The fascinating story of Brazil’s red rice, from a connotative food of the African diaspora to a gastronomic heritage to be valorized

23 Jan 2024

The Slow Food Beagá community in Brazil recently conducted a workshop in Belo Horizonte with producers and seed guardians focused on the red rice production in the Serra do Cipó region, northeast Belo Horizonte, in the state of Minas Gerais.

This community is a multidisciplinary group committed to promoting the culture of local agroecological food and the socio-biodiversity of Minas Gerais. Among its aims is to form a purchasing group for socio-biodiversity products, mainly from the Cerrado.

The Cerrado is a vast ecoregion of tropical savanna in eastern Brazil, being present in several Eastern states from North to South Brazil. This is the world’s most biodiverse savanna, home to 5% of the planet’s animals and plants according to the WWF, and unfortunately also one of the most threatened and over-exploited regions in Brazil, second only to the Atlantic Forests in vegetation loss and deforestation.

Within this vast territory, the Serra do Cipó region is a National Park which was established to preserve natural ecosystems of great ecological relevance and scenic beauty, enabling scientific research, environmental education, outdoors recreation and eco-tourism. It is administered by the Chico Mendes Institute for Biodiversity Conservation.

In this sphere Marcelo de Podestá and Carolina Filizola, Slow Food activists, conducted the workshop with red rice producers, aimed to rediscover its cultivation which was preserved thanks to the work of quilombos (ex-slave communities) and family farmers.

Brazilian red rice has indeed a very interesting history that is intertwined with cultures and identities of peoples and deserves to be better known. Present on Brazilian territory since the early colonization period, red rice became an important food crop for explorers, colonists, and enslaved African communities in the territory.

As the research ‘With Grains in Her Hair’: Rice in Colonial Brazil by Judith A. Carney reports, Portuguese governor Joaquim de Mello forbade its cultivation in favor of the imported Carolina white rice variety, that made its appearance in 1766. The Governor’s repeated attempts to suppress planting the red rice, however, had faced strong opposition on the part of farmers, who didn’t want to adopt a substitute variety for the red: growers preferred cultivating the local rice, which was heavier and larger grained.

Seeking to eradicate it completely, the Governor enacted punitive measures against those caught growing the red rice. He applied these measures across the entire region, where rice formed an important subsistence crop for quilombos. The husking and pounding mills that developed over the second half of the eighteenth century significantly reduced the arduous labor demands of milling the entire export crop by hand with mortar and pestle (pilaõ), which was previously the only way to process rice, and contributed to the decline in the cultivation of red rice, which was less suitable for milling.

The Serra do Cipó region started to be populated in the mid XVIII century, by “tropeiros” (comitives of men and mules that transported food and other merchandise between territories), travellers and explorers. Red rice probably appeared in the region by that time, becoming an important food crop, later substituted by modern varieties after the 1950’s. It survived on small family plantations and, especially in the quilombos.

Africans, brought into slavery from the coasts of West Africa, actively shaped the early modern Atlantic world. An examination of rice reveals how Africans, despite enslavement, transferred an entire knowledge system, from production to consumption. A substantial percentage of the enslaved Africans arriving in Brazil at the onset of rice plantation development originated in West Africa’s indigenous rice region, where sophisticated wetland systems had supplied Portuguese ships with surpluses since the fifteenth century.

The legend tells that an enslaved African woman, unable to prevent her children’s sale into slavery, placed some rice seeds in their hair so they would be able to eat when the ship reached its destination.

Today, red rice is one of the main components of the Northeastern diet and considered an essential food and medicine to treat children’s dysenteries, body weakness and post-labour recuperation. It is grown mainly in the states of Paraíba, Rio Grande do Norte, Pernambuco, Ceará, Bahia and Alagoas. It is also produced in the North of Minas Gerais, as reminded by the Slow Food Beagà community. Some of the families that live in the Serra do Cipó National Park area and planted red rice for generations had lost their seeds and stopped growing, but recently started producing again thanks to the help of other farmers and seed guardians and the incentive of the local and Slow Food community members.

by Paola Nano

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