World Rainforest Movement

Brazil: The “productive resistance” of Quilombola (1) communities surrounded by eucalyptus plantations

Reaching the 32 Quilombola communities in the Sapê do Norte region of the state of Espírito Santo, located in the municipalities of São Mateus and Conceição da Barra, can be extremely challenging. On the vast plain that comprises this northern edge of the state, where the monotonous and homogenous landscape is comprised almost entirely of eucalyptus trees, there are very few landmarks to point the way. As for signs, there are only those posted by companies: a) prohibitions: “No Hunting”, “Do Not Enter: Forest Management Area”; b) publicity: “Sustainable Forest Management”, “Protect the Forest”; and c) the location of plantation areas: “CB-113H”.

Along the 20 kilometres of dirt road leading to the Quilombola community of Roda d’Água in Conceição da Barra, for example, there are no native fruit trees, rocks, hills, curves, grassy fields, coffee plantations, houses, businesses, people: nothing that could serve as a reference point. Thanks to the monoculture plantations of eucalyptus trees, the only means of locating the community is by GPS: “18° 35’ 31” S, 39° 44’ 4” W”.

Records of times past survive through oral history and the spatial reference points provided by the 1,200 families who still inhabit less than 10,000 hectares of the Sapê region, and whose territory used to include 250,000 and 300,000 hectares according to estimates from the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (INCRA).

The combination of large-scale plantations and chemical and genetic modification of a single fast-growing tree species gave rise to a spatial model in which diversity and heterogeneity where eliminated. Isolated in the middle of the 100,000 hectares of eucalyptus trees that comprise the so-called Green Desert, the Quilombola communities mark the historical presence of another land use model, totally removed in time (anachronistic) and space (utopian) by Cartesian agribusiness. In fact, some of the Quilombola communities of the Sapê region, especially in Conceição da Barra, where 70% of the municipality is taken up by monoculture plantations, live off of the waste materials from logging. Access to these materials has been won through ongoing disputes over the eucalyptus plantations. The collection of waste wood and production of charcoal as the last possible means of livelihood reflects the forced incorporation of many young people and adults (primarily men) into the logic of corporate commercial expropriation.

Over the last 40 years, the historical and environmental fate of Sapê do Norte has been directly tied to the capacity for the homogenous production of fibre to feed paper consumption in the North, based on a predatory productive model and devastating agricultural model. First established in the region in the 1970s under the aegis of the Institutional Acts passed by the military dictatorship and subsequently supported by hefty credits from the Brazilian Development Bank (BNDES), tax exemptions and relaxation of labour and environmental laws, the major players in the eucalyptus agribusiness sector (Aracruz/Fibria, Votorantim, Suzano, Plantar, Veracel, Stora Enso, Jaakko Poyry) and international paper industry conglomerates (Proctor and Gamble, Kimberly Clark, Siemens, World Bank, Nordic Investment Bank, European Investment Bank, etc.) were responsible for a violent and abrupt transformation of the landscape.

The replacement of Atlantic Forest vegetation with eucalyptus plantations; the construction of new highways to transport lumber and heavy machinery; the building of dams on lakes and streams; the aridization of the climate through decreased precipitation levels; the disappearance of over 100 streams and contamination of a similar number due to agrochemical use; the destruction of schools, mills, houses and community facilities; intimidation and forced evictions: all of these factors conspired to provoke a rural exodus of unprecedented proportions. The Quilombola Commission of Sapê do Norte estimates that of the 12,000 families who lived in the region, only 1,200 endured. A whole 90% migrated to the urban peripheries of the northern region of Espírito Santo or even the metropolitan area of the state capital, Vitória.

In the Sapê do Norte of the quilombos, the vast territory that sheltered and protected the Quilombolas from the slave system of the colonial powers and from the agrarian aristocracy of the Old and New Republic, as well as, above all, their coexistence with the Atlantic Forest, gave rise to a highly diversified model of small-scale extractivism and family farming, with particular emphasis on raising cassava and the production of cassava flour, a regional tradition dating back to the 17th century.

