In extreme northeastern Brazil lies a land few of us are familiar with. It is a land populated by what one expert has termed one of the three most isolated tribes in the world: the Wapishana. Many of these Brazilian Wapishana have migrated from Guyana across a rather porous border, without passports, especially after the British moved out of Guyana in 1966. There they live on a reserve of 63 square miles, which the Brazilian government fairly recently set aside for them.
With the exit of the British came a severe economic downturn throughout Guyana. Especially hard-hit were the Wapishana people, many of whom worked for British interests. Yet God works in wondrous ways, and at least two of the present-day members of the Maloca de Moscou community in Brazil, who had been forced to leave Guyana due to lost jobs and economic hardships, brought with them the truth of God. Their exposure to The Plain Truth through their English managers had led them to subscribe themselves, and grow in the faith over the years. Guyana’s loss was Brazil’s gain!
The People and Their Community
I was told by one member of the community that at one point in the Wapishana’s history the government had decided to exterminate the tribe. Thankfully a member of the government convinced the leader to scrap that idea, so the tribe continues on to the present. Their forefathers were “people of the bush,” as one person said, and lived by hunting and fishing, plus cultivating small plots of crops.
Funds are very limited for these very close-to-nature people, whose primary income is from growing cassava roots (see image at right) using the slash-and-burn method typical of Amazon rainforest areas. Maloca de Moscou is located in a rolling mixed rainforest-savannah area, with small trees dotting the savannah grasslands. The best soils are in the low-lying forested jungle areas, so the farmers have cut down the towering palms and hardwoods of 10-20-acre tracts, burned the areas, and then planted native cassava amidst the charred stumps and gray ash littering the soil surface. This ash provides the bulk of the fertility to the crop, which is not fertilized commercially. Towering native or regrown forests surround the currently cultivated fields.
The farmers wield mattocks to punch holes in the compact soil, and plant the root cuttings in a 4x4 foot grid all across the burned-over areas. The work is hard, and the men spend long hours in the fields, sweating for their cassava crop, which takes a year to mature from planting to harvest. There is no way to mechanize this production system. They must weed the plants carefully and control various larvae that can stunt the plants, but cassava is highly adapted to this soil and climate.
After a year, the crop is dug, the tubers carried by hand to a processing shelter, and then peeled, soaked, ground, sifted, pressed, and finally dried on metal-topped stoves fueled by wood (see image below) .
The entire process is very labor-intensive, but families pitch in and do their assigned jobs, with plenty of smiles, storytelling, and humor. The full bags of grainy, processed cassava is, after all, their staple income. Each bag sells for about $100 (230 reais), and is the main source of cassava in the local economy. One hectare of cassava will produce about four to six bags of processed cassava per year.
Because of the heavy rainfall, high temperatures and humidity, the rapid plant growth and organic matter oxidation allow for only two or three crop cycles in as many years before yields plummet. At that point the field is abandoned to allow regrowth of palms and other plants. After 10 years the forest regrowth can be slashed and burned again; the regenerative powers of the natural world are amazing. In a mere five years the cassava field becomes a forest 50-80 feet tall!
The Area and Its Productivity
Eastern Roraima State lies adjacent to the low mountains of southern Guyana. A four-month dry period—January to April—is conducive to cassava production, but makes banana, pineapple, and other fruit production less attractive. Some showers normally fall during the dry season, but the 2014 dry season was exceptional, with hardly a drop of rain. As a result, creeks stopped flowing all across the region, leaving only scattered pools for livestock drinking water.
Soils of Maloca de Moscou are very poor, called “xanthic ferralsols” in modern soils jargon. They are highly weathered by tropical heat, moisture, and microbial action, have little nutrient-holding capacity, are very acidic, and contain few nutrients. With any amount of tillage and farming the few nutrients present are soon used up.
However, tropical trees, especially palms (see banana trees in image at right) , native fruits, and certain hardwoods and vines do well in more favored environments. The savannah areas can grow decent grasses for livestock, or field crops and trees if fertilized and watered.
The Project Coalesces
The purpose of this mission to Brazil was to assist our brethren in improving their agricultural practices, in accordance with Philippians 2:4 Philippians 2:4Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.
