In northeastern Brazil, family farmers are guardians of Creole seeds

  • Families in the Alto Jequitinhonha region of northeast Brazil have resisted industrial agriculture by preserving dozens of traditional seed varieties through generations of family farming.
  • The tradition led to the publication in 2019 of the Alto Jequitinhonha Creole Seed Catalog, which lists 132 varieties kept and cultivated by 28 families in the region.
  • Ensuring food security means facing several challenges in this region, including increasingly long dry seasons due to climate change and competition with eucalyptus monocultures for water.

Alto Jequitinhonha, in the northeastern state of Minas Gerais, is the meeting point of three of the country’s biomes: the Cerrado savannah, the Atlantic rainforest and the Caatinga scrubland. It is also home to hundreds of family farmers who over the years have maintained a robust system of ecological agriculture that has ensured their food security.

The practice has caught the attention of the outside world in recent years, leading in 2019 to the publication of the Creole Seed Catalog Alto Jequitinhonha. It lists 132 varieties of seeds maintained and cultivated by 28 families distributed in the municipalities of Turmalina, Veredinha and Minas Novas.

The catalog was published by the Center for Alternative Agriculture Vicente Nica (CAV), part of the Cerrado network, in partnership with the international development NGO CeVI and the municipality of Mereto di Tomba, both in Italy, and the Minas Gerais office of Catholic Aid and the development NGO Cáritas Brasileira.

The catalog is a record of seeds passed down from generation to generation, in a region that is also home to large factory farms that use agrochemicals and genetically modified seeds. Creole seeds have persisted over time and, in Alto Jequitinhonha, are kept by small farmers known as “creole seed keepers”.

Several varieties of pumpkin, peanut, rice, coffee, sugarcane, faba bean, corn, and okra are listed in the catalog, among other plants. There are 28 varieties of beans alone, as well as less common products such as purunga gourd, caxi gourd and marimba gourd, and the cará-moela aerial potato.

“It’s a way to maintain the genetic heritage and protect the biodiversity of crops,” explains Ademilson Gonçalves da Silva, expert in agriculture and livestock at the CAV.

Small farmers practice mostly subsistence agriculture. But they also sell some of their crops at municipal fairs and exchanges, or to federal government food programs like PNAE (National School Canteen Program) and PAA (Food Purchase Program).

Family farmer Valdir Gonçalves, one of the guardians of the Creole seeds of Alto Jequitinhonha. Personal stock image.

The challenges of eucalyptus and drought

They are resilient communities that face many challenges. There are more than 20 municipalities in the Alto Jequitinhonha region, where the combination of drought and low or erratic rainfall has forced farmers to find ways to maintain their water supplies. Some use cisterns and small dams.

The most interesting thing that farmers have discovered over the years is that the Creole varieties grown in the region adapt to various changes in soil and climate.

“Another challenge in this region is the cultivation of eucalyptus, practiced in the highlands since the 1970s,” says Anna Crystina Alvarenga, Minas Gerais coordinator for Cáritas Brasileira. “Eucalyptus is a non-native species that interferes with water uptake and land use and therefore farmers’ relationship with the territory.”

She adds that smallholder farmers also face lobbying pressure on lawmakers from the agribusiness and seed industries. “We are in a very complex process which also threatens the political steps that farmers have already taken, such as the ability to manage their own Creole seeds and market them, for example,” says Alvarenga.

Silva says family farming cooperatives are a way to strengthen the fight against these challenges.

For farmers, a key element in the recognition of their tradition is Federal Law 10.711/2003, which recognizes Creole and traditional varieties as seeds that can be produced, distributed, exchanged and sold among family farmers.

Alvarenga says the Alto Jequitinhonha region is important both in terms of cultural and agricultural biodiversity. “The catalog preserves the diversity of Creole seed species. It is a genetic heritage that contributes to food sovereignty because each variety has a specific nutritional characteristic. It’s a way for family farmers to protect their rights,” she says.

She adds that the crops grown on these ecological farms are generally resistant to pests and weeds. “It proves that ecological and healthy sustainability is possible without the use of pesticides.”

Silva also points out that most farmers in Alto Jequitinhonha cultivate year-round, which guarantees their food security. “Our soil is fertile and family farming is becoming more and more widespread. The rainy season is mainly from October to February, and during the rest of the year farmers have to save water due to the lack of rain,” he says.