But over the course of two or three generations, the establishment of huge blocks of eucalyptus plantations came hand in hand with the deconstruction, reprocessing and reconstruction of the socio-environmental space, isolating and burying almost all of the economic, cultural, religious, social – essentially, territorial – reference points of the Quilombola system. Almost all, because even in this new context, Quilombola agriculture survives, through the continued cultivation of small plots of land of between two and ten hectares around their family gardens and communities.

As the heirs to centuries of tradition, in which women play a clearly predominant role, most of the 1,200 Quilombola families in Sapê do Norte plant and raise a diversity of crops. Community members research and preserve different species of cassava, corn, beans, squash, okra, cucumber, watermelons, mangos, jackfruit, bananas and mombins, a plum-like fruit. They rework traditional practices and test new crop management techniques. They access commercial channels to sell their goods in local and regional markets and undertake continuous inter-community exchanges of seeds and agricultural practices, weaving an informal but strong social network.

In the midst of eucalyptus plantations, Quilombola agriculture seeks out new ways to survive and struggle to regain control of the region’s natural resources and genetic wealth. In the quilombo of Angelim Santa Clara, in Conceição da Barra, a seven-hectare plot is used as an experimental area for the planting and management of pioneer seedlings of Atlantic Forest tree species. In the quilombo of São Cristóvão, fields devoted to the reproduction of cassava stalks ensure the preservation of regional varieties of this plant. In the quilombos of Divino Espírito Santo, Roda d’Água and Angelim, through cooperative efforts, three traditional cassava flour mills were resurrected. In Linharinho, flour production has been expanded beyond the available capacity for cassava production. The demand for the expansion of these experiments on ancestral Quilombola land is exerting pressure on the eucalyptus business status quo, and is based not only on the argument of past history, but primarily on the future expectations of new generations.

The agricultural model of homogenous plantations interprets this Quilombola productive resistance as an external threat to its spatial control, leading to demands on the state for absolute legal security, even if this is only possible through expulsion and criminalization. On the other hand, Quilombola agriculture is advancing and interprets the territory based on the identification and creation of points of reference for centuries-old traditions that survive in the local communities, leading to demands on the same state for the guarantee of the rights of Quilombola peoples, which were only recognized in the Brazilian constitution in 1988, a whole century after the belated formal abolition of slavery.

In this sphere of productive resistance and the construction of alternatives, Quilombola agriculture confronts the enormous challenge of preparing for the reconversion of lands that have been regained and others currently being disputed. How can the soil be recovered in areas where eucalyptus trees were planted for 40 years? What crops or pioneer tree species should be planted between the rows of eucalyptus stumps during the transition phase? These are questions of concern to the agro-ecology movement in general and Quilombola farming families in particular.

The reconversion of areas formerly occupied by eucalyptus plantations, whether for the planting of Atlantic Forest tree species or food crops, is one of the main technical challenges that needs to be faced. Regaining control of the land is not enough to break the vicious cycle of eucalyptus, which quickly sprouts new shoots after clear-cutting. Recovering control of the land is an essential prerequisite, but it does not in itself guarantee territorial “reconquest” in terms of identity and culture. Several generations will be needed to re-establish territoriality and use of these lands. In this regard, the transmission of the memory of pre-Aracruz generations to younger generations of Quilombolas is of crucial importance, because that memory holds experiences of the forest and a territory full of cultural identity and reference points, totally unknown to post-eucalyptus generations.

As a result, agro-ecology takes on strategic importance in this reconquest. The agricultural experimentation underway in Quilombola communities, the strengthening of networks for the exchange of seeds and techniques and practices to deal with the re-sprouting of eucalyptus are some of the processes addressed in the field of agro-ecological theory and practice. Therefore, the territorial debate in Sapê do Norte contributes essential questions for the agro-ecological transition, and exerts pressure, from a very specific and unique place, on the entire North-South global model.

