O cio da terra (The Earth in Heat)
(Note: bisa is an abbreviation for “bisavó”, which means great-grandmother in Portuguese.)
In the outskirts of the city of Manaus, where the urban-rural landscape merges with the forest, stood the buildings of the Environmental Capital of the Ecosocialist Republic of Brazil. They were simple constructions, one or two floors made of superadobe or rammed earth. On the whitewashed walls, letters in labored forms and bright colors, like the ones adorning the boats that sail on the many Amazonian rivers, announced names as Biodiversity Ministry, Water Ministry, Climate Action Secretariat, Renewable Energy Secretariat.
In the area belonging to the Seeds Ministry, a different kind of edifice stood out. It was an enormous rectangle of concrete and steel, hermetically sealed like a vault. The most precious treasures of the country were kept there: seed samples of more than five thousand plant species, two thousand of them edible ones. Contrasting with the huge silo, there was another building, recently finished: an oca created to shelter the two hundred participants of the assembly that would deliberate about a polemic topic: genetically modified organisms. Since the proclamation of the new Republic, the issue had been left in limbo. Universities and research institutes had permission to experiment with such organisms, but their use in agriculture was forbidden. A situation nobody was happy with – while the researchers dreamed about seeing their work being applied in food production, the groups that opposed genetic manipulation wanted to ban it from the country for good.
This was the impasse the Minister of Seeds, Kauane Souza, hoped the assembly could resolve. She knew the task wasn’t easy and the two rival groups would come prepared for war. Therefore, a shared space where everybody would sleep together in two weeks of intense coexistence might soften the animosities.
Tiago, an intern of the Ministry, was walking in a hurry when he saw Kauane standing still admiring the building. He stopped. When the boss was quiet like this, it was a sign she could be in the middle of an intense conversation. Tiago waited a few minutes before tiptoeing towards her.
“Excuse me, dona Kauane, the kitchen team asked me to call you to approve the dishes…”
“Wonderful! I was starving!”
In the dining-hall, a buffet covered with a chita tablecloth displayed an Amazonian banquet: beiju, tacacá, pirarucu fried balls served with tucupi sauce, grilled fishes, açai with cassava flour, cupuaçu cream and tucumã gelato, besides vegan options like smoked vegetables feijoada and plantain moqueca.
“You outdid yourself, Rose,” Kauane praised the chief cook. “I don’t even know where to start…”
She ended up picking little samples from everything and sat down to lunch with the intern, who served himself a more modest dish.
“You’re dying to ask me, aren’t you, kid?”
Embarrassed, Tiago almost choked.
“Calm down, son. Take a sip from the juice here. Feeling better? You can ask me, I don’t mind.”
“Mmm…How…How does it feel like, dona Kauane?”
“It’s like there were an actual person speaking to me. Right here on this ear.” She tapped her index finger on her right ear. “Bisa always speaks on this side, I don’t know why…”
“Yes, I call her that. It’s a hoarse trembling voice, you know, like an old woman’s voice. That’s why I gave her this nickname.”
“Do you see her?”
“No, I just hear her.” Kauane bit a huge piece of tambaqui and rolled her eyes. “Égua, this fish is divine! At least in terms of food, we’re going to have consensus in the assembly. Rose, you deserve an award for this menu!”
Tiago also proceeded to eat, he didn’t want to inconvenience his boss with questions. But there was so much more he wanted to know…
“Did you always listen to this voice?”
“It started when I was ten. It was right after they burnt down my family’s house, during the civil war. My father was an influential environmentalist leader and took part in the organization of the first seed gatherers’ networks. So he became a target.”
“Nossa…Did you find out who commanded the fire?”
“No. But there were plenty of enemies: cattle owners, loggers, miners…That’s when I got bisa. Have you tried out the ice-cream? Spectacular!”
“It tastes good indeed,” he answered after taking a spoonful. “When the voice…bisa appeared, weren’t you afraid?”
“Oh, sure, I was scared at first. But I told my mother and she said that other women in our family had the same gift. That’s how she called it. And she advised me to listen to the voice, talk to it. I’ve been doing it ever since.”
“Wow, what a story. I’ve never heard of people that…I mean, I’ve heard of people with mental disorders who listen to voices, but you don’t seem disordered to me.” He laughed discreetly and regretted it right after. “I’m sorry, I’m crossing boundaries here…”
“Be cool, kid.” She patted his arm. “And eat some açai, you’re too thin. Have you heard about Jules Jaynes’ theory of the bicameral mind?”
Tiago shook his head.
