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‘Seeds guarantee our survival’: the ladies of Guinea-Bissau who hold very important vegetation and tradition alive | Meals safety

Sanhá João Correia is stressed, strolling across the boat and urging folks to sit down. He’s apprehensive {that a} flip within the climate will imply a missed probability to cross the Geba River.

The agricultural engineer from the Guinea-Bissau NGO Tiniguena ensures everybody embarks promptly and the boat leaves Bissau, the nation’s capital, loaded with consuming water, gas and rice.

The crossing to Ilha Formosa, one of many Urok Islands within the Bijagós archipelago, takes 4 hours. It’s residence to a novel group of ladies, “the seed keepers” – farmers who’re preserving the ancestral grains of the Bijagós.

The boat is the Cantoucha – the title of a revered seed keeper who died in 2021 – and is crewed by Bijagós sailors. “Solely those that belong to the archipelago are allowed to navigate in these fierce waters,” Correia says. “To navigate safely you will need to ask permission from the gods.”

A woman and child on Ilha Formosa
A girl and baby on Ilha Formosa, the place girls see it as their cultural activity to preserve creole vegetation. {Photograph}: Vanessa Rodrigues

Correia and operational coordinator Emanuel Ramos are agroecological technicians in Urok, working with Tiniguena, and supporting the Ladies Keepers of Agricultural Biodiversity Seeds mission, to preserve creole vegetation and their valuable seeds.

The Bijagó ethnic group inhabit a number of islands of the archipelago, a Unesco biosphere reserve off the west African Atlantic coast. The Urok Islands have been designated a group marine protected space since 2005. About 3,000 folks stay there.

Creole seeds have been handed from technology to technology and are very important for the survival of the Bijagós. These are varieties and species, from corn to rice and peanut, that resist pests and the area’s fierce local weather, which is getting extra intense resulting from international heating.

Sábado Maio, 70, one of 12 head seed keepers
‘That is my work in nature’: Sábado Maio, 70, one among 12 elected head seed keepers. {Photograph}: Vanessa Rodrigues

The mission has already educated greater than 150 girls in seed care, with 12 girls elected as head seed keepers. Sábado Maio, 70, is one. She says storing seeds is a cultural activity of Bijagós girls.

“That is my work in nature. Ladies are the mom of every thing, so girls maintain the seeds greater than males. Ladies are the bottom, males are the sky. Ladies give beginning, males don’t, so vegetation survive due to girls.”

Born within the tabanka (village) of Canhabaque, on Ilha Formosa, her backyard boasts 19 styles of crops and a shady banana plant that bears ripening fruit. Maio is apprehensive that the rains will quickly destroy it. She says it has been raining extra this season than final yr – a recurring criticism within the islands.

Maio is accountable for the seeds together with red-skinned yam, geneva yam, cassava, horse-corn and pumpkin. “I’m a keeper as a result of I watched my grandparents do it. I do know the significance of getting seeds to make sure our manner of survival,” she says. Even her language is now endangered: Bijagó is spoken solely by the elders.

Camilo rice seeds hanging out to dry
Camilo rice is dried and preserved in a group barn. {Photograph}: Vanessa Rodrigues

Two group adobe bembas (barns) have been constructed the place 15 styles of rice have been preserved and seeds are distributed to growers.

Anjuleta Gomes, president of the feminine horticulturists within the tabanka of Abu, has been protecting seeds since she was a baby. “I might take them out, dry them, and defend them in jars,” she says. “I’m 44, and in 1993 I used to be the youngest feminine horticulturist. The group selected me.”

Beneath the palm thatch, shielded from the relentless rain, Gomes is busy eradicating the chabéu, the palm tree fruit. “Within the Bijagó custom, the palm tree is every thing,” says Gomes, “as a result of you should utilize all its elements. Wine, oil, fruit, fish baskets, ropes, mats and ceilings are made out of it.”

Horticulturist Anjuleta Gomes holds seeds in her palms
Horticulturist Anjuleta Gomes holds tomato and okra seeds blended with ash, which helps protect them by protecting bugs and fungus away. {Photograph}: Vanessa Rodrigues

The barn is steps away from her home. “I save seeds of cherry tomatoes, pumpkin, okra, cucumber, eggplant, corn, rice, yam and lime.” As soon as dried within the solar, she explains, seeds are put in a dry jar. “You place some ash on it, to maintain the bugs away, and shut it nicely.” There’s a secret to preserving every sort of seed, she says.

In Guinea-Bissau, as in lots of African nations, it’s principally girls who do the heavy labour on the land. In rural communities, girls and women make sure the water provide and family power.

