Here I am, in São Paulo, Brazil. The last country of our trip. The final destination. The official end to our program. Yet, there is still so much to do, so much to learn, and so much to experience.
Our group recently arrived back from our rural stay at a Quilombo and an Agroforest. Quilombos are communities originally formed by escaped slaves. These brave individuals ran from enslavement and found refuge in the mountains of Brazil. In time, their practices of agriculture have been passed down from generation to generation. Today, the Quilombo of Ribeirão Grande in Terra Seca fights for its right to stay. The area they are cultivating is a protected area of the forest; there is to be no interference by humans at all. But the people of the Quilombo have been living on this land for more than 200 years. And they have farmed this land for just as long. In the last 10 years, they had to prove their culture and their history to the government, so that they could remain in their homes. This community is incredibly strong and courageous to fight a powerful force, the Brazilian government, and stand up for what is rightfully theirs.
Visiting the Quilombo was fascinating. We saw how their farming techniques did not interrupt the flow of the natural plants and forest. Instead, they complimented each other as crops and trees simultaneously grew side by side. We walked through the Atlantic Rainforest as the owner of the land showed us her medicinal plants she uses for stomach aches, stress, and headaches. She pointed to a fruit tree and picked a small peach off its branches for each person in our group. The cultivating and farming of the Quilombo does not disrupt the natural flow of nature. It sustains the community’s life while simultaneously complimenting nature.
Next we traveled to the Agroforest of Felipe Moreira. We jumped off the bus and grabbed our overnight bags. We continued down a rocky path where our host traveled to us via zipline. Us students, however, traveled in a much less exhilarating form — by boat, nonetheless still enjoyable. We all hopped into the boat and crossed the river that would bring us to the place we would call home for the next few days.
Over the next few days, we toured hundreds of acres of the Atlantic Rainforest which just happened to have some crops growing it in as well. Around 20 years ago, the land of thick trees and heavy foliage was nothing more than grassland. This particular part of the rainforest had been cut down and destroyed for the grazing of Asian Buffalo. Nonetheless, in just a couple years, this family was able to completely change the outcome of this part of the forest — with the help of agroforestry. Agroforestry is the combination of agriculture while also preserving the natural trees and plants that already exist in the area. With a little help from the humans, and a lot of resilience, this particular part of the Atlantic Rainforest was able to bounce back.
I was in a small group of students that chose to go deep into the trees to discover all that nature was willing to share. I was full of nothing less than excitement to hear of the farmer’s agroforestry techniques that sustain his, his families’, and nature’s life. Agroforestry demands that a diverse set of crops be spread out throughout a large space of land. This is in contrast to mass factory farming that cultivates one type of plant over acres of land. The diversity of plants in the forest keeps the soil fertile. Additionally, when trees and plants need to be cut down to allow sunlight to shine through or room is needed for the cultivation of new plants, the cut plants are left on the forest floor. This keeps the moisture in the soil so that the crops do not have to be watered. This particular technique also acts as a natural pesticide. Bugs lay their eggs in the dead plants on the ground because it’s easier than laying them in living plants growing high above the ground. However, the eggs don’t survive in a dead plant on the ground. Hence, very few problems with insects arise in agroforestry.
The farmer, Damiel, proudly showed us his ample crops scattered throughout the forest. He had a smile on his face as he cut down a heart of palm tree with two slices of his machete, and then slicing it thinly for all of us to try. Stomping through the tall grasses, he showed us his pineapple plants. And reaching high in the sky to get to his berry tree, he grabbed some for us all to try. We all trampled back to class from the forest with a long sugarcane in hand which would later be made into a drink that complimented our fresh, flavorful dinner that night.
We have commoditized and exploited nature. Prioritizing revenue over biodiversity and beauty. But nature is resilient. It will bounce back if given the opportunity. Nature does not need humans. Humans need nature.