“This fellow was a psychology researcher. And he came up with this theory that for a very long time humanity heard voices. Since the Paleolithic until about three thousand years ago, it was the standard. Only when humankind developed what we now call consciousness, it became a different story. Instead of hearing voices, people started to have quiet internal dialogs. Jaynes used to believe that people like me are a sort of remnant of this very old way of being. Like a fossil. How does it feel like having lunch with a fossil?”
Kauane’s wide smile made Tiago comfortable, and he decided to ask more.
“What does she talk about?”
“She advises me. Sometimes she tells jokes or something funny about…” Kauane stopped. It was best not to tell him bisa said that he was handsome and, if she weren’t so much older than him and his boss, she should ask him to have a glass of jambu liquor after work.
“The oca was her idea?”
“No, it was mine. But I consulted her, as usual.”
Kauane could sense some hesitation in the lad’s face. Probably, he wanted to ask if she really believed gathering everybody to sleep under the same roof would have the desired effect, but he didn’t have the guts to question the highest authority of the Ministry. But Kauane was pretty insecure herself. She was even afraid the forced closeness could lead to a disastrous result. Anyway, it was done. And it wouldn’t be long until they knew if it worked or not.
The assembly attendants arrived during the afternoon. Kauane had scheduled a series of leisure activities for them: walks through the woods, boat rides to spot river dolphins and the encounter of the rivers Negro and Solimões, and visits to the Market to taste Amazonian fruits. The minister fancied that these activities would relax the participants, so they would be less prone to conflict in the assembly the next morning. The newcomers actually enjoyed touring in Manaus, but the disposition for battle soon appeared during the welcome dinner.
“Good food, huh? Plenty of it…No transgenic plant was used!” yelled a guy wearing a “Stop GMO” cap while serving himself from the buffet.
These are going to be two long weeks, child.
Before 8 a.m., everybody was already in the amphitheater, although the assembly was scheduled to start only at 9 a.m. Kauane did the official opening ceremony of the event with a short speech emphasizing the hope that they would reach an agreement at the end of two weeks.
Then, the presentations started. A drawing had been made three days prior and the pro-GMO group had gotten the prerogative of doing the first lecture. A reputed scientist, who had been studying the role of transgenics in agriculture during times of climate change, was chosen for this task. Displaying a series of slides filled with diagrams, technical data and numbers, he tried to convince the participants of the ecological function of GMOs.
“Seeds that were modified to resist drought can foment food production in the northeastern semiarid regions.”
Joelma, representative of the Sertão Agricultural Decolonies Federation, rose, furious:
“Food production is alive and very well in our beloved caatinga. I invite you to spend some days in the Facheiro community, where I live, to see it with your own eyes. Everything done with creole seeds and good management of soil and rainwater.”
People applauded. The guy with the anti-GMO cap stood up with clenched fists and shouted:
“Biotech is Godzilla!”
“We don’t need bacterial genes in our plate!” someone else agreed.
The lecturer took a long breath.
“The comrade obviously can’t understand the content of our research. Your critique is based on a genetic engineering practice from the Stone Age. It has been decades since we used the technique of inserting genes from one species into the organism of another. Today, we work with genetic material from the plant itself.”
“We don’t need superplants that are resistant to everything, we need diversity. Genetic manipulation kills biodiversity,” Joelma contested.
“On the contrary, comrade. With this technology, we can even bring back species that are no longer cultivated.”
The inflammatory speech guy interjected again:
“We went from Godzilla to Jurassic Park!”
Upset about the rivals’ lack of manners, the researcher decided to end his lecture and snorted on his way back to his seat in the audience. Then, a researcher from the rival group took the stage to make a presentation about agrobiodiversity:
“We, the caiapó people, cultivate more than fifty varieties of sweet potato. Fifty-six, for the ones who like precise numbers,” she spoke darting a defiant glance at the previous lecturer. “This way, we are able to avoid the destruction of plantations by plagues and we are able to adapt to the seasons. It’s not that transgenics are evil: they are just useless. You’re looking for fancy solutions to problems native peoples solved a long time ago. And you’re creating new pitfalls. Plague resistant plants, for instance, end up being triggers to the development of new plagues. There are studies proving it. And science has already shown that the integrated management of plagues that we, from traditional organic agriculture, have been practicing for ages, is much more efficient. That’s why I’ll say it again: GMO research is useless. Nevertheless, it consumes a lot of resources.”
A middle-aged man wearing a polo T-shirt with Federal University of Bahia’s logo rose his voice full of indignation:“Then it is all about money, that’s what we’re discussing here?”