In accordance with Tiniguena, lower than 1% of those girls personal the land they domesticate, due to legal guidelines and customs that discriminate towards them.

The Bijagós ethnic group represents 2% of the whole inhabitants of Guinea-Bissau. Particular social roles are organised in keeping with gender and age, with ceremonies as folks transfer from one age group to a different. Such celebrations had been below risk, as they concerned meals and produce that had been disappearing, changed by money crops reminiscent of cashew.

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Seed keeper Beatriz Lopes, from Formosa Island, holds maize and cucumber seeds
Seed keeper Beatriz Lopes, from Formosa Island, holds maize and cucumber seeds. Photograph: Vanessa Rodrigues

Since the beginning of the intervention in the Urok Islands, diversification of food production has helped hundreds of women and their families gain greater autonomy and strengthened female leadership, says Beatriz Lopes, a mother of nine and a celebrated cook in her tabanka.

As one of the oldest horticulturists on the island, she was part of the women’s group until 2018, when her health failed, but her garden still feeds 35 family members. “I have children studying in Bissau, but others, along with my grandchildren, help me produce tomatoes, cucumbers, okra, onions, carrots, cabbage, lettuce and kale.”

She saves seeds to distribute to other farmers. “I still manage to have enough to sell, buy rice, buy notebooks for the kids, pay for school, for medicine, and if I get sick we can go to the hospital.”

Esperança Correia, from Formosa island, sits inside her home, holding crops
Esperança Correia, from Formosa island, sells her seeds in Bissau, the Guinean capital. Photograph: Vanessa Rodrigues

Esperança Correia, 45, is one of her husband’s four wives. She had no opportunity to go to school but started working on the land as a young girl. She now has four children and life is “a flip-flop”, she says, because “it demands looking for alternatives for survival all the time”. But as a seed keeper, she says she has more freedom, and she goes regularly to the Guinean capital, Bissau, to sell seeds.

In Abu, Maimuna Augusto, 47, keeps some tomato seeds stuck on the wall. They could be mistaken for dirty marks, but are precious. “Here, the seeds stay protected from bugs, too, as they are stuck into the clay so they do not reach it.”

For her, life has improved since the horticulturists have organised and shared knowledge. “I don’t depend on anyone and today my children can study more than I could, because I can help them.”

Maimuna Augusto points to seeds stuck on a wall to protect them from bugs.
Maimuna Augusto points to tomato seeds stuck on an adobe wall to protect them from bugs. Photograph: Vanessa Rodrigues

A 40-minute boat ride from Ilha Formosa is the island of Maio, where Sábado Madjo, 48, lives. A widow, she interrupts her work to tell us that she keeps “watermelon, manfafa, and yam genebra”. She started to store them as a game when she was a girl after watching her mother store seeds in improvised containers. “It is the garden that makes every woman valuable and this is our responsibility to provide for the future. My dream is to see my four children educated,” she says

A decade ago, Tiniguena first warned that the knowledge of the Bijagó society was in danger of being lost as cashew trees replaced palms, which were being destroyed for charcoal, and as garbage and other forms of environmental pollution appeared in the villages, loosening, the organisation said, “the ties of intimacy with the land”.

The climate crisis has made matters worse, warns Correia. “The Urok Islands are going to suffer with the rise of [the sea] and no matter occurs to agriculture will first occur right here.”

Seed keeper Sábado Luis lives within the tabanka of Chediã on Maio island and talks concerning the more and more frequent and longer heavy rains. “When it rains, the water is just not swept out to sea, it stays on the land, it floods every thing and that is problematic for us, for our survival and meals safety.”

Sábado Luís plants mancara bijagó, a type of peanut.
Sábado Luís vegetation mancara bijagó, a sort of peanut. {Photograph}: Vanessa Rodrigues

The expansion of business cashew cultivation is a fear. “It’s taking up our soil, as a result of it destroys the land round it, taking all of the assets close by so we will’t produce anything. The cashew root wants numerous water and it solely offers yearly and some months. It’s a waste of land.”

The 53-year-old mom of three retains rice, beans and peanuts. For her, “pure assets are the survival of the Bijagós … We can not give in to the stress of commerce, we have now to look out for the well being of nature and resist the exploitation of assets, in any other case the Bijagó folks don’t have any future,” she says.

Further reporting by José António Abúdu

This work was initially revealed in Azul, a complement of the Publico newspaper in Portugal, and supported by unbiased scholarship by ACEP (Affiliation for the Cooperation of the Individuals) and CEsA (Centre for African and Growth Research)/ISEG (Lisbon Faculty of Economics), with the help of Camões, IP

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