Family farmers and Manioc in contemporary Brazil: the management of agrobiodiversity and change
Manioc (Manihot esculenta Crantz) is a staple food in the North and NE of Brazil and is the main crop and source of sustenance for many thousands of small-scale family farmers. It is native to Brazil and has been cultivated and adapted over thousands of years by indigenous peoples and small-scale farmers. Some 500 million people in the tropics of the Americas, Africa and the Far East currently rely on manioc as a staple crop for their daily energy needs. The study focuses both on farmers’ in situ maintenance of agrobiodiversity and on their management of change across the whole sequence of the production both of the manioc crop and manioc foods, and of the distribution, exchange and consumption of the foods (‘the Manioc Chain’). It further analyses the contrasting systems whereby manioc is classified and named by farmers and agronomists by reference to the manioc varieties cultivated in four case study sites. Much of the specialised literature on agrobiodiversity – along with global debates about food security and rural development – deals only with the specifically agricultural practice of growing food crops. This literature omits consideration of the other elements of the Manioc Chain and only rarely draws on the type of ethnographic and ethnobotanical literature that provides the historical and cultural framework for this research. Four case studies of manioc farming communities were conducted over a period of nine months – two in Pará and two in Bahia. The approach to this enquiry is farmer-centred and interdisciplinary. Empirical findings are based on interviews and visits with about 60 farmers, agricultural extension agents in the four sites and other agricultural professionals and numerous group and family discussions. The findings are complemented by a tabulation of the characteristics of around 214 varieties as a contribution to the ethnobotany of manioc. The findings demonstrate that the loss of genetic diversity in manioc tends to be in inverse proportion to the proximity of the community to large urban centres. There remain expert farmers who cultivate diversity for cultural and not just for economic reasons. The creativity of these farmers and of their families, as producers of manioc foods, arises within dynamic local food cultures. It is highly responsive to local market demand. Yet, even so, many aspects of the culture of these rural communities go unrecognised by professionals. A change of thinking will be necessary if the in situ conservation practised by many small farmers is to continue and not to be eroded. The economic preoccupations of agricultural professionals are rarely matched with any parallel interest in the on-farm conservation of agrobiodiversity. Farmers’ understanding, perceptions and management of manioc diversity exist in a separate realm. There is a disparity of outlook. The professionals want to help the farmers to adopt modern practices and to grow high yield varieties. Yet farmers’ motivations go wider than this. They manage many varieties of the crop for reasons that include minimising disease and pest infestations, ensuring soil quality, producing diverse manioc foods to satisfy different tastes and cultivating varieties that they find ‘pretty’ or unusual. The research analyses all stages of the Manioc Chain. This broad scope provides the conceptual basis for the finding that farmers adapt to externally induced change strategically by changing their practice in any one – or in a combination – of the several aspects of the Manioc Chain. In doing so, the farmers draw upon local knowledge which varies significantly between localities while also learning from external agents. The study concludes by arguing for a change in thinking of the professionals as to the framing of and the approach to the issue of retaining in situ, on-farm agrobiodiversity for the benefit of the farmers and for those whom they supply. Agrobiodiversity in manioc is a vital resource for future generations that once lost can never be replaced.