwork quiltEDUARDO CESAR

Based on historical and cartographic surveys, the quilombola territories began to be recognized in 1997, as a first step toward receiving legal title to the land. Nationwide, about 2,400 quilombola communities had already obtained recognition of their lands, but fewer than 100 had received title to the property. Now land ownership is attributed to the association of residents of each quilombola district in order to prevent it from being sold, which would force their owners to migrate into the cities as before. According to the São Paulo State Land Institute Foundation (Itesp), which assists farmers in obtaining legal status for their properties and improving their crops, the quilombola district of Ivaporonduva, which currently has 94 families, is the only one in Vale do Ribeira where all the land has been officially recorded in the name of the residents’ association. Usually, quilombola territories include both large and smaller tracts occupied by private owners and situated in the midst of archeological sites, waterfalls, caves, and preserved sections of the Atlantic Forest. One quilombola territory near Eldorado, recognized a few years ago, is the site of private banana plantations, one of the foundations of the region’s economy. Not all farmers will agree to leave, even if offered indemnification by government agencies. The result is court proceedings that can drag on for years until resolved.

“Their history has not been fully resolved; the prejudices and the disputes over land continue,” said Sister Sueli from her office on the afternoon of May 12, 2015. She is also an attorney and defends the rights of the quilombolas—in recent years in collaboration with state and federal offices of public defenders. On one of the metal cabinets stands a portrait of Carlos da Silva, a resident of the district of São Pedro who was murdered by hired gunmen in 1982. In 2011, Laurindo Gomes, a leader in Praia Grande, in the municipality of Iporanga, mysteriously disappeared.

“The copious volume of Brazilian agrarian legislation has served not only as support for the process of recognition, legitimization, and issuance of titles to land occupied by the remaining members of the quilombo communities, but also as a legal argument for challenging titles that have already been issued to some of the lands. This is what is happening in class actions that were filed and are being heard in the state of Pará,” wrote Joaquim Shiraishi Neto, a professor at the Federal University of Amazonas in an article in the journal Cadernos UNDB. “There are still a lot of uncertainties,” Sister Sueli says. One of her concerns, shared by community leaders, is a proposed constitutional amendment that, if approved, could allow the lands occupied by Indians and quilombolas to be assigned to third parties for development. Seu Ditão said that he went to Brasília in 2011 and talked to several senators, asking them to prevent the loss of the rights they have acquired. “We have to keep track of the situation and intervene,” he says. “If we’re left out, it will be worse.”

Everyday life in a quilombo: Elvira da Silva Pedroso using banana plant fibers in weaving

EDUARDO CESAREveryday life in a quilombo: Elvira da Silva Pedroso using banana plant fibers in weavingEDUARDO CESAR

No more hunting
The quilombolas had to make certain concessions, change their habits, and learn to live with the environmental rules that ban hunting and the use of fire, enacted to preserve the native fauna and vegetation. “When I was a little boy, I often went into the forest to hunt and cut taquara (a kind of bamboo),” Seu Ditão recalled. “I like paca, deer, and armadillo meat, but we can’t get it anymore, nor do we need to live on meat that we get by hunting.”

Another sign of the big changes is the expanded cultivation of pupunha (spiny peach-palm), a kind of palm tree from which the pith of the upper part of the stem yields hearts of palm, as an alternative to the juçara palm, which after decades of intense exploitation, is hard to find. Daniela Ianovali compares the commercial cultivation of the pupunha, encouraged by loans offered by government agencies, with subsistence crops—the cleared family plots, or roças—that produce rice, beans, corn, and manioc. “Cultivation of pupunha may be more efficient and lucrative than the roças,” she concludes. According to her, the roças are important because their owners enjoy autonomy in producing basic foodstuffs and for their symbolic value, because they are related to tradition and festivals.

“Sadly, some people have lost their roça,” says Antonio Benedito Jorge, who refuses to give up his independence. In Pedro Cubas, he continues to maintain his stand of pupunha but does not intend to stop planting banana, sugarcane, rice, beans, corn, manioc, and fruits. “If there are shortages of food in the countryside, there will be shortages in the city,” he comments, sitting on the porch of his house—built of masonry, finished seven years ago, next to a wattle and daub structure that he hopes to rebuild later in 2015. According to Antonio Jorge, the forests behind his house boast several types of banana plants: ouro, prata, pão, and preta. His son Carlos Jorge ran over in that direction and in minutes returned with one of the varieties of banana, the costa—yellower, sweeter, and fatter than the prata—which he offers to the visitors, leaving one to wonder why such tasty bananas are not found in the markets, hotels, and restaurants of nearby cities.

Everyday life in a quilombo: Benedito Silva explaining how a wattle-and-daub house is built

EDUARDO CESAREveryday life in a quilombo: Benedito Silva explaining how a wattle-and-daub house is builtEDUARDO CESAR

Now, quilombolas must obtain authorization from the state of São Paulo’s Environmental Sanitation Technology Company (Cetesb) before they can prepare their land for planting. Since the use of fire in agriculture has been banned in São Paulo, licenses were no longer being issued. In 2009, having seen two years go by without receiving a license to plant, farmers protested, arguing that they did not have enough food for their families. One of the leaders of the São Pedro district, assisted with mediation by researchers from universities and the Socioenvironmental Institute (ISA), was able to meet in Iporanga with Cetesb technical personnel to negotiate release of the licenses. The preliminary results by the USP team, indicating that the crops planted in quilombola fashion had a lower than expected impact on the forest, served as justification for Cetesb to release the licenses, which it finally did, in 2013.

