In Brazil, a forest community helps seed new trees far and wide

  • Brazil’s Atlantic Forest is dotted with quilombos, communities originally founded by former slaves, some of which have been around for more than 300 years.
  • Following the example of indigenous communities in the Xingu area of Mato Grosso state, quilombos in São Paulo state’s Vale do Ribeira region are collecting and selling seeds as a source of income.
  • They ship the seeds by mail, in mixed batches called muvuca, to landowners who use them to reforest degraded lands through direct seeding.
  • The project has not only helped financially empower the quilombos, but also raised the communities’ understanding and appreciation for the native trees and plants of their land.

ELDORADO — The first time that somebody mentioned collecting seeds to Seu João Motta, he thought it was the stupidest idea he’d ever heard. Living in the middle of Atlantic Forest, he had always seen seeds as something so abundant that they had to be worthless.

Last year he started to think differently.

Seu João is a quilombola from Nhunguara, one of hundreds of colonies of former slaves known as quilombos that are spread throughout Brazil’s Atlantic Forest. Started as resistance communities by fleeing slaves, some quilombos are today more than 300 years old.

Now, the quilombos of Nhunguara, Maria Rosa and Andé Lopes are establishing a network to collect and sell native seeds from the Vale do Ribeira region, some 250 kilometers (155 miles) from the city of São Paulo. The Vale do Ribeira Seed Network aims to create a new source of income for the communities while providing an alternative way of reforesting degraded lands elsewhere.

“Most of the people that buy the seeds are landowners that have been fined for having degraded areas in their properties,” says Juliano Nascimento, from the Instituto Socioambiental (ISA), an NGO working with the quilombolas to provide technical assistance and help find seed buyers. “And restoring the land using seeds rather than seedlings is an interesting option for landowners, as they can cut the costs up to two-thirds.”

Bags of seeds. Photo courtesy Guilherme Rodrigues.

The negotiations with the buyers are concluded before the seeds are collected, Juliano says, to ensure the quilombolas’ work isn’t in vain.

In the first year of the project, they collected 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of 11 different Atlantic Forest species, which were used to restore a total of 5 hectares (12 acres) of land in different parts of Brazil. The whole operation earned the communities a net income of about $770.

Their goal for next year is to double these figures.

Seed networks

The idea of creating a seed network in the Vale do Ribeira did not come out of the blue. Despite Seu João’s initial reaction, the quilombolas of this region have long been aware of the importance of seeds.

Every year since 2007 they have organized a Seed Trade Fair in the city of Eldorado, where members of all the local quilombos meet to exchange seeds and experiences. The quilombolas are also familiar with reforestation schemes. In Nhunguara, members of the quilombo have managed a seedling nursery for more than a decade whose main customers are landowners with environmental debts.

Given this precedent, activists with the ISA saw fertile ground to try to reproduce a successful project that has been going on for more than 10 years in the region of Xingu, in Matto Grosso state.

There, the ISA partnered with indigenous communities to start the Xingu Seed Network, an operation that was launched with five people in 2007 and today involves more than 500. On its website, it offers seeds from 179 different species that can be sent by mail.

Seeds. Photo courtesy Guilherme Rodrigues.
Seeds. Photo courtesy Guilherme Rodrigues.

Last year, Maria Tereza Motta, a member of the Nhunguara quilombo and one of the leaders of the project in the Vale do Ribeira, was invited by the ISA to meet the people involved in the Xingu project.

“When I saw it with my own eyes was when I really started to really believe in the project, in the idea that we could create something similar here, in the Vale do Ribeira,” Maria Tereza said.

One of the advantages of working with seeds rather than seedlings is that they’re small and easy to handle. This is critical to cutting costs, as the seeds can be sent to faraway places by mail.

“We can put the seeds in envelopes and send them over the mail,” Maria Tereza said. “We don’t have freight costs and we can sell them to any place in the country.”

‘Noisy people’

Although anyone can order seeds, the network’s main target is landowners who need to reforest degraded land. Normally, this is done using seedlings, but the network promotes the use of mixes of seeds as a cheaper and more convenient alternative. At the ISA, these mixes are called muvuca, a Portuguese word used to describe a noisy group of people.

Each muvuca has a composition that is tailored to meet the specific requirements of each plot of land, in terms of soil, climate conditions and the owner’s plans for the area. The mix usually contains seeds from plants, shrubs and trees, from both so-called generalist and specialist species.

Seedlings. Photo courtesy Guilherme Rodrigues.
Seedlings. Photo courtesy Guilherme Rodrigues.

The generalist species, also known as “pioneer species,” are the first to germinate. Once these species develop, they create conditions for the more demanding specialist species to grow. This way, the muvuca follows the same principles used in agroforestry, which in turn are inspired by the phenomenon of “ecological succession.”

“Our current knowledge of the muvuca comes from the Xingu, whose vegetation is a transition between cerrado [tropical savanna] and Amazon forest,” the ISA’s Juliano says. “We still don’t know much about how it will work in the Atlantic Forest.” They are now closely following the areas that were restored last year with their muvuca to see what works and what doesn’t, and plan to improve the mix accordingly.

Beyond income

While finding a new source of income is important, the quilombolas say the project is also helping them to look at their own land in a different way. They are discovering new species and learning more about the life cycle of those they already know and use.

“We had always used the bark of the pau pimenta [Cinnamodendron dinisii] to spice our food, but we had no idea what the seed looked like and now we do,” says Maria Tereza, listing one of the many findings they made in the last year.

In addition to this new perspective on their territory, the project is also giving the quilombolas the opportunity to learn the specifics of different types of seeds.

“For instance, ingá [Inga sp.] seeds have to be used right away, they can’t be stored for long periods,” says Adonir Motta, another quilombola involved in the project. “Other seeds, like the ones from the juçara [Euterpe edulis], can be kept for a couple of months, but when their time comes, they germinate regardless of where they are.”

Bags and bottles of seeds. Photo courtesy Guilherme Rodrigues.
Bags and bottles of seeds. Photo courtesy Guilherme Rodrigues.

By strengthening the links of the quilombolas with their land, something else is accomplished. According to Juliano, the two seed projects in which the ISA has been involved, in Xingu and in the Vale do Ribeira, have been enthusiastically embraced by women and young people.

This is especially important, as it gives future generations both reasons and means to stay on their lands. And it’s why Seu João ended up embracing the project.

“I now see that this could be a great way of ensuring our future,” he said, “and delivering to our children what our grandparents left us.”

Banner image: Photo courtesy Guilherme Rodrigues.

Ignacio Amigo is a freelance journalist based in São Paulo, Brazil. You can find him on Twitter at @IgnacioAmigoH.

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