The other side of the land of coal: MST settlements, agroecology and salvaged lives

Besides the production of seedlings of native trees, the world of settlements throughout the territories of Candiota, Hulha Negra and Aceguá is associated with the production of agroecological seeds and the preservation of native seeds.

Article and Photos By: Marco Weissheimer
The Sul21: The MST-16 February 2018

The region of Candiota is a municipality located in the southern half of Rio Grande do Sul, near the border with Uruguay, known to harbor the largest coal mine in the country, with more than 1 billion tons of ore. It’s the land of coal. Whoever travels today along Highway BR 293, in the region of Seival, in Candiota, has this impression reinforced when they see  the towering construction of the Pampa Sul thermal power plant. Early in the morning of February 6, hundreds of employees entered the construction site for another work day. Many of them are Chinese. The presence of manual labor and Chinese capital is illustrated by bilingual signs (in Portuguese and Mandarin), banners and other signs around the construction site. Scheduled to go into operation in 2019, the new plant is being built by the Engie Corporation (formerly Tractebel) with the Chinese technology company SDEPCI.

However, not everything is about coal in Candiota and the region. On the other side of the BR 293, in the same area where the Pampa Sul plant is being built, there is a scenario marked by hundreds of seedlings of native trees indicating the existence of another economic production model in the region, which does not have the same fame as coal mining but has been developing agroecological practices and seeking another pattern of agro-industrial development. The seedlings of native trees are produced by agrarian reform settlements of the Landless Workers Movement (MST), which began to be established in the region in the late 1980s. The planting of seedlings is part of environmental compensation plan Engie has to carry out to minimize the impact of the construction of the power plant.

Besides the production of seedlings of native trees, the world of settlements throughout the territories of Candiota, Hulha Negra and Aceguá is associated with the production of agroecological seeds, preservation of native seeds, to cultivation of medicinal plants, producing milk, corn, soybeans (including an experiment with conventional non-GMO soy), among other crops. Amidst many precarious infrastructure situations, such as gravel-covered dirt roads, which hinder the flow of production, and a critical water supply, is a world that values the creation and recovery of lives and traditional knowledge, opening new paths for people whose lives were marked by the absence of a future.

This territory embedded in the "land of coal" covers 56 settlements with a total of 47 thousand hectares in the counties of Candiota, Hulha Negra and Aceguá. In all, there are about 1860 settled families, mostly from the northern region of Rio Grande do Sul, which has been the scene since 1979 of confrontations motivated by the Agrarian Reform agenda. The first years of the first settlements people lived under tarps and tents in the encampments, without electricity, housing or water supply. The first nights were filled with darkness. The first few days, of uncertainty about the future of that endeavor. Those who visit the reality of these settlements today can hardly envision the path they have taken to reach what exists today.

Agroecological seeds for healthy foods

One of the main businesses of the MST settlements in the region is Bionatur Agroecological Seeds which is 20 years old. By the late 1990s, settlers were selling seeds to large private companies. It was a time of crisis, says Anderson Ardenchy, managing director of Bionatur, and selling seeds was a means of survival. Until they suffered a default from some of these companies. "In addition to the default, companies demanded that too much poison be put in, and the people were no longer very much in agreement with that view. The twelve families that were dedicated to the production of seeds gathered and decided to create Bionatur. It began as a sector within Cooperal, a cooperative producing milk, with the aim of producing agroecological seeds. At first, production was more food-oriented. What was left was delivered to Bionatur. "

Over time, Anderson reports, the number of families dedicated to the production of agroecological seeds increased, and Bionatur gained legal standing – the National Agroecological Cooperative Land and Life (Conaterra) - and its own headquarters in Candiota.

Today, 200 families in settlements produce on average 100 to 150 tons of approximately 200 varieties of varietal and creole seeds in Rio Grande do Sul and Minas Gerais. Bionatur's production catalog includes varieties of lettuce, cherry tomato, parsley, carrot, onion, pepper, eggplant, cabbage, mustard, arugula, watermelon, pumpkin, melon, zucchini, squash, broccoli, cabbage, coriander, and eggplant, among others.

