From Chickens to Cassava: Small Projects, New Perspectives

Indigenous man walks through cassava plantation
Indigenous leaders and CSO’s form “little projects”

August, 2023 – As soon as Gracilene Guajajara throws a handful of raw rice in the area surrounding her thatched-roof adobe hut, a number of chicks, hens, and a rooster show up. She lives in the Indigenous village of Juçaral, at the Arariboia Indigenous Land, in the state of Maranhão. Her husband and children help her look after their farm animals and their cassava fields.

“Thanks to our chickens, we had something to eat during part of the COVID-19 pandemic, so we kept them after that. But we have a cassava field. All thanks to our 'little project',” says Gracilene. She belongs to a family of leaders in the village. “Indigenous people have always had a tradition of planting vegetable gardens, but that was lost for a while. Thanks to the support we received, we decided to start doing it again, as it is something that we already knew how to do,” she adds.

The "little project" she refers to is part of the technical and financial assistance, in the form of small cash grants, provided to 63 families living in the area under the Integrated Environmental and Territorial Management in Eastern Amazon Indigenous Lands program, supported by USAID/Brazil.

The project reached its end in the first half of this year. It was led by the Indigenist Workers Center (CTI) together with the Society, Population, and Nature Institute (ISPN). It involved the Maranhão Indigenous Organizations Network (COAPIMA), the Wyty-Catë Organization of Timbira Communities of Maranhão and Tocantins, and the Maranhão Indigenous Women Network (AMIMA).

In addition to developing Territorial and Environmental Management Plans in the state, the program promoted ethno-zoning activities in the Alto Turiaçu Indigenous Land, contributed to the institutional strengthening of COAPIMA and AMIMA, and strengthened their portfolio of micro and small projects, under which Gracilene's family received support.

“After meetings and discussions with local Indigenous groups, we realized that they demanded support for small initiatives, such as raising animals, planting cassava, and producing handicrafts. So, we designed the project portfolio together with the communities, and we can still see the benefits of that," says Thayane Cristine Tavares Rabelo, technical assistant for Micro and Small Projects at the ISPN, who was involved in the process from the start.

Frederico Pereira Guajajara, who lives a few meters apart from Gracilene, received support for raising his chickens. “In the beginning, I faced some difficulty adapting my breeding practices to 'farm' animals, which needed different care, including special feed and vaccines. Today, we have more free-range chickens, which live free; it has been much better,” explains Frederico.

Frederico is an Indigenous man and holds a chicken

He was involved in organizing an Indigenous youth meeting for the project. “Many young people end up leaving our village to study, and never come back. We seek to strengthen their ties with our traditions and knowledge, developing leaders from a very early age," he adds.

Frederico's wife, Angenilda Guajajara, is a member of the Arariboia Female Warriors Association. She and other Indigenous women are responsible for the community's seedling nursery. They cultivate native species onsite, which are later planted in degraded areas. They use some seeds and dyes to produce handicrafts, such as in the case of urucum (a local name for annatto).

Sharing seedlings – In another community a few kilometers away, chief Perolina Guajajara, from the Guarumãzinho village, says that the project came at a time of great difficulty. “There was almost no food around here, so we decided to plant cassava. Our family worked on it, and today we are able to share our seedlings with other relatives in need,” she says.

Indigenous women in her cassava plantation

They reserved an area where they grow the plants. They remove some cuttings (stems or branches about 20 cm long), and use them for replanting.

Civaldo Guajajara, Perolina's husband, designed and built a small engine attached to a wooden box where Perolina may grate the cassava to make flour. “We have cassava flour all year round, which I can use to cook or produce cassava meal."

According to Thayane, the project contributed to strengthening traditional knowledge by allowing communities to resume agricultural activities, in addition to engaging women and young people in the initiatives.

"The project was extremely important to benefit the Indigenous Lands. It met demands of different magnitudes, from the implementation of Environmental and Territorial Management Plans and the elaboration of ethnozoning – which serve the populations of the territories as a whole – to the care with specific needs of certain villages through micro and small projects. In addition, the focus on women's activities resulted in the strengthening of AMIMA and the Timbira Indigenous Women's movement, with the execution of its first large meeting, whose power indicated the path of many others to come!", says Pollyana Mendonça, CTI Program Manager.