Landraces in Brazil: context and Instituto Socioambiental’s actions

The Brazilian context is characterised by a massive and widespread presence of commercial seeds, the only source of most farmers; exceptions are small decapitalised farmers 1, who keep the seeds from harvest to harvest, buying only a small part – or not buying – on the market. However, there are numerous initiatives to strengthen the use of traditional seeds(landraces).

At the regulatory level, the 2003 “seed law recognised traditional seeds; this same law and the implementing regulations exempt from the register of cultivars, thus favouring their use and authorising their exchange and marketing; the scope of marketing was further expanded in August 2012. By contrast, the 1997 “cultivar law”, which guarantees the ownership of varieties, can be used against the same small farmers who use traditional seeds 2. Finally, the absence of specific rules for regulating access to biodiversity and the fair sharing of benefits puts at risk the spread of traditional seeds and the information associated with them.

The Socioambiental Institute has been working for many years on biodiversity and protecting the knowledge of traditional communities and production systems 3. In this context, in the last five years, two initiatives directly linked to traditional seeds have been developed and consolidated:

  • the first one, connected to forest seeds, led to the structuring of the Rede de Sementes do Xingú, in the Amazon 4;
  • the second one, directly linked to agricultural seeds, is in the Vale do Ribeira (state of S. Paulo).

This one took the form of a Fair of exchange of seeds and traditional seedlings of the Afro-descendants (maroons) villages of the Vale do Ribeira, whose first edition was in 2008 5; the 2012 edition was the fifth. More than 15 quilombola farmer villages and almost 100 farmers are involved in the seed exchange; in 2009, seeds of 78 species were present at the fair, and nearly 200 different varieties were recognised by farmers. This initiative was further consolidated with the participation of the farmers of the Vale do Ribeira at the I Traditional Seed Exchange Fair of the State of S. Paolo. The realisation of the fairs has raised the interest of local farmers for the cultivation, particularly of food products; particular challenges locally represent the survival of the local food production system and a participatory improvement of the traditional seeds traded.

  1. This category represents 39% of household production units; the gross production value of these farmers represents 4% of total production, but this indicator does not include products used for self-subsistence or marketed in a completely informal way (see: Carlos Guanziroli et al., Agricultura familiar e reforma agrária no século XXI, Garamond, Rio de Janeiro 2001).
  2. The “law of seeds” is Lei n. 10.711 of 05/08/2003; the decree that expands marketing possibilities is Decree no. 7.794 of 20/08/2012. The “law of cultivars” is Lei n. 9.456 of 25/04/1997. For an in-depth analysis of Brazilian legislation on seeds, biodiversity and fair sharing of benefits and rights of farmers, see Juliana Santilli, Agrobiodiversidade e 

    direitos dos Agricultores, Peirópolis, São Paulo 2009

  3. The Socioambiental Institute (ISA) aims to “defend social, collective and widespread goods and rights related to the environment, cultural heritage, human and peoples’ rights”. For more information, see
  4. The Rede de Sementes do Xingú “aims: to carry out a continuous process of formation of seed collectors at the sources of the Xingú river, to make available the seeds of the regional flora in the quantity and with the quality required by the market; to form a platform for the exchange and marketing of seeds; to enhance the native forest and its diverse cultural uses, to create income for family farmers and indigenous communities, and to serve as a channel of communication between seed collectors, nurseries, rural owners and other stakeholders” (see
  5. The fair’s first editions were implemented within the 8596/MAIS/BRA project, carried out by MAÌS and RE.TE, in partnership with the Socioambiental Institute, co-funded by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Why economic education?

luca fanelli, spray001, 2012

In the last six months, I have approached the theme of economic education, new for me but very close to my constant interest in economic anthropology. I’m doing that within the framework of ActionAid’s territorial development programme in Piemonte, which I’m leading.

I contributed to the design of the project New poverty and participation, which intertwines the fight against poverty through economic education, the request for accountability to local institutions, and therefore a process of advocacy from below. I also contributed to the “Economic and Financial Literacy / Public Expenditure and Family Budgets. Experimentation of the ELBAG methodology” training seminar, held in Bologna May the 5th to 7th, 2012. I then participated in the draft of the seminar proceedings. Finally, I helped design several projects related to the economic education of vulnerable sections of the population.

Reflecting on these issues, I often go back to the years I worked closely with the Amazon o Vale do Ribeira peasants. I think there is symmetry between what is happening among these peasants and the people in poverty in Italy. The peasants I have known, especially those between 25 and 45, are engaged in a cognitive effort. They try to figure out which goods advertised on TV are worth changing their work and life habits to have the financial resources to buy them. Here the issue is understanding which goods or services you can do without and which ones you can’t. From a cognitive point of view, the game is specular, although acquiring is always more joyful than losing.


I do not believe dividing the necessary goods from the superfluous ones is possible. Each of us creates a multidimensional map in this respect: at the centre, we put what we deem indispensable, at the extreme periphery, what does not interest us. There is a pretty significant agreement concerning the place of many items, while many others are in very different positions, depending on the person. This multidimensional map is not static: objects move, slowly or suddenly, depending on the case; these movements are both personal and social. 

Matching this mental map with purchasing power is a complex and sometimes painful exercise. Toward the bottom of the economic distribution, it is difficult to change the available income easily. However, I assume that the map could have a remarkable influence on households’ choices regarding work and occupation. 

A further distinguishing factor in the map is separating what we want to enjoy by owning it and what we prefer to share with others. In this case, too, placing a good /service in one or the other category makes the difference; similarly, there are limits dictated from the outside: not everything is privatizable, not everything can be made public (or communitarian), some goods/ services if enjoyed in the community have some value, if enjoyed privately, they have another one. Moving something from the public sphere to the community one and the private one implies moving the line between rights and duties 1.

Updated in January the 8th, 2022.

  1. This issue is now very problematic: one of the factors of the “civil crisis” that is going through is that we renounce claiming rights, reserving the right not to fulfil our duties.

Research and action for development

ricercazioneDuring the XXX International Congress of American Studies, Perugia, Italy, May 6-12, 2008, in the panel Amazonia. State of the Art of the Field Researches was debated the relationship between research, mainly in humanities and social sciences, and specifically anthropological, and development projects, mainly non-governmental.

Briefly, was affirmed the epistemological interdependence between research and action and the necessity of the tie between these two practices; at the same time, was noticed the segregation between research actors (mainly university) and development actors (mainly NGOs).

Read a resume of the debate (in Italian).