Against hunger and Covid-19, quilombolas put food on the table in favelas
Vale do Ribeira Cooperative (SP) forms alliance to preserve income streams in communities and alleviate the impact of the pandemic on vulnerable families.
Roberto Almeida, journalist at ISA
Video: Manoela Meyer/ISA
Translation: Philip Somervell
More hospitalisations, fewer ICU vacancies, more Covid-19 deaths. On 26th February 2021, Greater São Paulo once again regressed to the Orange Phase of the state government’s SP Plan, which restricts the operation of non-essential services. It was the beginning of the gravest period of the pandemic so far.
At 7am, a lorry belonging to the Quilombola Farmers’ Cooperative of the Ribeira Valley (Cooperquivale) pulled up in front of the Residents’ Association of Jardim São Remo, a favela in the west of São Paulo. A most unlikely and urgent connection was created: organic food from the quilombos with the fringes of the country’s largest city.
Boxes of hearts of palm, bananas, coconas, avocados, limes, jackfruits, honey, dried fish, banana chips, whole cane sugar, pumpkins, sweet potatoes (3 varieties) and cassavas, and more boxes were passed from hand to hand.
The talk among the group of women volunteers from the residents’ association was to guess what was coming from the quilombola fields, such was the diversity of produce. “Some people thought those were persimmons. But they’re sour, they’re coconas”, they laughed. “And are these sweet potatoes or cassavas? There are white ones, red ones, they come in all sorts…”, they said, while the boxes slid from side to side, creating a maze in the middle of the room.
In all, there were 11 tonnes of quilombola foods which, according to the association’s volunteers, would help feed around a thousand families that month. It is still not much.
A study carried out in February by the Instituto Data Favela in partnership with Locomotiva — Research and Strategy and the Central Única das Favelas (Cufa) shows an alarming picture. Eight out of ten favela residents said they need donations to survive.
Emergency aid has been suspended since the end of last year, with a return scheduled for mid-April. The average amount should be R$ 250.
“Today, unfortunately, after people returned to work, there was this false impression that the pandemic was over. But it’s not over”, says Catarina Godói, a cook and volunteer at the residents’ association. “The amount of closed shops, closed places of work is enormous. Glaring. Today people are in much greater need than at the beginning, when the shock occurred”, she said.
Maria da Conceição Mendes dos Santos Oliveira, 64, who is at increased risk from Covid-19, and has difficulty walking and carrying weight, would not be able to collect food from the association’s offices. But it was delivered to her door by her nephew, Lula Santos, a teacher and community leader.
“A while ago I told my nephew to take a look in the fridge. He went to look. Do you know what I had? Water. Just water. I can’t go to the shops. Bananas, for example, are very important. They have calcium, potassium, it’s important…”, she said. “Pumpkins, bananas, they all do a lot of good. Everything that comes is welcome. Everything is very important for our health. Bless these people who help us”.
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Along the Way, Resistance
Before arriving in Jardim São Remo to distribute 11 tonnes of food, the Cooperquivale lorry went from one community to another, where for centuries quilombolas have produced food with a standing forest.
It is no coincidence. The communities are holders of the Quilombola Traditional Agriculture System, recognised by the National Historic and Artistic Heritage Institute (IPHAN) as an intangible heritage of Brazil. This is why the Vale do Ribeira (SP) concentrates the largest remaining massif of Atlantic Forest in Brazil.
For the food to reach Jardim São Remo by Friday 26th February, the lorry had to start driving through the communities four days earlier. It left the cooperative in Eldorado (SP) and made a stop, among others, at the house of Adan Pereira, at the Sapatu Quilombo, to collect boxes of bananas and take them to the cooler.
Quilombos are groups with black ancestry who developed resistance practices in the maintenance and reproduction of their characteristic ways of life in a determined place.
In the following days, it visited the house of Osvaldo dos Santos, at the Porto Velho Quilombo, to collect cassava flour, honey, rapadura and taiada. It even collected the cassavas collectively harvested at the Cangume Quilombo, and transported the yams harvested on Rosana de Almeida’s farm, in the Nhunguara Quilombo.
It was Michel Guzanchi from the Poça quilombo who planned the logistics. Today he is a coordinator of the cooperative, and familiar with the slow route along the SP-165 which connects Eldorado to Iporanga, Itaóca and Apiaí, a sinuous road bordering the Alto Ribeira State Tourist Park, or PETAR.
