HAVANA TIMES – Zé Pequeno cried when he learned that the heirloom seeds he had inherited from his father were contaminated by the transgenic corn his neighbor had brought from the south. Fortunately, he was able to salvage the native seeds because he had shared them with other neighbors.
Euzébio Cavalcanti recalls this story from one of his colleagues to highlight the importance of “passion seeds” for family farming in Brazil’s semiarid low-rainfall ecoregion which extends over 1.1 million square kilometers, twice the size of France, in the northeastern interior of the country.
“These are seeds adapted to the semiarid climate. They can withstand long droughts, without irrigation.” Euzébio Cavalcanti
Saving heirloom seeds is a peasant tradition, but two decades ago the Brazilian Semiarid Articulation (ASA), a network of 3,000 social organizations that emerged in the 1990s, named those who practice it as individual and community guardians of seeds. By September 2021, it had registered 859 banks of native seeds in the region.
Cavalcanti, a 56-year-old farmer with multiple skills such as poet, musician and radio broadcaster, coordinates the network of these banks in the Polo de Borborema, a joint action area of 14 rural workers’ unions and 150 community organizations in central-eastern Paraíba, one of the nine states of the Brazilian Northeast.
“These are seeds adapted to the semiarid climate. They can withstand long droughts, without irrigation, that is why they are so important,” he explained. They also preserve the genetic heritage of many local crop species and family history; they have sentimental value.
“Don’t plant transgenics, don’t erase my history”, is a slogan of the movement that promotes agroecological practices and is opposed to the expansion of genetically modified organisms in local agriculture. “Corn free of transgenics and agrotoxins (agrochemicals)” is the goal of their campaign.
In Paraíba, the name “passion seeds” has been adopted, instead of native or heirloom seeds, since 2003, when the state government announced that it would provide seeds from a specialized company to family farmers.
“If the government offers these seeds, I don’t want them. I have family seeds and I have passion for them,” reacted a farmer in a meeting with the authorities.
“‘Passion seeds’ spread throughout Paraíba. In other states they’re called ‘seeds of resistance’,” Cavalcanti said.
Agroecology is one of the banners of the Polo de Borborema, as it is for ASA in the entire semiarid ecosystem that covers most of the Northeast region and a northern strip of the southeastern state of Minas Gerais.
Learning to coexist with semiarid conditions
This approach arose from a change in the development strategy adopted on the part of local society, especially ASA, since the 1990s. “Coexisting with semiarid conditions” replaced the traditional, failed focus on “fighting the drought”.
Large dams and reservoirs, which only benefit large landowners and do not help the majority of small farmers, gave way to more than 1.2 million tanks for collecting rainwater from household or school rooftops and various ways of storing water for crops and livestock.
It is a process of decolonization of agriculture, education and science, which prioritizes knowledge of the climate and the regional biome, the Caatinga, characterized by low, twisted, drought-resilient vegetation. It also includes the abandonment of monoculture, with the implementation of traditional local horticultural and family farming techniques.
The Northeast, home to 26.9 percent of the national population, or 54.6 million inhabitants according to the 2022 demographic census, concentrates 47.2 percent of the country’s family farmers, according to the 2017 agricultural census. There are 1.84 million small farms worked mainly by family labor.
Brazil’s semiarid region is one of the rainiest in the world for this type of climate, with 200 to 800 millimeters of rain per year on average, although there are drier areas in the process of desertification.
Borborema, the name of a high plateau that obstructs the humidity coming from the sea, making the territory to its west drier, is the scene of various peasant struggles, such as the mobilization for agrarian reform since the 1980s and for small-scale agriculture “without poisons” or agrochemicals, of which the “seeds of passion” are a symbol.
Cavalcanti is a living memory of local history, also as a founder of the local Landless Workers Movement (MST) and an activist in the occupations of unproductive land to create rural settlements, on one of which he gained his own small farm where he grows beans, corn and, vegetables and has two rainwater collection tanks.
Women help drive the expansion of agroecology
Women have played a key role in the drive towards agroecology. The March for Women’s Lives and Agroecology is an annual demonstration that since 2010 has defended family farming and the right to a healthy life.
This year, on Mar. 16, 5,000 women gathered in Montadas, a municipality of 5,800 inhabitants, to block the creation of wind farms that have already caused damage to the health of small farmers by being installed near their homes.
Borborema is “a territory of resistance,” say the women. About 15 years ago, they succeeded in abolishing the cultivation of tobacco.
When the citrus blackfly arrived, the government tried to combat it with pesticides, but “we resisted; we used natural products and solved the problem for our oranges and lemons,” said Ligoria Felipe dos Santos, a 54-year-old mother of three.
“That is agroecology, which is strengthened in the face of threats. Farmers are aware, they resort to alternative defenses, they know that it is imbalance that leads to pests,” she told IPS.
“Agroecology is a good banner for union activity,” said Lexandre Lira, 42, president of the Rural Workers Union of Esperança, a municipality of 31,000 people in the center of the Polo de Borborema.
It is also a factor in keeping farmers’ children on the farms, because it awakens the interest of young people in agriculture, said Edson Johny da Silva, 27, the union’s youth coordinator.
Pulp, added value
Maria das Graças Vicente, known as Nina, 51, along with her husband Givaldo Firmino dos Santos, 52, is an example of agroecological productivity. On 1.25 hectares of land they produce citrus fruits, passion fruit, acerola (Amazon or Barbados cherry), mango and other fruits, as well as sugar cane, corn, beans and other vegetables.
Grafted fruit tree seedlings are another of the products they use to expand their income, as IPS was shown during a visit to their farm.
Using their own harvest and fruit they buy from neighbors, they make pulp in a small shed separate from their home, with a small machine purchased with the support of the Advisory and Services to Projects in Alternative Agriculture (AS-PTA), a non-governmental organization that supports farmers in Borborema and other parts of Brazil.
“Luckily we have a microclimate in the valley, where it rains more than in the surrounding areas. Everything grows here,” Santos told IPS.
But the couple created three reservoirs to collect rainwater and withstand droughts: a 16,000-liter water tank for household use, another that collects water on the paved ground for irrigation, and a small lagoon dug in the lower part of the farm.
But in 2016 the lagoon dried up, because of the “great drought” that lasted from 2012 to 2017, Vicente said.
The fruit pulp factory has grown in recent years and now has seven small freezers to store fruit and pulp for sale to the town’s stores and restaurants. The couple decided to purchase a cold room with the capacity of 30 freezers.
“I work in the mornings on the land, in the afternoons I make pulp and my husband is in charge of the sales,” she said.
Hiring workers from outside the family to reduce the workload costs too much and “we try to save as much as possible on everything, to sell the pulp at a fair price,” Santos said.