Preta cleans seeds in Quilombo Nhunguara. Photo: Bianca Tozato/ISA

The Vale do Ribeira Seeds Network Unites Quilombolas for the Forests of the Future

The work of collecting seeds brings families together, the possibility of developing new relationships with the territory.

Andressa Cabral Botelho/ISA

The work of collecting forest seeds changed the reality of 42 quilombo communities in the Vale do Ribeira, in the southeastern portion of São Paulo state. And it awakened a sense of collective care and commitment to our planet.

Collecting seeds is a task that strengthens community ties and enables quilombolas to recognize themselves as important agents of forest restoration.

These families comprise the Vale do Ribeira Seeds Network.

Located in a region of the Atlantic Forest where 80% of the forest remains protected, the Vale do Ribeira Seeds Network has worked the past four years to collect seeds in the quilombola communities of André Lopes, Bombas, Maria Rosa, and Nhunguara, in the municipalities of Eldorado and Iporanga, in São Paulo state.

The quilombolas who reside in these communities maintain their ancestral traditions of carrying for the territories in which they live and, in so doing, they make it possible for other areas to be protected by planting seeds, as well.

Officially, 42 quilombolas participate and work in the collection, maintenance, and commercialization of Atlantic Forest seeds, but the number of actual participants is much higher. Working with seeds involves not only the persons who are members of the network, but also their spouses, sons, and daughters — children, adolescents, and adults — daughters-in-law and sons-in-law — who also participate in various stages of the process, from collection of the seeds to final delivery.

Preta at her home, in Quilombo Nhungaura. Photo: Bianca Tozato/ISA

That’s what happened in the case of Donaria Messias dos Santos, better known as “Preta,” a quilombola from Nhunguara. She has been a part of the network since 2018 and while she participates in the network’s activities, she also receives help in her home from her husband and her two children who live with her and accompany her in the collections that she performs on weekends. “Now, even my daughter-in-law is interested in learning more and she wants to help by cleaning the seeds,” she said. Besides them, she always collects seeds with Ivo Pedroso, Nilza Oliveira and her sister Omelina França, both from Quilombo André Lopes.

The Vale do Ribeira Seeds Network is important for generating income for these families, including Preta’s. Before joining the group, Preta took care of her mother in Quilombo André Lopes and it was thanks to her visits to the neighboring quilombo that she learned about the initiative and started collecting seeds. There, she was invited by Zélia Morato Pupo dos Santos to accompany her on one of her outings and, upon learning about the work that was being done and the possibility of earning income from the collection of seeds, Preta became interested.

“On Saturday’s and Sunday’s we collect seeds and, during the week, we work in the fields. Before that, I worked in Eldorado and Sete Barras. After I started with seeds, I stopped working for others and started working for myself. The money we receive with the seeds helps a lot at home,” she said.

Last year, quilombolas gathered around 120 species of forest seeds and a total of more than 750 kg of seeds. As a result, it was possible to generate around R$70 thousand for participating families, on average R$2 thousand per family.

The collected seeds are sold to partners and projects that work with nurseries or forest restoration. In the second case, restoration takes place through muvuca, a technique that mixes different species and plants them all together to recover degraded areas.

The Vale do Ribeira Seeds Network has been in existence since 2017 and, since then, its collectors have gathered more than one ton of seeds from more than 150 species. The seeds were sent to around 20 municipalities in the states of Minas Gerais, Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo. The muvuca technique has made it possible to restore more than 20 hectares of Atlantic Forest.

Juliano Silva do Nascimento, agronomist and technical advisor at ISA who works alongside the collectors, notes that, although it is cheaper, forest restoration from muvuca still needs to be better known. “Many people still think that restoration from seedlings is the most viable option and are unaware of the potential of restoration from seeds themselves,” he noted.

Juliano Silva do Nascimento and Donaria Messias dos Santos separating seeds. Photo: Bianca Tozato/ISA

Quality control in collection

Edna Rosa da Prata Santos serves as a liaison between Quilombo Maria Rosa and the Administrative Center of the Seed Network. There, she is a focal point, responsible for communication and arrangements with the group, such as ordering seeds and organizing meetings and other activities.

In addition, she and other liaisons in the other three communities distribute the orders to each collector and assess whether the seeds are clean, so that they can proceed to the Casa de Sementes and, later on, to their final destination: the consumer.

While in charge, Edna realizes that many people are interested in collecting specific seeds because they know that some seeds generate more income than others. However, she highlights that there is an organization and that the work is much larger than just collecting seeds. “There are a lot of people wanting to join the group, but they only want to collect what gives a good return. But it’s not just about collecting. It’s necessary to participate in the meetings, to understand the importance of collecting and to comply with the agreements.”

At the beginning of each year, the liaisons and collectors prepare the Potential List, which is a survey with an estimate of what they intend to deliver throughout the year. This listing is presented to the Administrative Center and, subsequently, to buyers and partners.

Lourenço Dias, Murilo Santos and Edna Rosa in the Maria Rosa quilombo. Photo: Bianca Tozato/ISA

Knowledge of the local flora and monitoring the flowering, fruiting, and seed dispersal periods, and observing external factors, such as excess or lack of rain or pest attacks, for instances, allows the collector to assess how these factors may impact the collection that year. Knowledge of these landscape management techniques and traditional quilombola knowledge of Vale do Ribeira — the Traditional Agricultural System (SAT) — was recognized in 2018 by the National Historical and Artistic Heritage Institute (Iphan) as an intangible cultural heritage of Brazil, valorizing, thus, the work of those who collect seeds.

