Manoel Aragão Ribeiro, better known as Seu Nézinho, was born and raised in Quilombola Lagoa dos Prazeres, a community in Piauí, Brazil. It was his grandfather, the founder of Quilombola, who gave him his nickname. Manoel started working as a farmer along with his parents at the age of 16. Today, he is proud of never having to leave his rural area.
“I’ve always been a farmer. Now I have three daughters and I’ve always made a living for us working on our family farm. Despite the difficulties we face, we lead a peaceful life.”
Seu Nézinho’s family has never used pesticides, and without even knowing it, they were already producing cotton sustainably. When the financial crisis hit Brazil, cotton prices fell, production decreased, and those making their living from family farming faced hardships. In 2010, the Corporation for Brazilian Agricultural Research (EMBRAPA Cotton) revived intercropping practices in Brazil’s semiarid region, Seu Nézinho saw a great opportunity in it. Along with cotton, he started growing corn, beans, squash, watermelon and sesame, resulting in an increased income.
Today, Seu Nézinho is active in the Organic Cotton Intercropping project led by the NGO Diaconia, with support from local NGOs that bring technical consulting to farmers and promote community management. C&A Foundation understands that transformation in the fashion industry often begins in the country side.
Perfecting the art
Planting without pesticides has been a Nézinho family tradition for four generations. Over the years, through technological advancements, this process has been perfected. With this initiative, environmentally harmful practices such as slashing and burning the forest to open up new areas for planting have also been left behind. “Today, we are able to farm an area for 15 years without needing to set up a new plantation”, Seu Nézinho acknowledged. Now in his 39th years of farming, he proudly explains that he is still on his second plantation.
For Seu Nézinho, the technical support that he receives from CAATINGA, one of Diaconia’s NGO partners responsible for developing farming families in the region, is key to the initiative’s own sustainability. “The community level technical support is very helpful. Even though a farmer may be knowledgeable, getting this advice is really valuable.
His expectation of a bountiful harvest is what motivates him. Despite the instability of climate change, Seu Nézinho has faith in the positive results because of the families involved in the project and the technical assistance. One of the key lessons learned for him is that biofertilizers serve as natural inputs for the soil. “It’s not about killing the ants, because they too have a role to play on earth. It’s just about keeping them away from the plant.”
The tradition of organic cotton continues as the next generation of the family tries to follow in their father’s footsteps. His daughters also work on the property, and even though they are studying other subjects, they hope that they will never leave farming behind. It is an integral part of their upbringing.
Collective action and female participation
The initiative utilises a gender equality lens for their work. Throughout the process, group discussions are held to understand participants’ needs, and to bring more awareness and appreciation for the work that women do.
“The world we live in today is a world of equality. If things are to be equal, women need to be in there with us too. They need to stand alongside us, pursuing their rights and gaining the knowledge they need to be recognised as lead characters in their own right”, Seu Nézinho reflects. “Nowadays, people are always talking about gender, and it’s something that means a lot to me too.”
As the founding partner and current president of the Association of Organic Producers of Piauí Semiarid Region (APASPI as it is known by its Portuguese acronym), Seu Nézinho understands the importance of collective action in the Quilombola community to build upon their local origins and reinforce their traditional farming practices.
“It took a lot of effort to get APASPI up and running. It wasn’t easy, but through this organisation we’ve gained a lot of knowledge”, he said. The community receives an assortment of benefits through these associations, such as dams, water tanks, cotton gins, oil expeller presses, weed trimmers, and transport vehicles.
Seu Nézinho continues to practise organic farming, happily working on his land. “I get up at 5:00 in the morning, my wife and I tend to the plant beds in our garden straight away. We then go out to the pigsty to feed the goatlings, and afterwards we work on the plantation”, he explained. His dream is to happily live out the rest of his days on the land that has been passed down to him from his grandfather.
“I’m sure that my parents are looking down proudly on us from where they are, because this was always a dream of theirs. They spent their entire lives growing cotton”, he recalls. Today, cotton is not only an important source of income for him and his family, it is also strengthening his ties to the land and to the traditional farming practices in his community.