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BRAZIL: Market Access – Key to Autonomy for Rural Black Community

Mario Osava

IVAPORUNDUVA, Brazil, Jul 29 2008 (IPS) - From the 16th century onward, the densely forested, mountainous terrain of the Ribeira River Valley made it an ideal area for runaway slaves to establish settlements of their own, known in Brazil as “quilombos”. But the geographical isolation that once offered refuge has now become an obstacle to the development of these Afro-Brazilian communities.

Juçara palm farmers. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Juçara palm farmers. Credit: Mario Osava/IPS

Ivaporunduva, one of dozens of quilombos spread across this valley in southeastern Brazil, was founded over 300 years ago. Local resident Vandir Rodrigues da Silva told IPS that the younger generations no longer leave the community en masse in search of employment “like they did 20 years ago” because the construction of a paved road a short raft ride away has made it easier to get to nearby towns and cities.

“In the past, we had no way of getting our bananas to the markets,” explained da Silva, 57. But now that this obstacle has been overcome, production has grown, there is work for everyone, and “the community is growing,” he said.

Da Silva regrets the fact that he himself was unable to get much of an education, because there was no means of transportation to reach faraway schools. But he is pleased that his three children have not faced this hurdle.

Ivaporunduva, which means “river of many fruits”, is not derived from an African word, but comes from the indigenous Tupí language.

The vital link between the slightly more than 100 families who make up the community and the outside world is provided by a large metal raft that crosses the Ribeira River, providing access to the road that connects two nearby cities, Eldorado and Iporanga, and beyond that, access to Brazil’s largest city, São Paulo, some 300 kilometres away.


The raft is “environmentally friendly” because it does not run on fuel. It is the force of the river current that pulls it the 50 metres from one side of the river to the other, along a steel cable stretched between the two banks. Five operators take turns to keep it running 24 hours a day, with an average of 30 trips daily.

People make the river crossing in small motorboats, while the raft is used to transport vehicles, including trucks and buses for trade and tourism, another source of income for the quilombo residents. But it will soon be replaced by a bridge, which means the community will no longer be cut off from the outside world when the frequent rains swell the river and make it impossible to cross.

In centuries past, Ivaporunduva spawned several of the 59 quilombos that have been identified in the Ribeira River Valley. Today it is a pioneer in a number of activities that these traditional black communities have been pursuing to achieve greater development and market presence, with the support of the non-governmental Socio-Environmental Institute (ISA), since 1997.

Most of the farmers in the community raise organic bananas, grown without chemicals, to fetch higher prices and avoid unfair competition with large producers. This is also the area that has replanted the largest number of juçara palm trees, an endangered species.

Ivaporunduva also has an inn with room for 60 guests. Most visitors are students who want to learn more about the history of quilombos and life there today. The local tourism industry is a boon for local craftspeople.

“In just the first few days of June, when the inn was full, I made 100 reals (62 dollars), which is what I usually make in a month,” reported Cacilda da Silva Maria, one of the most active members of the local crafts association. The most commonly used material is banana fibre, which is abundantly available in the valley and used to make bags, jewellery, ornaments and toys.

“Making crafts has become a sort of addiction. I do it at night; it’s my cure for insomnia,” said da Silva, a 60-year-old mother of seven. She commented that her own mother, now 89, was born and has lived her whole life in Ivaporunduva, and “had nine children and raised seven, but only four of us are still alive.”

Da Silva is one of a group of 16 women who sell their wares in the shop run by the local crafts association and sometimes in markets in distant cities.

Three percent of their profits go towards covering the group’s collective costs, such as the purchase of equipment and transportation to markets. Another two percent goes to the Ivaporunduva Quilombo Association, which is the registered owner of the community’s collectively owned land and works to defend the interests and rights of the community’s members.

Ivaporunduva is the quilombo that has most successfully developed crafts production, thanks to the local tourism trade, explained agronomist Patricia Cursi, coordinator of the crafts component of the ISA’s Ribeira Valley Programme, which works with 14 quilombo communities.

As well as being a source of income, crafts-making “empowers women” in their families and communities, giving them “more autonomy and money of their own to buy women’s things,” said Cursi. It has also led women to play a more active role in the Quilombo Association, and encouraged more young people to become involved as well.

In addition, this process has led to a greater appreciation of quilombo culture. Crafts-making was traditionally limited to utilitarian domestic instruments like mats and wooden mortars and spoons. But commercial production demands artistry and creativity, enhancing the “cultural value” of both old and new products.

Making use of banana fibre, formerly considered a waste product, is also important in terms of environmental education. The training of “almost the entire community” in the use of banana fibre was carried out by researchers from the Higher School of Agriculture at the University of São Paulo, said Raquel Pasinato, a biologist and coordinator of the local ISA field work team.

A cultural heritage inventory planned for the Ribeira River Valley could help identify and revive specific quilombo design features, that would lend the crafts produced here a unique identity and a sort of brand recognition.

The development of crafts production and other economic activities also promotes community organisation and self-management, a prerequisite for achieving the ultimate goal, which is autonomy, stressed Pasinato.

Many of the residents of Ivaporunduva and other quilombo communities are largely dependent on government assistance programmes like family allowances and rural pensions.

Ivaporunduva is one of the few quilombo communities that has been officially granted collective ownership of its land: some 2,710 hectares in all, of which three quarters is covered by forests.

The total estimated number of quilombos in the country has continued to grow since the 1988 constitution recognised the right of these Afro-Brazilian communities to ownership of the land they live on.

The National Institute of Colonisation and Agrarian Reform estimates the number at 2,500, while the National Coordinating Committee of Quilombo Rural Black Communities maintains that there could be as many as 5,000.

 
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