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Plants and Climate Change

A Not-So Mythic Amazonian

She likes to be called Rosario. Her full family name is nearly a dozen syllables long.

She lives as simply as a human being could hope for and it isn't because she's lazy or unambitious. She is a woman born and bred in the Amazon, and whether it's fish from the river or fruit from the forest, she knows how to coax everything she needs out of the landscape. "The forest likes me," she says. "I look after its young."

Intrigued? You ain't heard nothing yet...

Rosario Costa Cabral

Standing in a forest that was bereft and abandoned before she and her family resurrected it, Rosario Costa Cabral is the mistress of all she surveys. In addition to collecting and replanting seedlings of the few old-growth trees that had, miraculously, escaped logging, this fifty-something woman is known among her peers for her uncanny ability to grow crops that should not tolerate river flooding even once, let alone twice a day. photo credit: Ketzel Levine hide caption

toggle caption photo credit: Ketzel Levine

The permanent Rosario household includes her mischievous 82 year-old mother and her two 40-something brothers, but at any given time on any given hammock you'll find one or two of Rosario's stepchildren (the youngest is 20), near and distant relatives, and the odd ecologically-inclined academic.

Bar none (except perhaps his wife, Christine Padoch of the NYBG), the Rosario family favorite has got to be Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez of CERC, who often comes bearing gifts of California pistachio nuts.

hanging out at Rosario's

Lecturing (as academics are want to do) on the relative merits of sugar cane on a hot Amazonian day, Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez hangs out with Rosario's brother and stepson (that's the dreamy young Manuel on the right). The three are standing "in the road", if you will; this coffee-colored Amazon tributary -- the Foz de Mazagao -- is the only way to get around. And -- as I repeatedly reassured my mother -- it's extremely safe for bathing, hosting none of that legendary Amazon scary stuff (like those orifice-seeking fish). photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR hide caption

toggle caption photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR

The Rosario family has lived on this land now since 1991. Everybody works extremely hard and the results are obvious, including the new house they were able to build out of their own lumber a year ago. The house is very open with high, high ceilings and can accommodate an untold number of hammocks; each room has a door and a single light bulb, but otherwise the house is largely empty, a blessing in such stifling heat.

Not surprisingly, though, the center of life is in the old kitchen, connected to the new house by a covered walkway. The kitchen, for my money, has the best view of any — into that jungle of a backyard.

out the kitchen window

I could do dishes the rest of my life if I could stand at this sink (it's got the only faucet in the house) and stare off into the beckoning jungle. The array of bird songs that float in through this non-windowed space is enough to make grown women weep. photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR hide caption

toggle caption photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR

So many pictures, so little time...which is why I invite you back tomorrow to enjoy the Amazon slide show we're busily putting together (how many shots of the piglet and the dog can you take?). In the meantime, I will leave you with the one image that's earned pride of place on my piano and I think you'll see why...

the Rosario family

Introducing the Rosario family, from left to right: Alvino, Dona Raimunda, Joao and Rosario. Brazilians prefer first names only; in fact, that's how they're listed in the phone book. Think what Avedon might have done with this team! photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR hide caption

toggle caption photo credit: Ketzel Levine, NPR

Tomorrow, the slide show. And a taste of acai...



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

I look forward to continuing with this story.

Sent by Mo | 1:59 PM | 2-3-2008

What a wonderful story! Rosario,her family and people like them who are the hope for our future! What if people in the US suddenly realized that the culture of consumerism is a dead end and started structuring their lives around taking care of the land and people around them and creating their sustenance with their own hands. I personally think of Rosario as a role model.

Sent by Lauren | 2:00 PM | 2-3-2008

Lauren - You haven't even heard the radio piece and you already got the message. Very gratifying! Tune in to Morning Edition tomorrow and you'll know just what a role model she is.

Sent by Ketzel Levine | 7:25 PM | 2-3-2008

Ketzel, I have just listened to the first story, and I am fascinated by this remarkable lady, and wonder where she got her knowledge, skills and motivation. Maybe tomorrow?

Sent by Irv | 6:34 AM | 2-4-2008

Just heard the Morning Edition piece, and I think it was not only one of your best, but one of the most interesting environtment pieces I've ever heard on NPR. Thank you!

