Patricia Bustamante's environmental education program for rural Brazil brings the elderly and children together to catalogue plants, rediscover their traditional uses and create community-based nurseries and seed banks.
La idea nueva
Along the Cambui river in the region of Minas Gerais, where Patricia Bustamante is building her model rural environmental action program, the Cambui tree that gave the river its name has all but disappeared. Along one 60-kilometer stretch of the river, for example, only five trees remained.
Patricia's idea began simply. She brought the "grandparents" of the town of Maria de Fe together with the children to walk along the river in the cool mornings. Soon the walks turned into botanical reveries in which "those who remember" the river forest described it to those who might never have known what had been. This inspired a community-wide indigenous plant nursery and re-planting effort that has, in three short years, significantly re-populated the river bank for a considerable stretch around the town.
The project has grown in complexity as it has gained momentum. Patricia believes that all rural Brazil contains the "dormant cultural seed" of caring for the environment. Building on the central insight that the elders can convey the memory and magic of "lost nature" to the young in a way that germinates that seed, Patricia is building a comprehensive rural environmental education and community action program that has several complementary activities. In addition to the "transmission of memory" nature walks, indigenous nurseries and re-vegetation activities, Patricia is unfolding a program to create a germ-plasma/seed bank that is part and parcel of the community's own knowledge of the environment and reflects how the community lives with the environment. Patricia is demonstrating that this "living seed bank" can bring economic benefits as well as social, aesthetic and environmental ones. First it can yield commercially salable genetic material that is "owned" by the community. It can also provide the basis from which to offer eco-tourism holidays for urban Brazilians.
Her approach in this regard complements an emerging international effort to create non-hybrid seed banks among peasant farmers and rural communities by widening rural social action to embrace, preserve and utilize biological diversity.
In Brazil, as throughout the world, habitat and species loss has reached alarming proportions due to the human wear and tear on the environment that has accompanied industrialization, large-scale commercial agriculture and livestock production, urbanization, population growth and, more generally, human consumption. With each new highway, each factory and mine, each new suburban community, each plantation and each ream of paper, a fragment of nature is lost. This predicament of modern times is especially pressing in Brazil, where once ecologically diverse and abundant habitats and species are now being decimated, and at increasing rates. Many urban youth have never experienced the wilderness and natural resources which sustained their ancestors for centuries. All youth grow up with few alternative influences to the social mentality that reduces nature to a mere input for economic exploitation.
While the loss of wilderness is an impoverishment of human civilization in itself, its departure also deprives us of our most important source of new knowledge, resources and tools. Despite the many advances in biotechnology, we still depend on natural bio-diversity to produce the sufficiently varied genetic seed stock that will sustain our continuing evolution. Nature still provides a better laboratory for "cures" and foods than we can ever hope to duplicate artificially. Our hybrid seed lines are vulnerable to unforeseen threats; natural bio-diversity is our insurance policy.
While protecting and respecting the world's remaining bio-diversity–especially in naturally rich areas such as tropical Brazil–is key to our survival, it runs contrary to the dominant model of economic growth and the powerful interests of large-scale agribusiness and pharmaceutical companies. Our high-tech, big business approach is to operate germ-plasma banks of extinct or threatened species. But these are vulnerable to human error and technological breakdown. They are generally located a great distance from the places originating the seeds. With a few recent exceptions, the originating countries and their people have had nothing to do with collection and maintenance.
One solution now emerging from various parts of the world involves recognizing that local people are the best resource to record and protect the genetic material, and is encapsulated in the idea of living community-based "seed banks." This relates closely to a movement to tap into and preserve the vast reserves of "rural knowledge" that have accumulated over generations.
As communities–as well as government and business–move to reclaim and practice native wisdom about the earth's life forms and their uses, a new problem has arisen: namely, protecting the intellectual property rights of the indigenous communities whose expertise about the natural world has suddenly become a much-sought commodity. Patent law has become a hot topic among environmentalists and indigenous rights advocates alike.
