African Slaves' Plant Knowledge Vanishing in Brazil

John Roach
for National Geographic News
April 6, 2004

When Angela Leony visited the town of Lençóis 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.

Afro-Brazilian Knowledge

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.

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