Sent by Aaron Headly | 6:40 AM | 2-4-2008

Irv - She's totally, TOTALLY self-taught. Trial, error, instinct, ambition. Growing what she wants to eat, not just what others say she can/cannot grow. Sounds like a gardener to me...

Sent by Ketzel Levine | 6:44 AM | 2-4-2008

It is wonderful to see Dona Rosaria (how she is also known in the region) being recognized for the great human being she is. Spending the last 4 summers in her household while pursuing my graduate studies has taught me so much more than I could have ever imagined not only academically but also personally... She is the strongest, kindest person I have met.

Sent by Lucas Fortini | 7:09 AM | 2-4-2008

Thank you, what a great story to start the day with. Rosario and her family are amazing. Thanks for bringing us the story.

Sent by Patti Tichenor | 7:22 AM | 2-4-2008

Just listened to your piece on Morning Edition - can't wait for the slide show! And, in regards to how many pictures of a piglet and dog can you include? Infinite! This is such a fascinating family you are documenting.

Sent by georgia | 8:38 AM | 2-4-2008

Lucas - How lucky are YOU. 4 summers with "The Rosarios", I am so envious, and so glad you heard the piece.

Sent by Ketzel Levine | 9:05 AM | 2-4-2008

This was awesome! I get chills thinking about how much she knows and gives me hope to think that if we all try we can achieve this too. thank you!!

Sent by Martha | 9:05 AM | 2-4-2008

Ketzel, thanks much for the story. my take away is to slow down and get present. I/we seem to lose that focus at age 8. Rosario is a great reminder.

Sent by tracy rosen | 9:11 AM | 2-4-2008

Looking forward to the slide show. Please incluce the spider! Thanks.

Sent by Ann | 9:25 AM | 2-4-2008

very inspiring, especially as February begins and I start to contemplate my garden preparations and plantings in just a few weeks? this is a reminder to listen, watch, learn how and what grows best in my own little backyard garden...what a lovely way to start out this cold, damp, grey winter morning; the calls of the birds in the background was the most enchanting music I can imagine hearing...

Sent by Michael | 9:45 AM | 2-4-2008

Great documetary! I can't wait to see the slide show!

As a native Brazilian, I appreciate your work and honorable cause.


Sent by Luiz Dasilva | 9:52 AM | 2-4-2008

This is a really stunning story - congratulations to K. Levine and NPR.Should be made into a film educational for Americans to show what can be done for our planet's future.

Sent by C. Kirk Osterland MD | 10:19 AM | 2-4-2008

This beautiful story reminds me of the first American settlers (pilgrims) and their interaction with the native. Specially that first winter.

Sent by Luis Pla | 10:25 AM | 2-4-2008


Sent by JOANNE | 10:30 AM | 2-4-2008

Hello Ketzel!

with interest and pleasure have I listened to some of your recent stories, especially the last one of Rosario, who is cultivating more resistant plants in the Amazon, and I thought, don't let Monsanto know about that, since they are trying to patent all plants for themselves!
I went back to your archives, and found to my surprise, that you have not done a story about Percy Schmeiser (, receiver of the Alternative Nobel Price 2007 ( for his struggle against gene manipulated foods. This is arguably the greatest threat to mankind at this time, and I urge you to do several stories about his and his wife's struggle for the safety of our plants, health risks of humans, patenting of naturally evolved plants and animals, safety concerns of the FDA, labeling requirements of foods, etc.
This needs to made more public because it is extremely important to the safety of us and our children. I saw him speak in a couple of smaller towns in Germany in front of PACKED town halls, because the resistance in Europe and the rest of the world is extremely strong against gene manipulated foods, which are common here.
Please, please utilize your publicity to help promote this struggle.
Which admiration and thankfulness, Christoph

Sent by Christoph | 10:45 AM | 2-4-2008

As a desert gardener, I found myself sucked into this story. Here it's a different case - having to worry about placing plants in areas where, instead of Dona Rosario's water, the sun can quickly end the life of a plant that holds the promise of great food. Hearing about how she selected seeds made me think of that same advice given by the most knowledgable desert gardener that I've ever met, George Brookbank. There are people in all parts of the world who carry this information around, but only a select few can share it as an inspiration to others. Thanks for a wonderful story. I look forward to pictures of the spider!

