I recently painted a few words at the entrance to my backyard, which, I believe, explain the work I have been carrying out: “Parquetina Farm – São Bento Ecological Micro-Station”. Parquetina Farm was named many, many years ago, when my father, José Bento de Oliveira, was still alive. I named it “Ecological Micro-Station” because of how I treat the land, soil, plants, bees, and birds. And São Bento is a form of paying homage to my father. The micro-station is part of an environmental project, it is a tiny part of a much larger stripe of land that was devastated and that, to this day, suffers with fires and deforestation.
Parquetina Farm is located in the Lagoa do Brejinho community, six kilometers from the municipality of São José do Sabugi, in the Sabugi Valley, in the state of Paraíba. We are part of the Seridó(1) region. The community has this name, Lagoa do Brejinho, because of a lagoon that has been here for a long time, since the time of our ancestors. That’s why older residents gave it this name.
The Seridó region was heavily exploited during the cotton cycle.(2) In the past, families lived exclusively on cotton. There were also other crops such as maize, beans, watermelon, and pumpkin – but the main source of income was cotton. As it is a monoculture, there was great wear and tear on the land of the communities here. We would cut down trees to plant, and in the first year we would plant corn and beans intercropped with cotton. However, from the second year onwards, we no longer planted corn and beans along with cotton; we started needing new areas because cotton would spread and take over and the land no longer produced anything else. We would always have to enlarge our plots, because we needed subsistence crops to feed our families.
Cotton provided income in cash and brought a lot of money to the Northeast region. We attribute the issue of environmental degradation to the production of cotton, but it wasn’t exactly the cotton, but the way it was planted. Cotton itself could even have helped recover areas that are now devastated, as it is a tree that produces a lot of organic matter. However, people’s greed was too great. Trees were cut down in many areas, the native vegetation burned, and no one took care of the land. That led to degradation. Cotton was grown in the Seridó region since the Indigenous people lived here; they grew mocó cotton, which later came to be called arboreal cotton. That was when English companies became interested in its wool, which is resistant and of a very intense white. Soon large-scale planting became common, as foreign companies would associate with local land owners who were more financially well-off.
In my father’s time, there came a moment when the land became so frail that we had to lease land in Rio Grande do Norte, our neighboring State, in order to be able to plant corn, watermelon, pumpkin and beans. Our land produced cotton only, and still it was not enough. My father wasn’t from here, he was from Esperança, a town in the Paraíba wetlands, close to Campina Grande. When he arrived, he was attracted by the strength of cotton. It was the most important crop and continued to be so until the 1990s, when planting came to an end due to the appearance of boll weevils, a pest that strongly attacked its flowering cycle. Families started looking for other means of survival; they tried to plant corn and beans, but the land was wearied. Few people kept planting; many migrated to the city. That’s when I understood that I needed to do something to improve the soil.
If cotton was a source of income and financial resource, subsistence crops – such as corn, bean, pumpkin, and watermelon – meant food security for our peasant families. That is why some people reserved part of their land for subsistence farming. To this today, I plant corn, beans, pumpkin, and watermelon. I plant my garden every single year.
We plant subsistence crops with the first rains. We want to seed the ground fast so it will germinate as soon as possible. The peasant farmer has a saying: “Always plant after the trail of rain”. If it rained yesterday, today we shall plant. The wet season begins in January; that’s when the first rains begin. Our region is not very wet. If it rains in January, February, and March, it is enough for us to harvest. If we take too long to plant, if we wait too long and lose a month during the wet season, it might be that the crops will grow but when it is time for them to bloom the rains will end. Our winter is short;(3) if it starts raining in January, winter will not go beyond April. In May we won’t have any more rain to plant and harvest.
We work with crioulo(4)corn. Families have been preserving these seeds, which belonged to their ancestors, their parents and grandparents. It is a type of corn that is adapted to our region, our land, our climate. It grows to a normal size and produces well, both for grain and forage. When we plant, we don’t just think about human consumption, we also think about animal consumption. Crioulo corn has the great advantage of also serving as food for farm animals.
There are several types of corn. Some corn is good for making dough, and it works well for corn-based foods – pamonha,(5) canjica(6) or corn cake –, but there are also corn varieties that are not appropriate for dough making but are great for xerém.(7) There is white corn, garlic corn, pingoró corn, red corn, and jabatão corn. We lost the seed of the jabatão corn… Due to the droughts, we also lost the aracajú corn. It was a very good type of corn. The crioulo seed we use is a non-specific type of corn.
