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“I had never seen these colored types of corn until I was 22 years old,” says Jerá Poty Mirim. “I’d only seen Tupi corn, the yellow kind you find in the city. And today out on our territory, we have more than nine types of Guarani corn, 15 types of sweet potato, and many native fruits. And people are growing more and more interested in strengthening our traditional farming.”
Mirim is a farmer, teacher and leader of the Mbya Guarani people living on the Tenondé Porã Indigenous Territory, at the southern tip of the city of São Paulo.
Her village of Kalipety is one 14 that make up this Indigenous reserve, which was officially demarcated in 2012 and spans 16,000 hectares (nearly 40,000 acres) of Guarani territory. The community was given exclusive rights to the territory in 2016. Mirim recalls how, when she was a child, some 1,500 Indigenous people lived on a small, 26-hectare (64-acre) piece of land without enough space to grow their own food.
It was only after the demarcation that the Guarani could begin taking up their farming traditions again. And it caught on in the many villages that sprang up in the newly recognized reserve, like Tekoa Porã, Tenondé Porã (after which the reserve was named), Tape Mirī and Yporã. The region where Mirim’s village sits was once a dry, degraded area, left that way after decades of eucalyptus monoculture. (The village’s name, Kalipety, comes from the Guarani term for “eucalyptus clearing.”)
According to Mirim, many Indigenous people were ashamed of the name, especially the children, who compared it to the “prettier” names of other villages. “We tried to change it to Jatyty, which would have meant ‘sweet potato clearing,’ or Kalipety Mirim, but it never caught on. And it now it seems like it’s too late to change it,” she jokes.
The Guarani of Tenondé Porã received help from several programs and institutions to rehabilitate their land, degraded by the notoriously thirsty eucalyptus trees, an introduced species. They sought out seeds of native tree species at seed trade fairs and from relatives in other villages, both locally and in the states of Rio Grande do Sul, Santa Catarina, Paraná, Rio de Janeiro and even in Argentina.
Once they had the seeds, the community held work parties for planting. Around 90 Indigenous people of all ages and genders participated.
Guarani society is based on farming, so interest in reviving these traditions has been high. Planting the seeds was very meaningful for the Guarani because it symbolized the strengthening of not just the body but also the spirit. The elders have a saying that the juruá, or non-Indigenous food, doesn’t nourish. That’s especially the case for industrialized and processed foods.
According to the elders, real nourishment comes from ancestral food varieties that the gods have in their heavenly homes. It’s said that eating them helps keep human bodies healthy like those of the gods.
A 2020 report on the Guarani farming tradition in the Tenondé Porã Indigenous Territory, edited by anthropologist Lucas Keese dos Santos and agroecologist José Eduardo Oliveira, notes that “the nhandereko, or Guarani way of living, involves knowledge and practices kept like a treasure, just like their seeds. It is through these teachings that are handed down through the generations that the power of farming, as resilient as its people, is found.”
Struggle for food sovereignty and safety
By combining the wisdom of their elders with technical support that included agroecology and permaculture, the Guarani have made great strides toward sovereignty and food safety. The process was funded by Programa Aldeias, an initiative supported by the São Paulo City Secretariat of Culture and implemented in the communities by the Indigenous Work Center, or CTI.
Today, there are more than 200 ancestral, pre-colonial varieties of crops being grown on the reserve, all free of genetic modification. They include nine types of corn, 15 types of sweet potato, four types of peanut — including a black one and a large one with red stripes — beans, yerba maté, pine nuts, a thin sugarcane called “little Guarani cane,” and various fruits native to the Atlantic Rainforest. Among these are juçara, araçá, jaracatiá, cambuci and pitanga. Most of these are in danger of either cultural or environmental extinction. And there are even more like these.
It was once thought that corn, or avaxi, the staple of the Guarani diet, wouldn’t grow in this region. But today, corn abounds here in a rich variety of sizes and colors, including blue, red, white, black and multicolored.
According to Guarani mythology, the many varieties of each traditional food are evidence of how the divine beings made the world, creating one species from another and making them eternal through renewal. Corn is considered to be sacred and undergoes numerous rituals and blessings, from the time it’s planted — and sung to — until it’s harvested, when the village comes together to celebrate and eat together. Dozens of recipes are prepared, ranging from ancient ones to new preparations introduced by the younger members of the community.
These collective lunches have become veritable banquets at Kalipety. During Mongabay’s visit on a regular weekday, we’re served pounded and cooked corn in chicken broth, black beans stewed with hominy, rice, beans, salad, chicken, tilapia head soup — the Guarani consider the head to be the finest part of the fish — all followed by corn pudding with honey. All morning, the kitchen is filled mostly with women and each is responsible for a certain dish. Then everyone sits down together to eat, beginning with the children. After such an elaborate lunch, dinner is much lighter and is eaten at the end of the afternoon.
Every evening, from 6 p.m. to around 1 a.m., the Guarani meet in their prayer house. “Every Guarani village has a prayer house. It’s the most important place in the village,” says Vera Popygua, a community leader and social worker. “Everything happens there: baptisms, weddings, funerals, curing ceremonies. We spend the night dancing, playing, singing and praying.”
Jerá Poty Mirim says she’s jubilant about the revival of the Guarani traditions. “I’m so happy that we are regaining our culture and our food sovereignty. We never have to buy corn, sweet potatoes, pumpkins or bananas again,” she says. “I want to see this movement grow. And to see people in the village eating pasta only because they choose to, not because there isn’t enough traditional, healthy, poison-free food to go around.”
A key characteristic of the Guarani food tradition is that they farm for their own needs, not to grow excess food to sell. They want to sustain themselves and, mostly, fortify their culture. Generosity, or mborayvu, is also part of their cultural values, and in fact the foundation of their communal living. Anything left over is usually sent to other villages.
The Guarani believe in living with just enough. “This means not accumulating and speeding things up,” Mirim says. “Because if you destroy nature, there won’t be any future for your children, much less your grandchildren. Guarani farming is an example for the juruá that it is possible to eat without destroying nature. Especially São Paulo, one of the metropolises that most consumes natural resources on this planet. At some point, government policy needs to watch our model and imitate the Indigenous peoples.”
This might seem like an insurmountable challenge for a city like São Paulo, the biggest in the Western Hemisphere, but it doesn’t have to be. Some 30% of the municipality is still rural in nature, and the fact that there are still remnants of the Atlantic Forest here is thanks to the Indigenous communities, including those in the Jaraguá Indigenous Reserve at the northwestern end of the city limits.
Mirim says there’s a lack of recognition for the fact that most of the food consumed in São Paulo has Indigenous roots. The city’s inhabitants, known as Paulistas, first learned from the native peoples how to make manioc flour, pamonha corn cakes, curau corn pudding, broa corn cookies, and canjica sweet creamed hominy. And that’s just from two crops.
Despite the obstacles and challenges they face, mostly related to territorial deprivation, the Guarani say there’s reason to celebrate the road already traveled. With room to plant and the recovery of their traditional farming methods, they say, their culture is moving forward every year.
And the process is uniting the community, which has shown much enthusiasm and involvement. The elders are happy because it’s been a long time since these crops were grown, and now they can pass their knowledge on to the younger generations. And the young people are excited to have a different perspective for the future.