As he talks about the spirit of the forest, he has a smile on his face. This is cacique Jose Guimaraes Sumené Xavante, leader of the Ripá village, an indigenous community of the Xavante ethnicity, located in the Pimentel Barbosa Indigenous Territory, in Canarana, in the state of Mato Grosso. The village belongs to a group of native seed gatherers, Associação Rede de Sementes do Xingu (Seed’s Network), created 10 years ago to help with forest restoration projects in the basins of the Xingu and Araguaia rivers.

The Seed’s Network impact is amplified by Amazonia Live, a social and environmental project by Rock in Rio, which is planting millions of trees to help restore the Amazon Rainforest. The program has a direct impact on the region’s socioeconomic development and supports the work of seed collectors like those from the Ripá village. “I need these types of projects, more people asking for seeds,” says the cacique. “I’m a guardian of the forest.”

Between stories, the cacique talks about the spirit of the Roncador, the name given to the mountain range around the village. “In our tradition, we speak. We talk,” he says, in reference to his village’s relationship with nature. To these people, there is a larger force that connects everything they do to a larger purpose of maintaining life, culture, and the forest.

Walking through the forest, we arrive at the plantation where the jatobá is located. The tree is not ready yet, say the natives, who nurture the habit of observing nature and understanding its signs. The fruit is not yet ripe and has not fallen. So the cacique calls everyone for a dance: we hold hands and, in a circle, we follow his rhythm. The ensuing sounds are like those of nature, mixed with percussion, but in fact all this music is made by mouth.

Cacique Jose says he is a conservationist. He insists that he is holding onto his people’s culture so it won’t get away, trying to keep alive his ancestors’ traditions. We spoke with him under the shade of a pequi tree, surrounded by the cerrado.

Amazonia Live (AL) – When we went into the forest to see the jatobá, it wasn’t ripe. You then invited everyone to dance. Why?
Cacique Jose (CJ) – In the old days we did a traditional prayer for the fruit to ripen soon. The food and products of the cerrado depend on nature, so we want the tree to ripen soon. The seeds have ears, they listen, so we go there and ask them. We are speaking our language. There is a spirit that sends us dreams, I receive the dream and record it, to pass its message to the community. I can’t forget the dream. Then I go there and sing this traditional message to the seeds. After that, I bring the community and lead them in the song, to teach them what I received in my dreams, for the health of our food, products and seeds. Then the whole community does the prayer, asking for there to be enough products and seeds.

AL – What type of food do you gather from the forest?
CJ – Jatobá, and xixá, which is a type of fruit. There’s taturupá, which feeds everyone, but it takes until the end of October to be ready to harvest. I planted it back there just now. There’s sugar already, we don’t need sugar, it’s there in the taturupá. Our ancestors passed these things on to us. I learned the traditional foods, I renew the knowledge, I teach it, I hold onto that path. I hold onto the seed.

AL – And what kinds of native seeds do you have here?
CJ – The Xavante corn, which can’t die. We have to care for the Xavante corn with the affection our ancestors gave us. This is a high quality seed. I have seeds for white corn, red corn, colored corn, yellow corn. Mirindiba seeds, olho de boi. Pumpkin, manioc, we have a lot here by the house. Back there, there are people making flour. You’ve seen it, the flour? There’s a lot of flour here, manioc, cashew. We are very grateful for it. My community is planting mangaba do cerrado. Here by the house we planted two cashew trees. This is how we work.

Xavante woman making manioc flour in the Ripá village, in Mato Grosso (Camila Grinsztejn/Amazonia Live)

AL – What was it like before the Seed Network?
CJ – We had a lot of difficulties before the Network became a partner in the project. We have very little food from the murici, look at the murici, this one here in front. Buriti, pequi and cerrado potato. After the Network started, we had a meeting and the whole community accepted it, and they started to enjoy it and go looking together for more seeds to reforest.