In building the counter-hegemony, the Quilombola Commission of Sapê do Norte has been integrating political resistance with productive resistance, acting through networks aimed at influencing the state and its public policies. To prevent a new boom in monoculture eucalyptus plantation expansion, it has had a critical and intentional impact on a series of government policies and programmes: regularization of ownership of large landholdings, rural credit and extension programmes, agriculture and forestry policies, licensing and land demarcation, tax exemptions, the supply of goods and services, etc. In the face of a wide and extensive array of violations, the Quilombola communities are organizing to demand legal title to their territory and pushing for the guarantee of other rights. The right to water free of agro-toxins, food, education and health are on the agenda of mobilizations, at the Grito Quilombola (“Cry of the Quilombolas”), at the Beiju Festival (named for the most important Quilombola food in Sapê, made from cassava and coconut, and representative of a culinary culture passed down through the generations), on May 13 (the anniversary of the abolition of slavery), and on March 8 (International Women’s Day).

In the different political arenas in which the Quilombola communities of Sapê do Norte act, the food debate has been a fertile source of conflict and serves to link the counter-hegemonic struggle at the national and regional levels.

The stance backed by the Quilombola Mission is that the situation of food insecurity in Sapê do Norte can only be resolved through the territorial debate. Government policies that are meant to ensure food security, through the provision of “basic food baskets”, family financial assistance and school snacks, are precarious and do not reach all of the 1,200 families in the 32 communities. For the moment, the production of charcoal from eucalyptus waste is still the largest source of income and employment in Quilombola communities, which reflects the most perverse side of this development model. After a study involving a focus group with members from 11 quilombos, the report from a seminar in 2008 entitled “Agro-ecology and food and nutritional security in the Quilombola communities of Sapê do Norte” pointed to monoculture eucalyptus plantations as the main cause of food and nutritional insecurity in these communities, in that they have provoked a profound process of destructuring of their traditional ways of life and the agro-extractive production system that ensured a diverse supply of food for families.

The transition to a new agricultural model, grounded in food security and sovereignty, will require structural territorial public policies that integrate community production with local markets, especially with regard to so-called public purchases, at the municipal and state levels. The snacks provided to students at the few schools still left in the community could be switched from cookies to typical foods like beijupamonha andcuscuz, strengthening both community production and Quilombola food culture. The basic food basket could serve as a springboard towards the productive transition and Quilombola agro-ecology, through programmes like Advance Purchasing, which could acquire food in the communities themselves. The family financial aid programme, if made universally available to all of the communities and adapted to extended family ties, could decrease dependence on income from charcoal production. Finally, the state policies that regulate commercial plantations and promote the reduction of social and racial inequalities are key instruments for the future of the Quilombola communities of Sapê do Norte.

On November 6, 2009, INCRA finally published in the official gazette the demarcation of 1,219 hectares of territory belonging to the communities of Serraria and São Cristóvão, in São Mateus. Other reports are being concluded, such as those regarding the territories of São Jorge, Linharinho and Angelim. In all of the territory that is being recovered, the communities are collectively (re-)establishing their points of reference and self-identification. On farms and in community areas, in small corners of the land controlled by companies, on the roads between communities, the landscape of eucalyptus is being gradually modified, through plots of food crops, banners, symbols. Signs of a territory under reconstruction, with the blessing of many orixás (Afro-Brazilian deities).

By Marcelo Calazans, regional coordinator of FASE Espírito Santo, member of the Green Desert Network and ACA. Email: This article is a summary of the report “Agricultura, identidade e território no Sapê do Norte quilombola”, published in Revista Agriculturas: Experiências em Agroecologia, Volume 7, Number 1, “Construção de territórios camponeses”, available at:

(1) Quilombolas: Residents of quilombos, Afro-Brazilian settlements originally founded by escaped slaves.