“While it is tiring, it is gratifying, it gives our work importance. After going up to the favela in São Paulo, and seeing the other reality of people over there, who also need this produce. When the lorry doors open, the people are already very happy: look at the jackfruit, look at the fish, there’s bananas”, says Guzanchi.
Organising quilombola production, collecting foods and distributing them in a São Paulo favela in the middle of a pandemic is only possible because of the union between the cooperative, the quilombola associations, non-governmental organisations, international organisations and community leaders.
For years, the cooperative delivered its food for school meals via the Ministry of Education’s National School Meals Program. In March last year, at the beginning of the pandemic, the city governments of São Paulo, Santos, Santo André and Cajati suspended their contracts with the cooperative. So far, there is no prospect of contracted deliveries resuming, and the arrangement had to change from one moment to the next, without incentive from the federal, state or municipal governments.
“The first deliveries were over 20 tonnes”, Guzanchi recalls. “In the first one, when everything arrived here at the warehouse, we were surprised. Even we at the cooperative had no idea that we had that capacity. It was scary, because we did it without knowing it would work. And it did.”
This positive and productive movement, which seeks to mitigate both the economic and health impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, soon proved to be a win-win game. On the one hand, income generation for producers was maintained during the biggest health crisis of the last 100 years. They produce the food they consume and trade the surplus with the quilombola cooperative. Their self-esteem also gets a boost.
As a result of this work, the cooperative has been strengthened, its leaders go from one quilombo to the next listening to the demands of producers.
“We covered about 10 communities over three days and 500km, collecting from those communities, until we reached the cooperative”, says Guzanchi. “I like arriving, talking and finding out what each community’s needs are”.
In the last week of February, the topic of conversation in the Vale do Ribeira quilombos was the Covid-19 vaccine. Despite errors and bottlenecks that caused the Federal Supreme Court to take action, many communities had been administered the first dose, an achievement of the statewide quilombola movement, which has worked alongside the São Paulo government since last year to ensure priority for immunisation. Hopes were therefore high, as was the effort to maintain food distribution for vulnerable families.
In addition to the São Remo favela, the quilombola farm and caiçara fishing, the baskets — which also contain dried fish from the Enseada da Baleia Residents’ Association, from Ilha do Cardoso, Cananéia (SP) — have helped feed residents from the São Paulo municipalities of Eldorado, Iporanga, Jandira and Embu das Artes, in addition to an effort in Vila Brasilândia, a favela in the north of the city of São Paulo, which was supported by Magazine Luiza and Instituto Brasil a Gosto.
In all, since March last year there have been nine deliveries totalling over 150 tonnes of produce from the quilombola farms and caiçara fishing communities.
From Quilombo Sapatu, the fruits
The tail engine is beating and the boat slowly crosses the Ribeira do Iguape river, at the height of the Sapatu quilombo, among rocks that are hidden in the muddy run-off. On the distant horizon, the top of the Devil’s Cave, a tourist attraction of the region, is visible.
Adan Rodrigo Trolesi Pereira, 32, is steering the boat. He crosses off from a map what was once land disputed by land-grabbers, and is today a firm working base in quilombola territory, with two years’ management of an organic two-hectare banana plantation.
“We have the wisdom of the old”, says Pereira. “Do not demand too much from the soil, because what you give to it, it gives back.”
The joy, he says, is to plant where his father planted. Where his grandparents planted, and his great-grandparents planted, while revering the large jacataúva tree in the middle of the new banana plantation, which nobody would cut down for anything.
Tool in hand, Pereira walks among the banana trees and chooses a bunch. He removes the tips with the inflorescences — so as not to hurt the fruits during transport — then plunges them into a tub with detergent, where the floating beetles are proof that no poison is used.
“You have a consortium here. You have the crops, but you have the forest together with them. So it hasn’t all been cleared. You’re not silting up the river. You keep the old master trees, and underneath, you clean and plant. All our springs have been preserved, both stream and river. There are springs that never saw a sickle”, celebrated Pereira.
“That is the difference between a traditional community and a farm. On the farm they plant bananas and whatever grows and is different the guy throws poison on it”, he continued.
The banana bunches cross to the other bank of the Ribeira do Iguape powered by boat. Then, on to the SP-165. And then to the lorry, which reaches the Jardim São Remo favela days later.
From the Nhunguara Quilombo, the roots
The sea of yam leaves sways and, among them, Rosana de Almeida cuts with a machete, pulls with a hoe, and the roots leave the earth behind. It is a morning of work on a high hill in Quilombo Nhunguara, in the field at the back of the house overlooking the forest, in the shade of the seriguela tree.