Sent by Andy Stevens | 10:54 AM | 2-4-2008

Rosario's story is inspiring and exciting. Exciting because it is a light in a sometimes dark world. Other lights have been stories of women in Africa who have discovered how grow and irrigate crops where that had not been done before. It reminds me of stories from the American frontier of hard work and ingenuity to "tame" the frontier. We used to think of it as the "American Spirit", but it's great to know that such a spirit can be discovered and celebrated anywhere in the world, providing that the culture "allows" it.

Sent by Bob Stannard | 11:14 AM | 2-4-2008

I rarely read newspapers, listen to radio and seldom watch tv, with the exception of Antiques Road Show. So why did I this early morning, turn to NPR?
Perhaps my sustainable intuition raised my hand to the dial...and I was made to listen to: Adaptation,Coax,Cultivating,Promote,Resources... my sustainable nature equated, added up and thought "diligence + action + accountability = Rosario."
What a hope restoring solution!
Thank you so very much for the story, and pics and the elation to find such a beautiful, affirming life-giving woman.

Sent by Terry Starks | 11:31 AM | 2-4-2008

Hey there Ketzel--
Great story! It would be great to hear stories of people doing similar things in climates like our own, though, don't you think? Because we can grow forest gardens up here too, and they are equally important, though perhaps not as striking as tropical ones. I highly recommend that you visit Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates's forest garden in Holyoke, MA in the spring or summer--it is a small urban garden (50 x 90 feet) with an amazing array of low-maintenance edible perennials, and it is gorgeous! If we all did that in our back yards, we'd have a huge impact on climate change--not just from the reduction in lawn mowing, but from increased carbon storage in soil and the reduction in shipping high-embedded-energy food all over the place (we spend 10 calories of energy for every calorie of food we eat in this country). And it can regenerate healthy ecosystems in urban and suburban habitats at the same time.
Keep up the good work!

Sent by Dave Jacke | 11:34 AM | 2-4-2008

Wow! I recently read 1492 and was very interested in this story. The book made farming in the Amazon seem very destructive. My hat is off to such an inventive woman and her family ofr working with the land.

Sent by Elaine Blythe | 1:18 PM | 2-4-2008

May we nurture the Rosario spirit within ourselves and plant seeds for tomorrow's children. What an amazing woman you profiled. Thank you.

Sent by Karen Fisher, Chapel Hill | 1:20 PM | 2-4-2008

It's too bad that people like Rosario are not given more outlets to teach the rest of us the importance of sustainability and the simple pleasures in life. What an inspiring story. I can't wait to see the slide show!

Sent by Jeremy Coyne | 3:16 PM | 2-4-2008

What an amazing lady! I listened to the story this morning and I'm thrilled to see her picture too. (You piqued my curiosity when you described her "sinewy" body.) I am completely in awe of her intellect - she has observed the flora around her to decide which ones to propagate, based on their ability to grow in their environment.
Again, Rosario is amazing.

Sent by Kristi | 3:48 PM | 2-4-2008

What a wonderful story. This is confirmation that human knowledge doesn't always require a PhD degree. Rosario is a wise woman and we are all better off because of her and others like her.

Sent by Luis Navarro | 4:07 PM | 2-4-2008

I loved listening to you talk about the Amazon. Thanks. It took me back to the years I lived in Dembi Dollo, Ethiopia, in the highland rainforest--coffee bushes on the north side of my yard, banana groves a few steps to the west, papayas to the south. Can we do as well here in the Pacific NW? Many would say, "yes."

Sent by Jackie | 4:15 PM | 2-4-2008

I was very intrigued by this story, especially since my 6th grade students and I are studying the Amazon rain forest right now. I'm planning on showing them the slideshow as soon as it gets uploaded, as well as having them listen to the audio of this story. Thanks so much!

Sent by Liz Peters | 4:32 PM | 2-4-2008

Amazing story. I believe that we can live in a similar way if not exactly in the same way take care of the land while it takes cares of us.
Any idea if the radio version is available for pod cast?

Sent by Sohaib | 5:03 PM | 2-4-2008

I looked up this story after hearing your piece on the radio. The significance of Dona Rosario's painstaking work to sustain her family on the edge of the rainforest and on the eve of climatic change is profound. The photos portray a formidable and beautiful woman with much to teach all of us. Looking forward to your next piece and slideshow. Thank you!