Two reasons contributed to the loss of most of the bean varieties that we had in the past. One of them are the very prolonged periods of drought, intensified by climate change. The other is the economic power of industrial agriculture. Their selection of beans standardizes the crops, and only a few types of beans remain. When there were more varieties of beans, they were tastier for consumption. In this region, we have two types of beans: tardão beans and ligeiro beans. The ligeiro bean has a shorter life cycle and produces faster, while tardão beans have a much longer life cycle; as they produce, they maintain moisture in the soil.
I remember that, among the varieties of beans we used to have, there were lima beans, pingo d’água beans, garanjão beans, costela de vaca beans, cancão beans, pitiúba beans, and purple beans. The latter were extinguished because of the trade industry; they had a color considered strange, even though they were more resistant. Beans are also distributed among the arranca bean variety, which includes carioquinha, gordo, mulatinho and fava beans. There are white fava beans, orelha de vovó fava, coxinho fava. There is a fava that is the color of wine …
There used to be a variety of types of beans and a very large variety of favas, but they were lost because of the prolonged dry seasons and the trade industry. During continuous periods of drought, we had no way of harvesting new seeds, and the seeds we saved would not germinate and could no longer be replanted. We always knew where and when to plant and harvest in order to have beans all throughout the year. Due to the droughts, many families looked for other sources of income and most of those who plant no longer plant enough for the whole year: they must buy beans. Only a few families can still harvest enough beans to last the entire year.
I have been developing planting techniques; some I learned from my father and some from necessity. For example, for dealing with the erosion left by the cotton cycle, I started building what I call “dry stone dams”. In every stream, which we call barroca, there are little dams built with stones. They support the soil and contribute for the infiltration of water. Also, it is important not to remove the vegetation that is on the banks of the streams. I have been protecting such vegetation. I also try not to use an ox-drawn plow for farming, to fertilize the land with manure from the barnyard, to use mulch, and to work with a crop rotation: if I plant in a plot now, next year I’ll let it rest. I also started planting sisal plants in wet areas, because sisal has the function of retaining the soil, avoiding erosion. It has a very thin root, and works like a tissue that retains the earth and facilitates water infiltration.
In our region, there were many baraúna trees.(8) Even though they were very resistant, their growth was slow, and they were cut down until they became extinct. Baraúnas had healing properties; their barks were used to cure various diseases. Another plant that I really liked were the quixabeira trees. In addition to having very good fruits, they were medicinal. Unfortunately, the quixabeira species was also destroyed. The jucá tree still exists in other regions, but we almost don’t see it anymore. There was also a plant we called “knife breaker”; it is of small size, like a quince tree, and it was very resistant, which explains the name. If one tried to cut a thin branch with a knife, the knife would break. It was very strong and hard to cut. It was also a very fragrant plant; its bark exuded a very strong perfume, and it was medicinal. If I were to talk about all the plants that existed in large numbers in our region and no longer exist now… the list would be long.
What upsets me most is that when a native forest is cut down, all the vegetation that grows with it, and that has a slower life cycle, is also cut down. These days it is rare to see embiratanhas, cumarus, and also what people call emburana de cheiro. I struggled to find a jucá seedling, and now I have a jucá tree here, as well as in another farm that my father left me, nearby. There is a very old jucá tree there. There are also mulungus, cumarus and embiratanhas, which have little gourds. I have plenty of aroreiras, angicos, catingueiras, feijão brabo, aveloz – both here and elsewhere. On the other farm, there are many aveloz trees; they were planted by my father. There is also a lot of agave, as well as gravatá, which is a wild plant that I like as an ornament. It is quite beautiful – at least I think so. I usually say that we have a different way of looking at the resources we have. If we learn to look at them from a different perspective, what is ugly becomes beautiful.
I have great zeal for the angicos that my father left, which he called “angico maloca”. When we were producing cotton, wood was difficult to find because all the land had been deforested. My father kept these angico trees so that, when he needed some wood, he would have it. He never fully cut the trees. If a tree had two branches, he would remove one and leave the other. I followed the same path that my father used to take; I kept the angicos.
When the time came for me to build my house, I built it near a very old juazeiro tree. My father asked me to build the house but told me to never cut down the juazeiro tree, as it provided good shade and was a source of food for the goats. In the sertão,(9) the juazeiro is the only tree that keeps its leaves during the dry season. When its leaves fall, near the end of the year, they soon sprout again. It blooms with the first rains. In fact, last year it budded a lot; it was full of flowers. The juazeiro helps us predicting what the winter rain will be like.