Before, the yard welcomes you with a delight of pink lemons, oranges, guavas, loquats, pupunhas, pumpkins, atas, tomatoes, papayas all in the blink of an eye. On the walk, basket on our back, the water running in the creek refreshes the harsh sun.
“This is an area I work in”, says Almeida, who, no matter where she points to, has fruits, legumes, vegetables, herbs, fields and forests. “On the land, if we plant, it is difficult for a person to go hungry, right? This is where I was born, raised and where I raised the seven children I have.”
It had always been this way, until the pandemic changed things drastically. Almeida also began to take care of the execution of the cooperative’s emergency plans, mobilising producers from over 10 communities. As a result, the messaging application doesn’t stop beeping.
“If we didn’t have the cooperative, we wouldn’t even be able to sell the produce. Before, what we planted, we planted, what we ate, we ate, and the rest, as they say, was left to the land. Not today. We plant because we know it will be sold”, he said.
From Quilombo Cangume, the union
After the offices of the municipality of Itaóca, a green island studded with houses can be seen from the road: Quilombo Cangume. In the surroundings there are pastures, pines and eucalyptus trees. But not in Cangume.
Fernando Gonçalves da Silva, Eurico de Oliveira, Esequiel Gonçalves de Pontes, Joel Dias Gonçalves, Pedro Henrique Santos de Pontes and Mimosa the mare work under the late afternoon sun pulling out cassavas. This type of collaborative work, to enliven the effort, goes by many names — mutirão, puxirão, reunida and troca de dia or ‘day swap’. At Cangume and other Vale do Ribeira quilombos, everybody helps each other.
“There is no word that expresses the wonderful land we have here. It is so gratifying to know that you’re putting something on the table which you produced yourself, with your own hands, sweat and work, and you know what you are eating”, says Fernando Gonçalves da Silva, one of the youngest and proudest of the group.
He goes into detail about how cassava is planted and collected. “When it’s about 30cm, we clean it and ground it. When it’s 60cm we clean it again. After 6 to 8 months a very thin cassava emerges”, he explains. “After 8 months you can use it in stews, soups. After a year it looks like this. This one is a year and 2 months, so it’s ready for consumption.”
Transporting the cassava, from the steep hill to the community shed, is done on Mimosa’s back. A motorbike helps with the back and forth. Spirits are high. The cooperative’s lorry arrives early the next day for collection.
From Quilombo Porto Velho, everybody’s struggle
Working in the community, says Osvaldo dos Santos from Quilombo Porto Velho, has the taste of freedom.
He is speaking in a house with a flour oven and a newly-built structure for working sugarcane byproducts. It produces cassava flour, rapadura and taiada — a combination of the first two and ginger, which lends strength to work in the fields.
A strength he wishes to transmit to everyone who will receive the produce. “The struggle of the people of the favela is the struggle of black people in Brazil. The difficulty, the discrimination, the prejudice”, says Santos.
He continues: “It’s a logic we face on a daily basis. It’s not just one day, it’s 500 years. In which black people have to be in a favela, and the black quilombolas continue in their communities with great sacrifice. That’s the point at which we are speaking the same language, on the same wavelength.”
That’s why, walking with him through the territory is to celebrate every piece of ground, of reforested area, cane, rice, cassava. “I find it very satisfying to know that we are feeding them also, in that harmony of black people”, he says.
When the lorry from the cooperative arrived, the products were ready, boxed, in the living room. “The public policy covering meals has stopped, so we’re now delivering on the emergency plan. It’s what has kept us going until now. But we need public policy urgently”, he says.
The emergency actions of food production and distribution are carried out by the Quilombola Associations, Instituto Socioambiental and Cooperquivale in partnership with Coordenação Nacional das Comunidades Negras Quilombolas (Conaq), Instituto Linha D’Água, Associação dos Moradores da Enseada da Baleia, Instituto Brasil a Gosto, Equipe de Articulação e Assessoria às Comunidades Negras do Vale do Ribeira (Eaacone), Eldorado Municipality, Iporanga Municipality, Cananéia Municipality, Jandira Municipality, Embu das Artes Municipality, NGO Bloco do Beco, Jardim São Remo Residents’ Association, Vila Brasilândia Residents’ Association, Conexão Petar Group and United Women for a Better Life Association (Amuvim). The actions receive support from the European Union, Good Energies and Rainforest Foundation Norway.