Sent by Carol | 5:15 PM | 2-4-2008

I heard this story this morning, and plan to have my elementary students listen to it this week. My first and second graders are very interested and concerned about the rain forests of the world. Rosario's story give me hope, that I want to share with my students.

Sent by Barbara Heinlein | 5:15 PM | 2-4-2008

Thank you for a splendid profile! Speaking of sustainability, I've been growing and harvesting tomatos (early girl) in my livingroom here in Gardiner, Montana since Oct. 2003. All you need is a good window facing south and an indeterminate tomato. And an artist's brush or feather to pollinate the blossoms. Tomatos grow best inside in winter when the sun is lower.

Sent by Val Myers | 5:57 PM | 2-4-2008

so beautiful the story this morning on radio going to work.brought such joy of hope for man and mother earth

Sent by Maureen | 7:00 PM | 2-4-2008

I have doubts that every human on planet Earth could live like Rosario. That might be sustainable for her, but it couldn't ever support the current population. There is not enough land and rain forest to support everyone. Right now, we need commercial agriculture, not a reversion to being hunter-gatherers. However, the way that Rosario lives with the technology that is available to her is amazing. They live more cleanly than you would expect. It's good to hear that she is taking care of the jungle. Others who posted comments seem to think that we should all grow our own food and be more primitive. This is impossible. They should focus on improving existing methods to make them more sustainable.

Sent by Peter | 11:44 PM | 2-4-2008

I want to know about the mischievious Grandma! Details please!

Sent by Kayt | 12:03 AM | 2-5-2008

We are Mrs. Heinlein's students, Annie, Savannah, Ross, Tanner, and Kamryn. We loved the story. We probably wouldn't want to take a bath in that river! We will watch the slideshow next week. We hope you have a good time in the rainforest. Thanks for the good information.

Sent by Mrs. Heinlein's class | 2:25 PM | 2-5-2008

TRemendous Story! After hearing so much about the economy, election and the bad things that are happening in the world this story was enlightening.

Sent by Portia Winters | 3:01 PM | 2-5-2008

On the contrary Peter! As I commented earlier-hers is a good solution, no whining from Rosario, no impossiblities, only action. I, too am a sustainable farmer in central Illinois- pretty primative too-and yes I, like so many others raise my own food and share the excess at markets, restaurants & direct from the farm. Little bit of land, loving every inch of it by sustaining, growing, becoming a part of it all. Oh, and I'm a woman- pretty stubborn and just foolish enough to believe I can make a difference. Improbable certainly-but not impossible sir. And the existing methods...bottom line-moola. Yep, I bet Rosario's bank account is pretty much like mine- but her spirit, very much lacking in poverty unlike so many others who desperately hope that big brother, or even anyone else-should take the reigns and make a horse that only stands around getting fatter-try to gallop. Existing methods? Please.

(Perhaps this is not the place to debate- though...perhaps if more knew of the silent majority, picking away at an honest living, being good stewards, changing the way we view food and where it should locally come from...resolving to change many a dilemma in the lack of fuel, lack of funds due to foods coming from over seas. Touching with human hands and eyes that can see if a crop is healthy enough to share, being responsible enough to say "yes I grew this not 6 miles down the road, c'mon out and see how it's grown." & "I grow the healthiest crops on the healthiest land for my family and yours, thanks for your business." Relationships of a common good, again...improbable, but the possibility- occuring on small scale farms with inspiring growth- more than enough for all.)

Sent by Terry Starks | 4:35 PM | 2-5-2008

I woke up to this piece - or peace? - on Monday. The sounds were wonderful. Here in Wisconsin it is snowing again with 10+ inches expected, but his weekend WI Public TV is sponsoring a Garden Expo -- oh to breath in the smells of good dirt and hear bird songs. Can't wait for more pictures from this story. Rosario is a great inspiration!

Sent by Linda Anderson | 5:11 PM | 2-5-2008

I'm fairly overwhelmed by all your comments. I can't really express what it means to hear from all of you; we reporters never really know who (if anyone, honest) is listening.

So rather than embarrass myself by blithering all over the page, I'll just address a few things you guys have raised.

Rosario's bank account is healthy. I was told she makes more than a small town policeman and less than a nurse.