"Bionatur has always been seen as a model of resistance that has been maintaining and developing the agroecological production of seeds for the production of quality pesticide-free food for twenty years. Not just staying in place but growing. We are expanding our production groups. Today, we are in Hulha Negra, Candiota, Piratini, Pinheiro Machado, Canguçu, among other regions of the State. Two years ago, we added production groups also in the south and north of Minas Gerais, and now we are trying to expand to Espírito Santo, Bahia and other states, "says Anderson.

The story of Olália

In addition to the symbolism of resistance and the construction of alternatives to the agriculture model based on the intensive use of agrochemicals, the settlements also contain histories of lives recovered from abandonment and violence. Olália Fátima da Silva, Cocota, as she has been known since the days of the encampment, is an example of this. In the 1990s, Olália participated in the struggles for housing in Santa Maria. She helped to organize a large urban occupation in the municipality, in an area where today there are 5,800 settled families. But the social struggle was accompanied by much domestic violence, a fact that made her decide to raise her own daughters alone.

"My family suffered a lot of domestic violence, my mother, my sisters. I always saw the drunken men beating their neighbors. I decided to live alone and have two daughters. And I had two daughters. But without the social struggle, there is no way to control everything. I worked as a maid and helped to organize the struggles of the social movements" she says.

This reality began to change, says Olália, when she met Cedenir de Oliveira, one of the leaders of the MST in Rio Grande do Sul. He invited her to go to a movement encampment and struggle for a piece of land. "I started thinking, some land and a house, that combination sounded right in my ear. It was all I needed. My eldest daughter was already 14 at the time and began to get involved in drug trafficking. I did not have time to take care of them. I had to work for them to eat. Trafficking also began to enter the occupation. To this day, it is drug trafficking that has the power in the outskirts of the big cities. This is not news to anyone. At this moment, Cedenir invited me to go to the Landless Movement. One day, I looked at my daughter and said, "Let's get out of here."

In 1999, she went to an encampment in Palmeira das Missões and began a new phase in her life that culminated in the conquest of land and the house in the Conquista dos Cerros settlement. "It was a very difficult period. I'm almost finished, but I'm very strong, I'm black. Those who endured the slave quarters can endure the hard times and the struggle. A mother is a lioness. I left (Santa Maria) because of my daughter. " Olália recalls that when she arrived in the settlement in March 2001, she started another battle." The road that came here was inside the mine, which is closed today. We came here in the body of a truck. I was pregnant with my oldest kid who was born here, and after much talk the driver let me get into the cabin of the truck. Then the good part of the story began. At the time, Olívio (Dutra) was the governor and was set up for agrarian reform. The first day we arrived here, we were scared. We had about 20 technicians working on projects for the settlement."

Today, she celebrates what she has achieved on this journey. "We have all that you see here. It may seem so little, but it's a lot. It's a very big difference between what we had in the slums and what we have here. When I lived in the city, with the little salary I had, sometimes I had nothing to eat. Now I am in the opposite situation. I keep complaining about the surplus food that has to be thrown to the animals." Olália produces sweets, tomato sauce, homemade breads, cheese, seeds for Bionatur, grows roses, peppers, vegetables, strawberries and beans, among other crops. In addition to ensuring plenty of food for the family, all this production is also marketed at fairs and among the neighbors of the settlement.

The bet on diversification

The story of Adelabu Antonio Zanovello dates back to 1989, when he was settled in Hulha Negra, after a year and nine months in a camp. In 2005, he went to live in the Roça Nova settlement, in place of a family that decided to leave. At the end of 2005, at the MST's invitation, he was part of an internationalist Brigade and spent two years in Venezuela. In 2008, he returned to the settlement, when, in addition to producing seeds for Bionatur he started a project for the production of honey. Today, beekeeping represents the main source of family income.

