Flash in the Pan 

Putting the culture back in permaculture

We sit around the fire eating roast goat and drinking caipirinhas, a Brazilian drink of cane alcohol, lime and sugar. The man who rescues songs strums his guitar and sings one about maracujá, a yellow fruit that comes from a gorgeous purple flower and contributes to a bright orange drink whose flavor is exactly what you want on a parched day.

Here in the Sertão—the drylands of northeastern Brazil—parched days are many. The landscape of bright red earth used to be covered by a thick, semi-arid forest called caatinga. Today, only 15 percent of the native caatinga remains, the rest cut down and burned to make way for livestock and agriculture. With the loss of forest cover, the red earth dried and baked in the convection of sun and hot wind. In place of the caatinga, monocultures of castor nut, corn, beans and sisal—grown for its fiber—were planted. Bare soil was exposed to the elements between the rows of cash crops. With the loss of forest cover the climate changed, and rains became less regular than they used to be. When the rains do come they come hard, washing away the thin topsoil, sometimes down to bedrock.

In this way, agriculture in the Sertão became less viable, and millions left for the big cities. Those who stayed behind bear the stigma that the Sertão is a lousy place to live, and the disrespect of outsiders—like the sisal purchasers who refer to the sisal harvesters as “sisal lice.”

The Sertão used to be a lively, happy, culturally rich place, but now the Sertanejo culture is blowing away with the spent earth. That’s where the song rescuer comes in. He finishes his song about maracujá, and then an old man in a black felt hat delivers a poem about going to a place called Piriquito and dancing to forró music with the women of Piriquito and getting into fights with the men.

This party is taking place on land that belongs to IPÊTERRAS, which stands for the Institute of Permaculture in the Drylands. Permaculture is a system for designing human habitations to sustainably maximize the use of local resources with minimal impact. Permaculture systems include gardens and other forms of food production, as well as dwelling spaces, water systems, on-site energy production and waste-disposal systems. The young community of IPÊTERRAS is also putting the “culture” into permaculture by focusing much energy on rescuing and reviving Sertanejo culture, as well as bringing back the green caatinga.

Through intense plantings of a diversity of crops, polyculture systems are rapidly growing, watered only by rain and irrigation systems that use captured rainfall. In just six years the people of IPÊTERRAS have transformed bare dirt into cool, vibrant, humid and productive agroforests.

For lunch we eat a spread of cactus-scrambled eggs, squash boiled with a starchy tuber known as aipim, chicken stew, and a paste called pirao, made from chicken broth mixed with ground cassava root. It was a typical Sertanejo spread of homegrown and regional ingredients, and a savory example of the work of IPÊTERRAS.

The institute recently purchased a small piece of caatinga adjoining its property, to which they bring over 2,000 students per year, teaching them about the ecology of the caatinga. In separate workshops, they educate teachers.

They have a shade house—like a greenhouse, but built to keep plants cool rather than hot—which is full of young, native, edible and medicinal plant starts. These starts are given away to regional reforestation projects as well as permaculture projects around the Sertão.

“When we first started,” says Elleno Machado, one of the founders of IPÊTERRAS, “our neighbors thought we were slobs for leaving organic material on the ground as mulch, rather than burning it. They thought we were crazy when they saw us collect organic material from elsewhere and use it as mulch in our plantations. But as they began to see how quickly our land became green, they came to respect us.”

Many of these neighbors are here tonight by the fire. One of the ways the people of IPÊTERRAS have gained favor in the community is by revitalizing the Sertanejo tradition of work parties, called multiraoes. In old times, entire communities would go from farm to farm helping to bring in the harvest. As they worked, they would sing songs—songs that would now be disappearing were it not for the work of the song rescuer. After the work they would feast, sing more songs, recite poems and dance, thus putting the “party” in the work party.

Buzzed on caipirinhas, I munch goat and listen to the song rescuer. Others do a circle dance in the fire light, clapping their hands and singing, call-and-response style, back to the song rescuer.

The recipe for that goat—a traditional Sertanejo recipe—would work well with other types of red meat, especially sheep, deer, buffalo or beef. Toss meat chunks in coarse salt and lime juice, and then toss in mashed garlic. Marinate a few hours at room temperature, cook over a fire and eat in good company.

flash@flashinthepan.net

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