The perception of the environment today is a significant change that collectors in Quilombo Maria Rosa have noticed since they joined the network in 2019. Before participating, Lourenço Dias da Mota admitted that he didn’t pay attention and that he wasn’t that interested in learning about the species.

“We passed by and didn’t pay attention to the seeds. But now we are more attentive in the forest or on the road, looking for something. And we started to go deeper into the forest after the seeds”, he highlighted.

Edna’s children, Lara and Murilo, also have very sharp eyes and since they are young, they readily recognize the species of trees and seeds.

“I got into the habit of going into the forest and paying attention to everything. I end up getting distracted by seeing the seeds! But it wasn’t like that before. I could step on a seed and didn’t care about it. Now the kids are curious. They go into the forest, find seeds, bring them for us to look and see if it’s good or not. They are already growing up with this habit of observing the plants and the environment and getting to know the seeds”, said the collector.

During the walk, Murilo saw some pods in the forest and brought them so that he and his mother, Edna, could see them together. Photo: Bianca Tozato/ISA

LEARN MORE ABOUT THE VALE DO RIBEIRA SEEDS CATALOG

Because of their remote location, the quilombolas of Maria Rosa encounter many difficulties in securing income from the sale of agricultural products from their garden plots (roças). Thus, income from the Seeds Network is crucial for the participating families.

“If we didn’t have the seeds, we wouldn’t have the money, because there is little work or government assistance. So it’s a shift because we know that at some point the seed money will come in,” she noted.

Knowledge passed from mother to daughter

André Lopes Fia and Zélia Pupo’s quilombolas. Photo: Bianca Tozato/ISA

Zélia and her husband Maurício Pereira Pupo were among the first quilombolas to be a part of the Vale do Ribeira Seeds Network.

Today, the family plays an important role within the group, explaining the importance of collecting seeds, but initially Zélia viewed the work with skepticism. After conversations and the invitation for an exchange trip to meet collectors with the Xingu Seeds Network, in 2018, she changed her mind and started to participate and invite other people. “Today, seeing the issue of deforestation and knowing that we have this wealth [in the quilombos], why not share it with other people?”

During the outings, they are approached on the road by people curious about their work, thinking that the seeds are used for food. Maurício relates that, when explaining the reason for collecting seeds and the importance of their work with landscape management and that the seeds will help in forest restoration, they are praised for the initiative.

“I think it’s important to have some kind of identification so that people know that we are part of the Seed Network. Many of them look suspicious when they see us with the cutters, thinking that we are going to cut down the forest and end up changing their minds when they hear us explain what the network’s work is all about,” she said.

Fia recalls her beginnings in the Seeds Network. Photo: Bianca Tozato/ISA

Geisieli Carina dos Santos Pupo, Fia, is one of Zélia and Maurício’s youngest daughters. She is also the youngest collector at Rede de Sementes, at 24 years old. The work started when she started helping her mother at work.

Collecting seeds is a family activity, as her brothers and uncles also collect seeds or perform other activities, such as cleaning the seeds. In 2021, two years after Fia started accompanying the family, she made her first collection and delivery on her own. From that moment on, she also started to participate in activities as a collector.

Fia admits that the beginning was more difficult because the family didn’t know how to collect and they couldn’t meet the goals. “The first seed I collected — and the one I find most difficult to separate until today — is caquera (Senna multijuga). The first time, if we took 200 g, it was a lot”, she recalled, noting that today both she and Zélia have tools and are more adept at collecting, cleaning, and selecting seeds.

In addition to caquera, the family also collects cotton, assa-peixe, pigeon pea, guava, jurubeba and annatto, available in Quilombo André Lopes itself, and goat’s eye, which can be found at a greater distance.

Fia’s presence in the group inspires a feeling of continuity and renewal, as it shows that, in addition to the elders, young people are also concerned with taking care of the Atlantic Forest and restoration.

“When I found out what people [from the Xingu Seed Network] were doing there and what the quilombolas were doing here with the collection of seeds, I thought it was very important. Especially now, with so many burnings happening and destroying the woods. When my mother warned me about this, I saw the importance of collecting. If it’s to help people enjoy [the plant diversity] that I enjoy here, then it must be important and I wanted to participate,” she said.

In addition to generating income, the network contributes to landscape management, which for Fia is the most important part. Because she still lives with her family, she chooses to give part of the money she received to her mother to help with household expenses.

The participation and engagement of quilombola youth has greatly increased. At the last Seeds and Seedling Exchange Fair of the Quilombola Communities of Vale do Ribeira, in 2019, they comprised 30% of the attendees. The quilombola youth also participated in publishing the book ‘Roça é Vida’, which poetically addresses the importance of the Traditional Agricultural System.

Fia’s family was present at the 2018 Fair and fondly recalled the possibility of exchanging seeds and affections among the people participating: “It was good to get to know new seeds and learn more from people. We exchanged seeds and seedlings and planted some of them here in the quilombo, such as oranges and juçara”.