My farm hosts one of the oldest umbu trees in the region. I won’t say it’s the oldest, because it would be impossible to say that about a plant which I didn’t see grow. But from the story told by the ancestors, the older people who knew it many years ago, I deduce it is one of the oldest. Abdias, who passed away more than thirty years ago, always told me that, when he was ten or twelve years old and came to take care of his father’s animals, that umbu tree was already very old. There was a hole in the stem of the tree, where they left a mug to drink water. When Abdias died, he was ninety-six years old. More than one hundred and thirty years have passed since he was born!
There is an umbu tree that I planted and that is now forty years old, and I know that it is not even close to being an adult umbu tree. If Abdias said the umbu tree was very old, we can put the puzzle together. I know that a forty-year-old umbu tree is a very young tree, so I can suppose that the other one is really very old.
However, it is not the only one. We have other umbu trees that are very old around here. There is an umbu tree that is known as “jaguar’s umbu”, because, at the time when there were jaguars in this region, they herded goats in order to catch them near that specific umbu tree. People back then nicknamed it “jaguar’s umbu”, and the name caught. I took care of the trees that grew in the farm and today I have around seventy umbu trees – that’s a lot, if you consider I only own three hectares of land. As I often say, the will to stay on this earth is huge around here.
The umbu tree can be considered a symbol of the nordestino(10) people. That tree taught us how to make cisterns. The umbu tree is the living being that first created cisterns in the world, storing water for subsistence. Its cisterns are those potato-like parts, that are filled with water so it can flower and bear fruit in the dry season. The umbu tree blooms even if there isn’t a single drop of water on the ground, because it stores water in its cistern.
I also have a lot of cacti, and sometimes I even forget the name of the species, because there are so many. There are palmas, or nopals, which are a source of food for cattle in the summer, which is much longer than the winter in this region. I have a variety of them: orelha de onça, gigante, gigante mexicana, orelha de elefante. I also have some palma doce – which we call a “girl’s hand” because it has no fur or thorns; it’s smooth. I have some small palma doce, which has a lot of thorns; I brought them from a visit to the headquarters of the Instituto Nacional do Semiarido (INSA).(11) Furthermore, I have xique-xique and mandacaru cacti, which also work as water reservoirs.
In addition to their beauty, I keep them because of the more critical periods we go through in this region, when there are great droughts and continuous years of scarcity. The thorns of these plants are burned and offered as food for cattle. They are a very good source of energy, very vitamin-rich. Even though they are wild plants, if we handle them correctly, cutting them without destroying the mother plant, they will regrow. In other years of drought, we’ll have them as a source of food for the cattle again.
There are also ornamental cacti, which I plant just because I think they are beautiful, for decoration. Amendoim, americano, facheiro, flor de frade, those are all well known in the sertão. I have a love for cacti just because of their beauty. Over time, I acquired many of them. Friends started giving them to me as presents. When one loves plants, it is easy to meet people who share the same feeling; often we exchange them and friendship arises. Plants have the power to engender friendships.
There are people who look like farmers in every way. If one looks at them, one will say they are farmers. But if these people plant in order to harvest to earn money, they are “micro-agribusiness”. Their land is not a survival space, it is a commercial space. Many don’t even consume the products they plant. They produce exclusively to sell. We, real farmers, year in and year out, must insist. We plant and, if a crop fails, we plant again. We don’t just plant to make money; we plant in order to consume what we produce. As soon as it rains, we feel the urge to plant. A real, good old farmer plants for pleasure.
1 Seridó is an inter-state region located in Northeast Brazil, between the states of Rio Grande do Norte and Paraíba.
2 Refers to a period between the XVII and XIX centuries when cotton was the most important product in Brazilian economy.
3 “Winter” is used by the author as an equivalent for wet season, as the weather is always warm in that part of Brazil.
4 A colorful type of corn that is different from agricultural industry corn. Preserving seed variety, farmers pass it from generation to generation.
5 Pamonha is typical Brazilian food made of corn and coconut milk, usually made and served in a banana leaf.
6 Canjica is a Brazilian desert, similar to custard, made with corn, milk and sugar.
7 A preparation made by breaking corn into a thick flour, usually used to feed animals.
8 The trees mentioned in this paragraph are all native to South America.
9 Sertão is a region in Northeast Brazil, marked by the caatinga biome and for being economically poor. It is a hinterland region.
10 Native or inhabitant of the Northeast region in Brazil.
11 The National Institute for the semi-arid region.