The mischievous grandma, Dona Raimunda, is going to have a radio story all her very own. I'll keep you posted on the blog; it'll likely be on Weekend Edition Sunday.

Certainly we need commercial agriculture; the message, for my money, is commercial agriculture that can support biodiversity.

Isn't it absurd that while the "smallholders" in the Amazon are making a living and saving the forest with a variety of crops, the big money still backs the one-trick pony?

And finally, about that slide show...ONE MORE DAY!

Sent by Ketzel Levine | 6:27 PM | 2-5-2008

Thanks so much for wonderful reporting. When I first met Rosario and her family in 2003 - as a first year graduate student - I returned from my summer field work knowing that I was a better person for having spent time with the family in Mazagao. Over the past five years, having spent over a year with the family, I have been continually grateful to Rosario and Dona Raimunda for teaching me another way of living and understanding the "natural" world. Rosario is definitely one of the most remarkable people I have met.

Sent by Angela Steward | 7:01 PM | 2-5-2008

I've always enjoyed your "stuff" but this was especially engaging. I've recently read 1491 by Charles Mann, and was struck by the similarities between what Rosario and her family are doing and the author's descriptions of pre-Columbian "forest agriculture" in the Amazon. And I love your unaffected reporting style. Thanks.

Sent by Trish Jerman | 9:26 PM | 2-6-2008

Good morning from Mrs. Heinlein's third and fourth graders: Marshall, Lexi, Jasmine, Micah, Mackenzie, Kevin and Matt. It is amazing to see the scientific method in action. How did Rosario measure the amount of water each plant could take? We have been studying ecosystems, and it is exciting to see how someone is trying to help our environment. Keep up the good work. Thanks, Rosario!

Sent by Mrs. Heinlein's 3rd and 4th graders | 10:30 AM | 2-7-2008

As I drove down a highway to work I was transformed to a place I wanted to be!
I have just now seen your photos and you were so right in your discription!
A photo may be worth a thousand word.
But it can not put you there, you have done for me

Sent by Brett | 9:41 PM | 2-7-2008

"TRemendous Story! After hearing so much about the economy, election and the bad things that are happening in the world this story was enlightening."

Um.... first of all this was not that much of a tremendous story and you accidentally capitalized the letter 'r'.
The next thing I wish to address is the fact that our economy here is actually doing decently. Bad things happening in this world is inevitalbe because no one is perfect and the elections is also going well. Just because you don't like Obama, Clinton, or McCain doesn't mean its not going well. Negative people like you make this world seem bad and I think a little optimism will do you good.

Sent by aram kim | 7:02 PM | 2-13-2008

"TRemendous Story! After hearing so much about the economy, election and the bad things that are happening in the world this story was enlightening."

Um.... first of all this was not that much of a tremendous story and you accidentally capitalized the letter 'r'.
The next thing I wish to address is the fact that our economy here is actually doing decently. Bad things happening in this world is inevitalbe because no one is perfect and the elections is also going well. Just because you don't like Obama, Clinton, or McCain doesn't mean its not going well. Negative people like you make this world seem bad and I think a little optimism will do you good.

Sent by aram kim | 7:03 PM | 2-13-2008

Such a rosy story...of poor people... who have no other choice...

One reason for the deforestation of the Amazon basin is thousands of poor people like this are cutting down trees to live a very poor life.

But the rosy picture ignores little things like pain, death from childbirth and accidents, parasites,intermittent hunger and malnutrition etc

The article states:
"I could do dishes the rest of my life if I could stand at this sink (it's got the only faucet in the house) and stare off into the beckoning jungle. The array of bird songs that float in through this non-windowed space is enough to make grown women weep.

As my husband says: pretty scenery doesn't feed the family...

As for living only off the land, notice that a family that lives only off the land manages to have a stove and spigot?

Sent by Boinkie | 12:41 AM | 2-17-2008

I shared this with my modern world history high school sophomore students during our unit on Latin America. Thank you for such a beautiful resource and contemporary connection. I teach at an all-girls Catholic School in the Bay Area and they were impressed with the quality of the reporting, the sounds of the rain forest, Rosario and the interpreter. Quetzal Levine is our hero for the week!

Sent by Mr. Damian Barnes | 12:05 PM | 2-27-2008