AL – What about what we saw in the plantation? The buriti, cotton, xixá… all of this is present in your daily lives?
CJ – That traditional cotton is not the same kind that you buy at the store. We are also holding that one. The cotton seed is stored until October, then it is planted.

AL – What do you use the cotton for?
CJ – To make the tie. If we don’t have cotton, we don’t have parties, then what? We do everything with the cotton. It’s not just for making ties, not just for crafts, it’s used in bathing the children, in cleaning, to keep babies healthy, to give healthy energy, there can’t be bad energy.

Xavante boy wearing a cotton tie and painted with annatto in the Ripá village (Camila Grinsztejn/Amazonia Live)

AL – How do you see the Xavante tradition?
CJ – It was created by the ancients, at the beginning of time. Each ethnicity is its own, with its parties, its culture. Ours we call Xavante. Anyone raised by a Xavante elder wears a little stick in their ear, their hair cut around in a bowl. It’s almost all the same, but it’s different. We only have the cotton string and annatto and genipap to paint our legs. If we have any event, any party, we will paint everyone’s bellies with annatto. It’s a personal thing, like a clan, to paint the belly. There are other ethnicities that don’t have the string, don’t cut their hair, don’t have the wooden earring. You must wear those if you are Xavante. This is important. We are safeguarding those who created it:, our elders. I won’t let it die. I am younger too, I’m still 51 years old. I want to hold onto tradition. I am guiding my people.

AL – Do you see yourselves as protectors of the forest?
CJ – I am a guardian of the forest. Even before settling the Ripá village, I would walk around the Roncador, and a  the Roncador’s spirit appeared. The transformative spirit. I was standing far away, looking at him, and he was looking back at me. I was quiet. He also stayed quiet. “Who is that walking around the hill?” And I was hiding, looking at him. He’s the spirit responsible for the Roncador. I was just visiting. He read my mind and knew I was coming to visit. Why? He governs Roncador, he governs Brazil too, he is very powerful. In our tradition, we speak. We talk to each other. When I fall asleep, he arrives, and he comes into my dreams and talks about the forest. That’s how it is.

Xavante Natives in the vicinity of the Ripá village: “Our responsibility is to be guardians of the forest,” says Jose (Camila Grinsztejn/Amazonia Live)

AL – And did the Roncador’s spirit send you any messages about nature?
CJ – That too. He is the spirit that protects the village. Our responsibility is to be guardians of the forest. That’s the whole world’s, Brazil’s responsibility, the responsibility of protecting nature. He sends help to our community. The community cares for the forest and the forest cares for the community. Here, we make mirindiba tea for diabetes. For a month we do this and drink it every day, one bottle, then it’s gone. And we have to drink genipap too, it’s a fruit. You press it until the juice comes out and drink, drink, and the diabetes is gone. There are people who come from other villages, live here a little, take this treatment, drink the bottle with mirindiba and genipap, drink it all and it’s gone. They go back to their village. Here no one dies of hypertension or diabetes. And there are no obese people or anything. Everyone is more or less the same size, skinny, well fed, looking like life takes good care of them.

We care for the forest and the forest cares for us.

AL – Would you like to send a message to people about the importance of participating in Amazonia Live?
CJ – I need these projects, more people asking for seeds. This is the Ripá territory, and ISA (Instituto Socioambiental) was our partner here. ISA told us we can’t throw away any seeds. We shouldn’t burn, we shouldn’t burn the cerrado. First we will collect the seeds, they are teaching us, guiding us. I am very grateful for ISA’s partnership. And yours too. We will help complete the forest. We need good quality seeds, you know why? Here the forest is a wind, and where there’s wind, it comes towards us, deep into us, so we can feel refreshed by it. My territory has been reforested, it’s green. The farms, the plantations, as well call them, have no trees. In lands like that, there’s no wind. It’s a hot land. Here we have a land that has wind. We can’t invade this wind, we have to hold it to reforest.

AL – Repani [thank you in the Xavante language].


This content is promoted in partnership with Instituto Socioambiental (ISA) and Greenpeace.