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Facing Agro-biodiversity

Thiago Cardoso

A Brief Story About Indigenous Women and Their Plants

In Rio Negro, in the Brazilian Amazon, I found myself in a world of colors, smells, textures and flavors. Provided by the exuberance of the plants that live in homegardens, in secondary vegetation and in the forest, these senses placed me in the face of diversity and, at its maximum expression, in the enchantment with the life of women and plants and their symbiotic entanglements.

The plants, in indigenous communities in the Amazon, are cultivated in agroforestry yards and in homegardens. Women are the guardians of plants, responsible for care of the development of each species and variety, while men participate in the initial stages of planting, in the opening of agroecosystems. Such agroecosystems can be considered as multi-specific places, locus of common habitation of humans and multiple species of plants, animals, insects and protective spirits. As a result of landscape management, such environments host a myriad of plant that act together with humans to grow and develop[1].

I entered this world seeking to learn about the sensitive, deep and co-developing relationship between indigenous women (Baré, Tukano, Piratapuia) and plants in the region of the Cuieiras River[2], a tributary of the Rio Negro in its lower course, during an ethnographic research. In this place, indigenous women, who migrated with their relatives to areas close to Manaus, a large urban center, struggle to overcome adversities and act daily to recreate their vital places, activating their relational and knowledge transmission networks.

Plant is life; it is person; it is relative. In Rio Negro, the feminine know-how-to-grow and their coexistence with a rich diversity of plants is to show a great virtuosity and appreciation for the multispecies world. Women are interwoven with plants in their areas of cultivation, expressing a perception of plants as animated and carriers of agency, which establishes relationships of reciprocity and care: taking care of a plant is like caring a child, talking about and exchanging plants is something which is done between mothers.

It is this same way of engaging in the world that develops a morality that prevents discarding the plants in any way or letting them spoil under the sun and that values the incorporation of new varieties and species of plants inside the system. While inflicting a disturbance in the landscape creating the gardens, indigenous farmers seek not to deforest the environment, but to provide conditions for the full development and growth of plants, with the perpetuation of social / spiritual relationships and not subject / object.

Caring is the principle of a loving relationship. An example of such relationships can be seen among the women and women and the cassava. Entangling with the cassava, women deal with the difference of bodies, incorporating knowledge and ecological and agronomic practices of a range of agrobiodiversity (more than seventy varieties of cassava, for example), emphasizing how local agronomic knowledge embody the notion of diversity and oppose the "monoculture of the mind" of the modernist projects of agricultural development[3]. The interlacing of the cassava and the women is mediated by an entity, the mother of the garden. An entity at once material-spiritual that determines relationships, thoughts and feelings in the agricultural practice. It is with the mother of the garden that the woman must have conversations so that she has healthy plants and the garden is protected, having good harvests.

To deal with this multiplicity of lives is to inhabit the world attentively to the ecological demands of dozens of species and varieties, the heterogeneity of the environments and the supply of the domestic demands, which represents, for the women, a company of high complexity. Managing relationships in this complex system is to manage the inherent risks of always uncertain relationships by ensuring a durability based on a close articulation between two spheres of action, that of plant management and that of temporal and spatial management of the agricultural systems.   

This entangling is a launching into encounters that are intimate dances between different life-bodies. They are relationships that are made in movement. Follow the flow of these dances in a garden, in a yard and outside these - the entanglements between human and plant lives - is to be participants in events where people and plants meet at different paces and lives, seeking to engage their time and weave the texture of their worlds.

So by no means do I intend with these lines to represent the agricultural systems in Rio Negro and the relations that give them life, diversity and movement, for certainly the text I present here as a very brief essay are summaries of stories about humans and plants, daydreams about life lived in unique moments, from my own entanglement with plants and lives in Rio Negro.

[1] The agricultural systems of Rio Negro were turned into Intangible Heritage by the National Historical and Architectural Heritage Institute (IPHAN).

[2] Cardoso, Thiago 2010. Saber biodiverso: práticas e conhecimentos na agricultura indígena no Baixo Rio Negro. Manaus: EDUA.

[3] Monoculture of the mind, a metaphor derived from the agricultural and forestry practice of monoculture, which separates "scientifically" the forest domains from the agricultural domains and privileges, in the forest, the withdrawal of wood and in agriculture, the cultivation of a single product having capitalist objectives in view. According to Vandana Shiva, the monoculture of the mind, in promoting the disappearance of diversity in our perception, eliminates it from the world itself, it is a way of thinking that does not respond adequately to diversity.

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