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Farming the Amazon with a Machete and Mulch
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Farming the Amazon with a Machete and Mulch

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Climate change will bring rising sea levels and changing patterns of rainfall and ice-melt. This means farmers around the world will have to find new ways to farm and to live with the tide. For our series Climate Connections with National Geographic, NPR's Ketzel Levine traveled to the mouth of the Amazon River. There, coffee-colored river water floods the banks twice a day, and that's where Ketzel found an intrepid woman who is pushing the limits of possibility. She's farming with no more than a machete and forest full of mulch.

KETZEL LEVINE: There is a lot going on here this morning. Birds are flying overhead, the radio's blasting, the pigs are squealing in the background.

And here come the ducks. At the center of all this ruckus is an extremely petite woman with short, graying hair and prominent cheekbones. Her name is Rosario Costa Cabral; she prefers simply Rosario. And this is her domain.

Rosario and I are heading out into the forest. She does not speak a word of English and my Portuguese is nonexistent, but this is my first chance to see what it is that she does. The forest begins where the farm animals end. And within minutes we're up to our rubber boots in tidal muck.

Ms. ROSARIO COSTA CABRAL: (Speaking Portuguese)

LEVINE: We'll only be up to our ankles when the tide recedes. We're just going for a quick spin right now before breakfast, but the foliage is so dense I have already lost my bearings as Rosario hacks a path. I'm thinking we're going to hit a clearing where the celebrated farmer grows crops no one's tried here before, upland species that theory shouldn't tolerate flooding even once, let alone twice a day. But with my translator still sleeping - poor guy had a miserable night - I can't ask too many questions. So I listen to Rosario's mellifluous Portuguese, and mostly I say wow.

Oh Rosario.

Ms. CABRAL: (Speaking Portuguese)

LEVINE: Paradise. Bird of Paradise.

It's a scrumptious clump of scarlet red.

Ms. CABRAL: Papaya.

LEVINE: Papaya. These monstrous green grenades coming down from this fig leaf foliage.

Ms. CABRAL: (Speaking Portuguese)

LEVINE: Injiro bira(ph).

Ms. CABRAL: (Speaking Portuguese)

LEVINE: She makes massage oil from its nuts. After we pass her chocolate-bearing cacao tree, it hits me like a falling coconut - she's got those too. We're not headed for her crop field, we're in her crop field. She farms the forest. As we enter a grove of green trees with irresistible peeling bark.

I love this.

Ms. CABRAL: Yes.

LEVINE: Just eel this stuff off. Whoa, Rosario. Look at that spider.

A learning curve can be a very dangerous thing.

Poison?

Ms. CABRAL: Si.

LEVINE: Poison.

Ms. CABRAL: Si.

LEVINE: Especially before coffee. The spider story goes down pretty well around the kitchen table, where we are joined by Rosario's wizened beauty of a mother, Dona Raimunda, and a multilingual Peruvian from the East Village, who these women adore.

(Soundbite of laughter)

LEVINE: His name is Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez. He's awake, feeling much better, and ready to translate.

Mr. MIGUEL PINEDO-VASQUEZ (Ecologist): (Speaking Portuguese)

LEVINE: When you moved to this land, what did it look like?

CABRAL: (Speaking Portuguese)

Mr. PINEDO-VASQUEZ (Director of International Programs, CERC): When she moved here, she found an empty forest, no resources. Now that she came here, she has to reconstruct the forest.

LEVINE: Rosario Costa Cabral did just that, along with her mother, brothers, stepsons, uncles. She started in 1991, and within three years a forest once undermined by logging was feeding a family, generating income, and earning Rosario quite a name. Her first success was with cassava; its starchy roots the staff of life in the tropical world.

Ms. CABRAL: (Speaking Portuguese)

Mr. PINEDO-VASQUEZ: She likes to demonstrate to everyone that things are possible. So when she planted, not just the cassava produced, but produced huge roots. So everybody, all the neighbors, came and saw the big cassava roots, and they asked for seeds. And everybody started planting.

LEVINE: So how'd she do it? She started with hand-picked seeds, which she brought with her from her last home, also in the Amazon, and where she'd spent years observing and selecting cassavas that showed unusual vigor and tolerance for environmental extremes. Second, she planted in the magic month of November, when the tides were at their lowest and her seedlings could get a head start.

Ms. CABRAL: (Speaking Portuguese)

LEVINE: And she watched the floodwaters, where they went, how deeply they pooled. Through trial and error she learned that cassavas could take up to two feet of quick tidal flooding. Lemon trees four feet, chili peppers a foot and a half - all growing in this Amazon jungle.

(Soundbite of birds)

LEVINE: It's nearly stifling now as we head back into the forest with the indispensable Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez, a family friend and an ecologist from Columbia University who has spent a decade observing Amazon farmers like Rosario. He says she's one of the best, a master of adaptation in a landscape of constant change.

Mr. PINEDO-VASQUEZ: For instance, the continuous rising of floods. A couple of inches for her is very valuable. If from ten plants of chili peppers nine die because of floods and one survives, she doesn't even allow her brothers to eat that until they have enough to reproduce. I mean this is a very deep knowledge - selection, adaptation, domestication.

LEVINE: With a mind as limber and flexible as her sinewy body, Rosario knows how to coax riches from her land. Among it's greatest gifts - mulch. She uses it to keep soil temperatures steady, absorb excess water, nourish crops. But more than cultivating produce or products, Miguel Pinedo-Vasquez believes she's cultivating solutions to climate change.

Mr. PINEDO-VASQUEZ: We don't have to have only people who are spending years in Geneva City or years in financial institutions or years in politics. These are people who are going to make a big difference. They can offer knowledge, and they can offer plants, biological resources, to face changes.

LEVINE: The woman has unstoppable energy. What's she doing now?

Mr. PINEDO-VASQUEZ: She's cutting sugar cane for us. She says after we walk in the forest, we need to have some sweet thing in our mouth.

LEVINE: As if the sweet songs of the Amazon weren't enough. Ketzel Levine, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: See a sink Ketzel says you can do dishes in all day long. It's surrounded by dappled jungle and bird song. And you can learn more about Ketzel's trip at her blog, NPR.org/talkingplants.

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