"We have about 700 hives with a production ranging from 10 to 15 tons of honey per year. This year, due to the climate, we have a much higher expectation, being able to pass the 20-ton mark. "Bees, through pollination, also play an important role in seed production. Many families that produce seed of vegetables ask to have bees in their areas with the aim of increasing seed production.

Amarildo points out that "diversification" is one of the key words in the system of production of the settlements. "In addition to honey, which is our main activity, we are investing in the raising of cattle and sheep, in the cultivation of fruit and we began to do some fish farming. “This is a security issue," he says, recalling the current problem with the disappearance and death of bees. ”One of the main problems that beekeeping faces in the region is the invasion of soybean crops, with the agrochemicals that accompany them. In addition to killing the bees, the herbicides destroy the Pampa native flowering. This forces us to migrate to the eucalyptus forests. The potential for honey production in the settlements was very large, but it fell because of the planting of soybeans. In 2013, we lost more than 50 hives killed by insecticides, some of them smuggled from Uruguay. A bee contaminated with fipronil (an insecticide) ends up killing the whole swarm.”

Milk production was another important lever for the settlements in the region, but today it faces serious problems due to falling prices, forcing many families to migrate to other crops, especially soybeans. This phenomenon, says Amarildo, is provoking a new rural exodus within the settlements. "The soybean plantation is not for small farmers. It requires a very heavy investment in technology and structure. There are a lot of people in debt, at risk of losing their land. We have other alternatives, such as fruit growing, honey and milk itself, that we can make happen. Here in Candiota we have a very specific situation because of the coal mining.

Everybody sees it as the solution to the region while the countryside has a very great potential that is not being properly explored. Almost one hundred percent of the vegetables consumed by the population of Candiota come from other regions. We are trying to encourage this discussion in the municipality.”

"I don't have to depend on coal and I live very well"

Settled 21 years ago, along with his wife, Dirceu, Dias recalls the difficulties of the beginning, when there was no electricity or roads and he highlights the importance of crop diversification. "We had four daughters and today we have electricity, roads, running water. My production line is in the area of milk, seeds (corn, beans and soy) and a bit also in the meat sector. We need to diversify to ensure survival in the countryside." The current milk crisis only reinforces the requirement for diversification. "It's a distressing situation for milk. It is hard work, where there is no holiday, or holy day, not even the first of the year or Christmas. At six o'clock in the morning we have to be ready to take the milk. Today, the liter of milk is being sold at a value between 60 and 65 cents. The base price of some cooperatives reaches up to 40 or 45 cents. We are paying to produce," says Dirceu.

Despite these problems, he supports the potential of diverse production for settlements as a new model for the development of the region. "The coal mine of Candiota brings wealth, but we can't live just on coal. We must diversify, and the Government has to pay more attention in our region, which is very rich. I don't have to depend on coal and I live very well, thank you, with a high quality of life ".

The range of crop diversity in the settlements of Candiota, Hulha Negra and Aceguá also includes the cultivation of medicinal plants and the preservation of native seeds. The author of books such as "Medicinal Herbs: Remedies and Homemade Recipes of Peasant Wisdom" and "Have a Pharmacy in Your House," Brother Wilson Zanatta is not only a researcher of the subject, but a producer of such plants. In addition, he is also dedicated to collecting traditional recipes that have been used for several generations so they will not be forgotten. Behind the house where he lives in the Conquista da Fronteira settlement, he cultivates a garden with more than 60 species of medicinal plants. From this garden, plants, seedlings and produced teas, ointments and tinctures are distributed.

