African Slaves' Plant Knowledge Vanishing in Brazil
for National Geographic News
April 6, 2004
When Angela Leony visited the town of LençÃ³is in northeastern Brazil 18 years ago, she was unable to conceive. Yearning for a child, she went to see Dona Senhorinha, an elder healer.
Senhorinha told Leony the problem might be solved by drinking tea made from Estradeira-vermelha, a native pea plant with a bright red flower known for its ability to start the menstrual cycle and facilitate pregnancy.
Today Leony has an 18-year-old daughter.
Senhorinha's ancestors were African slaves. In Brazil, Senhorinha is one of many elders of such descent who retain a deep understanding and belief in the healing and spiritual powers of South American plants. That cultural heritage is the focus of an ongoing study by Robert Voeks, a professor of geography at California State University, Fullerton.
Voeks says Africans had highly evolved, plant-based spiritual and healing traditions before they were brought to Brazil as slaves. Once in South America they adapted their traditions to the New World environment.
Africans were the only immigrants in the New World with tropical farming experience, notes Judith Carney, a geography professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and an expert on the traditional plant knowledge of Africans. This botanical knowledge allowed them to grow food for the colonial economy and eased their survival when they escaped from slavery.
With the support of the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration, Voeks is studying the Afro-Brazilians' relationship with the South American plant world and documenting how quickly this way of life is disappearing.
Voeks has focused his research on an Afro-Brazilian community on the outskirts of the Chapada Diamantina (Diamond Highlands) National Park, which lies about 750 miles (1,200 kilometers) north of Rio de Janeiro.
Afro-Brazilian slaves and free blacks alike descended on the region in the mid-19th century to mine diamonds from the lush landscape. Though the discovery of richer diamond deposits in South Africa effectively ended the Brazilian boom by 1880, many of the Afro-Brazilians stayed behind.
Today the local economy depends mostly on tourists who come to admire and frolic in the park's mesas, canyons, rivers, and waterfalls.
Voeks said he was drawn to the region, in part, by his belief that many academic colleagues specializing in the study of cultural plant lore, or ethnobotany, overlooked Afro-Brazilian folkways.
With the help of a few locals, Voeks established a baseline of 45 known medicinal plants. He then questioned a group of local Afro-Brazilians about the plants and their medicinal properties.
Among other insights, Voeks found that Afro-Brazilian elders, especially illiterate women over the age of 50, retain a wealth of knowledge about the medicinal properties of local plants.
The finding refutes the perception held by some scholars that the "immigrant" status of 19th-century Afro-Brazilians precluded them from sufficiently learning how to incorporate the local flora into their daily lives.
"It is intuitive that someone arriving in the South American rain forest isn't going to have the same mastery (of the local plants) as an indigenous group," Voeks said. "But people have the same requirements and the same needs in any rural folk society."
Afro-Brazilians drew from their African traditional plant knowledge. They also incorporated insights from indigenous populations who were also enslaved. In doing so, they established a knowledge of South American plants that continues today, Voeks said.
Voeks reports that Afro-Brazilian youth share very little of this ethnobotanical knowledge with their elders, a phenomenon he says is seen in many other rural societies that have traditional cultural relationships with plant life.
Voeks attributes this loss to formal education. "In a way, being proficient in this sort of (traditional) knowledge connects the young to a perceived backward history that they are keen to distance themselves from," Voeks said.
He noted, for example, that knowledge of how a plant can be used to cure diarrhea may seem irrelevant to some.
Voeks says that unless ethnobotanical knowledge is more widely recognized and steps are taken for its preservation among Afro-Brazilians, it may disappear.
"My sense is that the lion's share of ethnobotanical knowledge will be lost during the coming generation," Voeks said.
Judith Carney, the UCLA ethnobotanist, says that efforts to preserve Afro-Brazilian knowledge are important, particularly in educational settings.
"Brazil's recent emphasis on teaching about African history in primary school is a step in the right direction," Carney said. Carney notes that school lesson plans should also highlight the cultural aspects of ethnobotanical knowledge, particularly its role in Afro-Brazilian survival, cultural identity, and resistance to slavery.
The rest of the world may enjoy spin-off benefits, too. According to Voeks, researchers at the Universidade Estadual de Feira de Santa near LençÃ³is are studying the medicinal properties of Estradeira-vermelha to determine if the plant, indeed, has the power to encourage pregnancy.