But dry cycles in the region have lengthened in recent years due to climate change. According to Maria Aparecida Lima Pinheiro, a farmer from the village of Inácio Félix, in the municipality of Minas Novas, the cistern and the small dam on her property no longer support her during the dry season. “Now we are trying to build a small dam across the stream,” she says.

João Domingos Oliveira de Macedo, a farmer from the village of Ribeirão Soares in Turmalina, stresses the importance of continuous maintenance to ensure enough water all year round: “If a stream dries up every year, a little life also dries up; if each year we manage to maintain a source, then we have the guarantee that life will continue. Today I have a spring on my land because we worked hard to take care of it.

Farmers Maria Aparecida Lima Pinheiro and her husband, José Maria. Personal stock image.

Grounded Lives

A common thread runs through the life stories of these family farmers: they see in the maintenance of Creole seeds a way of living a rural life in harmony with the preservation of the environment.

Macedo recounts how the tradition of family farming has crossed his life: “In my family, since my generation, everyone has been a farmer. I learned to work in the fields playing with my father from the age of 5. The eldest of 10 brothers, he grows rice, peanuts, beans, cassava, maize and fruit on his land.

According to Macedo, for many years the popular belief was that farmers who tended Creole seeds were ignorant because they refused to adopt industrial farming methods. “Today people can see that these seeds are worth their weight in gold. The technology associated with organic fertilizers helps maintain quality.

Macedo’s organic production allowed him to raise seven children, and today he works alone, cultivating 2 hectares (5 acres) of land. “For many years, we sold our products at the vegetable market. Today, I supply the PNAE, the PAA and even mass distribution”, he says.

“In the future, I expect to be able to bring in other people who want to live this way. Our wealth lies in our way of living in harmony with nature.

Pinheiro shares a similar story. She is president of the Minas Novas Family Farmers and Vegetable Market Workers Association, which now has 110 members. “I have been working in the fields since I was 9 years old. I was helping my parents, who were also farmers. I traveled long distances to sell our products and I was able to study a little in rural schools,” she says.

This family history led her to cultivate creole seeds on her land from 2013, after a period when she produced cassava flour and sweets. “After getting a loan, we managed to build a small greenhouse to grow vegetables and started selling to PNAE. Today, in addition to growing our own food, my husband and I grow and sell at the market, door to door and even on WhatsApp [mobile app]. Our day starts at 5 a.m.

Pinheiro says she does not allow any agrochemicals on her farm. “We make organic compost and use biofertilizers. With this combination we grew lettuce weighing up to a kilo [2 pounds],” she says.

Another farmer in the family, Valdir Gonçalves, says he remembers his first contact with the soil coming from his father, who was a cattle herder and also a farmer. “I loved going to the fields with my father from the age of 6. But it was after 2006, when I was an adult and had done different jobs, that I dedicated myself to family farming through the CAV movement. I got my first hoop seeds from our neighbors and every year I get more at seed fairs,” he says.

Today, Gonçalves cultivates his land alongside his wife and daughter. “We plant maize, beans, cassava, native Cerrado plants and especially guandu [pigeon peas]. We supply acerola, oranges and green salads to the PNAE and the PAA. In my opinion, the maintenance of creole seeds is the most important because it preserves the environment. These seeds are already conditioned there, so we don’t need to use any chemicals. We eat what we plant and also buy from other farmers,” he says.

Gonçalves says that when he first bought his land, it was completely degraded. Today it has two springs surrounded by riverside forest.

“It is the direct result of our work with agricultural ecology and organic farming. It is important that we live like this because of our quality of life,” he says. “The impression is that we don’t make a lot of money here in the country, but if you think about the fact that we eat chemical-free food, breathe cleaner air and live stress-free, we realize the opposite is true.”

Banner image of Creole bean seeds courtesy of Ceará State Legislature Press Office.

This story was reported by the Brazilian Mongabay team and first published here on our Brazilian site on March 21, 2022.

Article published by Hayat


Agriculture, Agroforestry, Conservation, Ecology, Environment, Forest Products, Forests, International Trade, Reforestation, Sustainability, Tropical Forests

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