“Even with the licenses, after seven years without authorization to plant our family plots, many people had lost the seeds they had on hand, because they deteriorate if they aren’t planted,” says Raquel Pasinato, coordinator of ISA’s Vale do Ribeira Program. Biologist Nelson Novaes Pedroso Junior, while a doctoral student with Murrieta as his advisor, before defending his dissertation in 2008 had interviewed 20 farmers from 11 quilombola districts and found that half of the 142 varieties of the 53 species of plants that he had mentioned as being grown in the area—22 species of rice, 19 species of manioc, 16 species of banana, 13 species of beans, 10 species of yam, 10 species of squash, and 6 species of sweet potato, among others, had been lost.

Pasinato and the ISA team mobilized the farmers and organized a seed-swapping fair. The first of these, in 2008, held in the main square of Eldorado, attracted 35 farmers and 95 varieties of 34 plants that are grown in the region. The second event grew to include 84 farmers and 199 varieties of 78 species of beans, manioc, sugarcane, rice, banana, corn, sweet potato, and other crops. Now the ISA team is cataloging the planted areas and productivity of the varieties used by the farmers. At the same time, agronomist Samuel Ferrari, a professor at São Paulo State University (Unesp), has begun collecting samples of the wild form of a species of rice known as arroz-crioulo, from the region. He wants to learn the extent to which it is planted and to preserve varieties in cold storage and in seedbeds. He has collected 16 varieties– including cateto, tiriva, tirivinha, moti, vermelho, branco, amarelo, amarelão, três-meses e quatro-meses—and hopes to collect a total of 40.

In May 2015, groups from ISA and Unesp began talks about the legal mechanisms available for protecting the area’s genetic heritage.

Festivals and prayers
Old habits are reappearing. At the end of the planning meeting for the next seed exchange fair, scheduled for August 21 and 22, 2015, Hermes Modesto Pereira, a 73-year-old farmer from the Morro Seco district in Iguape, told the other farmers, researchers, and government agency representatives about his plan to mobilize a mutirão (group effort) to help him harvest his rice on Saturday May 23, 2015. “Everyone is invited.” On the Friday before, the women began to prepare food for the roughly 60 people who helped with the harvest, and they celebrated that evening by dancing fandango and the typically Northeastern forró. “It’s been 30 years since we’ve had a full-scale mutirão, Seu Hermes, said. “It’s one way to show what our ancestors used to do and build friendships among the groups.”

The Inventário cultural de quilombos do Vale do Ribeira (Cultural Inventory of the Quilombos of Vale do Ribeira) and conversations with residents indicate that the folk culture is still alive and well among the region’s rural districts. “If you apply the mud during the waning crescent of the moon, the mud goes on smoothly. If you do it when the moon is waxing, it breaks up right away,” Seu Ditão told the students from Uberaba as he explained how to apply mud to the walls of the wattle-and-daub house. “The moon influences everything. Beans, if you pick them during a waning moon, last a long time, but under a waxing moon they get all wormy.” “Why is that?” one of the boys asked. “You can’t explain Mother Nature,” Seu Ditão answered. “I just know that’s how it is.”

“They love to dance, they love parties,” Sister Sueli observes. The next one will be on July 4, 2015, in the district of São Pedro, arranged by about 150 residents who will have to work hard to welcome an estimated 5,000 guests. Cobrinha Verde and Mão Esquerda are the names of two dances that Antonio Jorge remembers. He has only one complaint: “The young people can’t keep up the pace with the old folks.” Antonio Jorge is the chaplain who leads the prayers for the release of souls from Purgatory, a ritual held the night of Good Friday. The participants—30 to 70 of them, all dressed in white—meet in Pedro Cubas at 10:00 p.m. and walk silently through the streets. At midnight they begin to pray out loud at a cemetery in a neighboring district. On the way back, they play a matraca, a kind of percussion instrument, to announce that they are approaching the houses. In front of each dwelling they sing “Our Father” 15 times and continue that until dawn. Antonio Jorge doesn’t plan to stop doing this anytime soon: “I’m 70, but as long as I’m useful, I’m going to do it.” One of his grandsons, Malcom dos Santos Jorge, 20, who has finished high school and would now like to study law, said he has gone along with the group and enjoyed it. Pasinato, from ISA, who took part in one of those walks, recalls that before departing she had to drink a beverage that, as she recalls, contained garlic: “It tasted awful, but they told me I have to drink it to protect my body from harm.”

1. Local populations and conservation of the natural heritage. (No. 2007/53308-1); Grant mechanism Young Investigator; Principal Investigator Célia Regina Tomiko Futemma (Unicamp); Investment R$76,466.73 (FAPESP).
2. Impacts of the quilombola shifting cultivation system on the soils of Atlantic Forest remnants in the Vale do Ribeira (São Paulo, Brazil). (São Paulo, Brazil) (No. 2012/17651-1); Grant mechanism Regular research grant; Principal investigator Cristina Adams (USP); Investment R$262,594.02 (FAPESP).

Scientific articles
ADAMS, C. et al. Diversifying incomes and losing landscape complexity in quilombola shifting cultivation communities of the Atlantic Rainforest (Brazil)Human Ecology. V. 40, p. 1-19. 2013.
GOMES, E.P. C. et al. A sucessão florestal em roças em pousio: a natureza está fora da lei? Scientia Florestalis. N. 41, N. 99, p. 343-52. 2013.
RIBEIRO FILHO, A. A. et al. The impacts of shifting cultivation on tropical forest soil: a review. Boletim do Museu Paraense Emílio Goeldi. Ciências Humanas. V. 8, p. 693-727. 2013.
SHIRAISHI NETO, J. Os quilombos como novos sujeitos de direito: processo de reconhecimento e impasses. Cadernos UNDB, V. 4, p. 203-23. 2014.
ANDRADE, A. M e TATTO, N. (eds.). Inventário cultural de quilombos do Vale do Ribeira. São Paulo: Instituto Socioambiental, 2013.