"I've always enjoyed working with home remedies. This comes from the way I was raised. My mother was also very fond of home remedies. When we came to live in this region, I realized the need to develop a work in this area. I was on a radio show, where, at the end, I was reciting a recipe. The communities started asking for these recipes and to facilitate the distribution I decided to make a booklet. From this booklet came the book and from the book this work of producing dyes, teas and ointments. "

Role of women in agro-industry

The demand from the settlements and the demand for school lunches in the region have been stimulating the small agro industries that produce loaves of bread, biscuits, sweet and salty cookies. One such project was born out of a group of eighteen seniors from nine families who got a machine for the production of breads. "It was only for our consumption at the beginning, but demand for school meals and other things began to emerge and we decided to go deeper," says Ivanir Ivete da Silva, one of the founders of the Elders’ Bakery. "We got some younger couples to help us out and we moved ahead. Today, we sell our products in the homes of the settlements and our goal is also to serve school meals and the barracks of Bagé."

In the same vein, Eliziane Outeiro Câmara, a resident of the Estância Velha settlement for 14 years, created Aunt Zane's Kitchen. The initiative, she said, stemmed from a need of the region itself and her son’s idea.

“I started doing a market in the city and I was aware of the possibility of selling for school meals. That encouraged me a lot. Today, I produce breads, cookies, snacks and various qualities of biscuits. I started selling to the schools and today the markets are already looking for me. Besides Candiota, I already go to Bagé, Aceguá and Pinheiro Machado. My husband was working outside the home as a driver and he came back to help me. I worked in the dairy and vegetable garden and also had to leave. I forgot about the cows and just worked here at home. I would not trade this place for the world. It's a very good place to live. "

The production of seedlings of native trees

The seedlings being planted on the banks of BR 293, within the environmental compensation plan of the Pampa Sul plant, are grown in a large nursery in the Conquista da Fronteira settlement, managed by the Cooperativa de Produção e Trabalho, Integração Ltda (Coptil). This work, says Helmuth Griesang, who works in the nursery, begins with the harvest of the seeds of trees like anjico, mountain guava, red aroeira, among others. In all, estimates Helmuth, the nursery grows more than 35 species. Some of them are threatened with extinction, as is the case with the silver arachis, which is being rescued in the nursery. The production work of the seedlings lasts between six and eight months, until they are ready to be planted. The plans for the future, he announces, include the cultivation of fruit tree seedlings such as cherry, pitanga and mountain guava, as well as ornamental plants.

Most of these native seedlings are being used to recover vegetation cover and environmental compensation. "In the last ten years, practically all of our nursery production has been focused on the production of native seedlings," explains Emerson Francisco Capelesso, general manager of Coptil. "We had a great environmental recovery process in the settlements, involving about 1,000 hectares, in addition to the project around the CGTEE plant, in an area of more than 100 hectares. Now, with Pampa Sul, we have closed the entire process of supplying seedlings. There are more than 100 hectares of trees being planted, involving the production of something around 250 and 260 thousand native saplings of the Pampa biome and the Jaguarão river basin. In recent years, we have produced more than one million tree seedlings. Only in the last two years, there were about 250 thousand seedlings, just for Pampa Sul."

Challenges for the future

The market for trade in products of the settlements is largely regional, but the settlers have plans to go beyond this stage. Emerson Capelesso highlights the strategy to achieve this goal: "we already had a production process, but we faced commercial and logistical problems. We decided to take a few steps back and better organize the industry. Now, with the industrial part ready, we are resuming the production process. Bagé is a consumer market with potential, but the large consumer market is Porto Alegre itself. If we are unable to industrialize our products and make them more durable, we will end up having a lot of trouble".

He recognizes that coal is an important source of wealth for the region, but notes that it cannot be concentrated in the hands of a small group. "This wealth has to decentralize development to the whole region preserving the environment. Besides the exploitation of coal, which has its impacts, we have the agricultural model of agribusiness, with the use of agrochemicals and GMOs. We offer a counterpoint to this model, with organic production, recovery and environmental preservation. The Cooperative has acted in this way to build income alternatives for families according to the logic of this counterpoint."  This construction is more difficult, Emerson acknowledges, because it has fewer resources. "But this is our day-to-day task," he sums up: "to build alternatives that benefit our entire social base so that everyone can develop by producing healthy, quality food."