When the cultivation cycle of the pau-brasil (a member of the leguminous family) came to an end, the coast of Brazil from the southern part of the State of Rio de Janeiro to northern Paranà (one of the first areas to be populated by Portuguese colonists) was taken over by sugar cane plantations. Unlike the Northeast, it failed to produce a large output and hence failed to develop significantly.
Only in the eighteenth century, at the height of the gold rush in Minas Gerais, did this stretch of coastline begin to enjoy a period of prosperity. The important trading port of Parati acquired a certain fame partly on account of its intense production of cachaça (a spirit made from sugar cane) and sugar cane by-products, which helped drive the local economy. The town at one stage boasted over 200 cachaça distilleries and grinding mills. At one stage, the name Parati even became a synonym for cachaça.
In the nineteenth century, when the mines were beginning to be worked out, and the economic cycle of coffee began, the region slumped into decadence. This led to involuntary isolation: on the one hand this phenomenon failed to generate progress, on the other it helped preserved local traditions.
The locals, often crossbreeds of Portuguese and native Indian blood, were called caiçaras. The name is an evocative one: the word Kaaïsá or caa-içara is of Tupi-Guaranì origin. Joined together or separate, the words refer to a wood enclosure or rough shelter made of branches. The name thus captures well the environment that, historically, structured the so-called caiçara culture.
The caiçaras embody the solid bond that was established between man and natural resources, a phenomenon which originated a rare example of a community in intimate harmony with its natural environment. A people at once of land and sea, they settled in relatively inaccessible areas, between the forest and the Atlantic coast.
The caiçaras did everything within their power to preserve their identity, though the inevitable encounter with urban culture generated in them an increasingly pressing need to earn money. They represent one of the finest and oldest forms of Brazilian culture, yet also accessible thanks to the proximity of their region to the most populated, developed cities in the country, Rio de Janeiro and San Paolo.
The difference between the caiçaras and the fishermen of the north-east coast was that the former did not concentrate their activities on the sea alone, but combined fishing with subsistence agriculture, using a system of cultivation of clearly indigenous influence. They grew manioca, beans, corn, sugar cane, yams, bananas and coffee, as well as producing palm oil.
They also used to grow an infinity of secondary products and medicinal herbs. It is worth noting that, to this day, the caiçaras possess vast knowledge about popular medicine based on traditionally used plants and the therapeutic power of certain species of fish.
Daisy Justus, who lives in Rio de Janeiro, is a clinical psychoanalyst and anthropological researcher on Brazilian food tradition, identity and culture
Photo by “Pepê” Schettino (http://www.trip.com.br/caicara/)
Adapted by John Irving