In the face of the compounded problems of habitat and species loss and the exploitation of indigenous knowledge, the solution, it seems, begins with valuing the diversity of life–human, cultural and species–and especially instilling these values into new generations of citizens.
Patricia's basic strategy is to transmit the traditional reverence for nature that resides in the elderly of rural Brazil to children. She does this through a progression of activities that draw more and more elements of the community into the process. The end result is the conversion of an entire community or town into a "living seed bank" capable of generating ongoing tangible benefits to the community from its transformed relationship with nature.
The first step is to bring the elders and youth together on "nature walks" to observe the environment and to enable elders to recollect how it used to be.
The second step turns the walks into activities or tasks such as cataloguing local flora and fauna (present and past), starting seedling nurseries, undertaking re-planting, recording the traditional uses of plants and building a seed bank.
The third step involves reaching out to the wider community to draw others into these activities and to begin to elaborate the wider implications. At this point the seed bank idea is introduced as a political and economic option for the town. In her pilot town of Maria de Fe, Patricia set up a "Regional Council on Bio-diversity and the Conservation of Germ Plasma" to push this agenda. Through the Council's decisions, locations for storage and multiplication of germ-plasmas will be defined. Using the "rural memory" of the region's primary forest and the results of previous local studies, they will work to increase the spectrum of species that will be conserved.
The fourth step involves envisioning and launching income-generating activities that stem from the town's transformed relationship with nature. Two promising areas include the marketing of medicinal or edible plants and fruits, including germ plasma, and eco-tourism. Again in her pilot demonstration in Maria de Fe, Patricia helped found the Tourism Council and serves as its president. From this position, she has successfully embedded the respect for bio-diversity as the fundamental building block not only for a healthy environment, but, also, rather remarkably, for the town's hopes for a thriving tourist industry.
At every stage of the project, Patricia emphasizes the need to consult with and organize citizens to underpin and sustain it. Before launching the initiative, she worked in municipal government as a budget planner and in that role she took the unusual initiative to create neighborhood councils as a new and organized way for neighborhoods to represent their interests in the town budget planning process. Those councils and the networks of contacts that Patricia established were both vital to the success of her demonstration project and form an important part of the model that she intends to replicate throughout rural Brazil.
"As odd as it may sound at first," she says, "the idea of a 'living seed bank' is profoundly political and without active grassroots leadership it cannot even begin. There is no way to spread this idea from the top down. Rather, we can share the model with other communities and try to assist should they wish our help in implementing and hopefully improving on it."
Patricia grew up in urban Brazil, but had strong family ties to a rural agricultural community, Maria de Fe. In Patricia's family, whenever someone found a new fruit, a specimen would be cultivated and treasured as an addition to the variety of life. This simple practice instilled in Patricia a reverence for nature and an unshakable faith in the power of grassroots action.
Her education as an agronomist led to the opportunity for Patricia to work for eight months as an intern at one of the world's major high-tech germ plasma storage facilities at the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) in Rome. This experience convinced her that she wanted to have a career that connected with the social base rather than to work in scientific or academic research.
She returned to Brazil and began post-graduate studies and simultaneously worked with a church-related farm and land resettlement project. Through the project, she got her first introduction to the nongovernmental organization and donor world and caught the attention of a major Dutch donor which offered her the opportunity travel to Portuguese-speaking Cape Verde to teach the first university-level agronomy course in that country.
Patricia discovered that there was no inventory of local Cape Verdean plants and, with her students, undertook to conduct one. A portion of the work was accomplished by interviewing the elderly, and through this process, two internationally significant findings emerged. First, they learned that a unique native species of plant was under threat. Second, they rediscovered a species of sugar cane that was thought to be extinct. With the attention that followed these findings, Patricia launched the Cape Verde seed bank project.
Returning to Brazil in 1993, Patricia landed a job in the municipal government of Maria de Fe, and worked on policy and projects relating to industry, tourism and agriculture. Shifted to budget planning, she initiated a process to formalize popular participation in budget planning through neighborhood councils. This proved to be an unpopular idea with a successor government. Patricia duly resigned and was immediately co-opted to become president of the local Tourism Council, another organization she had worked to create.