American King James Version×: “Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.” Moreover, Paul said to the Galatians: “And let us not be weary in well doing, for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all, especially to them who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:9-10 Galatians 6:9-10 9 And let us not be weary in well doing: for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not. 10 As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good to all men, especially to them who are of the household of faith.
American King James Version×).
What, then, could be done to help these brethren, who had little cash in hand but had a strong work ethic and desire to pursue the truth?
Jorge DeCampos and I were given tours of several area cassava farms (see image below) to see up-close the soils and production system for cassava, the cattle project, and other aspects of the brethrens’ support systems. In most cases we had to walk some distance to reach the fields slashed out of the jungle, and we became versed in the hard labor required to produce their main cash crop. The field procedures cannot be mechanized, though improvements in processing to the dried cassava “grain” can be made. In particular, the heating and drying step could be hastened considerably with improved equipment. But because each farm has its own processing facility, it was determined that it would cause problems to upgrade one farm without upgrading them all. We had to look elsewhere for ways to improve their system.
One day as if by some great spirit force the brethren, with one voice, spoke of the need for a deep water well to supply abundant water for irrigation during the dry season, and for community use. Not only would that improve what crops they did grow, it would allow them to grow more fresh vegetables, which as of now is lacking in their diets. They have fruit in plenty, but not vegetables and whole grains.
If situated atop a nearby hill, a well of about 460 feet deep with a water tank for pressure, hoses and pipes could divert water to individual family plots on which vegetables could be grown—spinach, collards, lettuce, root crops, tomatoes, and peppers, as well as other tropical crops—providing a focal point of improved nutrition and health for the community. Not only United Church of God members could benefit, but families throughout the area could participate and share in the abundance that this project was giving, letting the congregation’s light shine to the entire community in a truly tangible way.
We made plain principles of God’s health laws: Eat herbs with seeds (Genesis 1:29 Genesis 1:29And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
American King James Version×), eat fruits with seeds (Genesis 1:29 Genesis 1:29And God said, Behold, I have given you every herb bearing seed, which is on the face of all the earth, and every tree, in the which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed; to you it shall be for meat.
American King James Version×), and eat clean meats (Leviticus 11). We also encouraged them to avoid refined and processed foods, and to eat fresh, uncooked vegetables and “integral” (whole grain) rice rather than refined white rice. (See local produce in image below) .
They greeted the plan with enthusiasm. A second meeting was held a few days later, and the brethren not only fully agreed to the plan, having given it further thought, but added to the plan by suggesting building fish ponds nearby, using the water to maintain water levels during the dry season, and diverting some of the water for a banana and pineapple plantation.
Before we left Maloca de Moscou, approval for the water well project had been granted by the town council, and now only official Brazilian government approval is needed.
While visiting the farms, several soil samples were gathered and mailed off for analysis at a laboratory in Missouri. Based on the results it will be possible to recommend amendments for the gardens, as well as for cassava production areas.
A livestock herd (see image below) of 12 head is currently being tended by the brethren. That herd is already growing, and has a virtually unlimited area to expand. One improvement in their nutrition made was to buy trace-mineralized salt for the cattle to replace regular livestock salt. The vegetation is deficient in several vital nutrients, so these trace minerals will compensate for that.
A return visit to Maloca de Moscou may be necessary in the coming months. We are highly optimistic that the Wapishana brethren will carry through their plans to build a foundation for greater prosperity and health during the coming years. We seldom pause to ponder the incredible value to something so common as water, until we have too little of it. The northeastern Brazilians have this problem four months of the year, and a deep well should do much good for these people. Let’s pray that this will indeed be the case.
A special note of thanks should be extended to the Brazilian government for nearly eradicating malaria in the area of Maloca de Moscou. There was one case of malaria that erupted while we were there: a teenage girl contracted the disease, but she had just returned from a visit to Guyana where malaria is much more prevalent. The young lady’s case was nearly resolved with proper treatment by the time we left. I especially wish to thank Jorge DeCampos for inviting me to accompany him on this journey to Brazil to serve our brethren, and to L. Scott Hammer, president of Vital Earth Resources in Gladewater, Texas, for so generously giving me the time away from a very busy schedule as director of research to help with this project.
As a parting comment, let me reiterate my impression of the Wapishana brethren (see image at right) as being a most dedicated and hard-working people of God. Though short in stature, they are tall in love and kindness toward all of us who have made it possible for them to prosper more abundantly these past few years.