At the back of the audience, Kauane was bewildered. She was uncertain about which side was right. Luckily, her main function as a minister was not to have an opinion about anything, but executing whatever was deliberated collectively. But the hope of reaching a consensus already seemed a bit vain.
That night, the oca turned into a silent battlefield, with each faction clustering on one side. The anti-GMO hurried to build a trench on the left field. The boundary was set with a clothesline where people hung cangas, sheets, cloths and even a poncho that was mysteriously brought to a fortnight stay at the Amazon. Whispers, intrigues, and provocations went on through the night. The next day, everybody was exhausted but even more willing to fight.
Kauane sensed the atmosphere of hostility right at breakfast. She was sitting down to eat a x-caboquinho with an old friend from the Federal University of Amazonas when she felt the representative of the Native Stingless Beekeeping Project, which opposed the GMOs fiercely, looking daggers at her. Kauane excused herself and decided to eat alone in her office.
The second day of assembly started with a presentation that showed the impacts of GMOs over the population of insects that were beneficial to agriculture, followed by a lecture about the development of non-allergenic peanuts via genetic manipulation.
Kauane’s mind, however, was far away. She was recalling the time when she was a kid and used to watch the adults preparing the muvuca. Her dad’s strong hands mixing all those seeds over the canvas stretched on the floor. Some of them were round and fat, others were tiny and oval; there were bright red, green, yellow, and light gray striped with black seeds. There was also a flat little seed covered with fine feathers that Kauane used to call “bird-seed”, and you had to be careful because if the wind blew, the seed would fly away. Another one looked like a wide-open eye and there was a seed the shape of a water droplet. When the girl was sad, she said it was a teardrop—if she was happy, it was a raindrop. She wanted to look at all that beauty for hours, but soon her father covered the seeds with dark-brown moist soil. Each grownup filled a balaio with this mixture and threw it over the degraded land.
“You only have to throw it like this for the forest to grow back, dad?”
“Yes and no,” her father replied, wiping the sweat from his forehead and sitting on a rock to rest with the girl on his lap. “The earth, Kauane, is a whimsical young woman. You can’t impregnate her without care. You can’t love a woman without care too. But you’ll know all of this when you’re older,” he said, tickling her belly. “For the muvuca to become a forest, we have to choose the right seeds and do everything in the right time. Which is not the time of the calendars, but the time of rain, sun, wind…”
The disembodied voice of the father was interrupted by the concrete voice of bisa:
Think of these people here as the seeds of the muvuca, child.
Then why does it look like everything is gonna turn out wrong? That we won’t be able to reach a consensus? Didn’t we choose the right seeds, bisa?
“Through genetic engineering it is possible to create more nutritious food,” spoke the first lecturer of the day. “Rich in vitamins and minerals that the original plant doesn’t have. It is a powerful weapon to fight malnutrition.”
“Which malnutrition?” a woman from the rival group talked back. “You, apparently, spend so much time locked in the laboratory that you don’t even know that there is no longer hunger or malnutrition in the Ecosocialist Republic of Brazil!”
“But there still is in other parts of the world. Will we deny help to them? As far as I know, the Ecosocialist Republic of Brazil never abrogated international solidarity.”
“The best way to fight hunger is fighting capitalism, not playing god in the lab.”
A very blond woman, president of the Organic Rice Producers Association of Rio Grande do Sul, entered the bid:
“And by any chance does the hypothetical population of this hypothetical country that your hypothetical miraculous plant is supposed to save want to eat this plant? This sounds like old-style colonialism to me!”
Then, an intense debate about neocolonial practices erupted in the morning of the third day of assembly. The heat of the discussion mixed with the wet Amazonian heat made the academic wearing the polo faint in the middle of the amphitheater. A young woman wearing a long patchwork skirt kneeled beside him, giving gentle taps on his face.
“Stop attacking my colleague! What are you doing?” shouted another academic, shoving the woman away. “Call a doctor, call a doctor!”
“I am a doctor, you lunatic!” she protested. “You fainted…Are you feeling better?” she asked as soon as the unconscious man reopened his eyes.
“Yes…” he answered, still dizzy. When he could see things clearly again, he recognized the young woman: she had crossed over from behind the enemy lines. He freed himself from her arms quickly and stood rather unsteadily.
“Take it easy, you’re going to faint again this way”, she tried to advise him, but it was fruitless.
“Unbelievable. Surreal,” Kauane murmured and decided to leave the place to take a breath of fresh air.
Things are bad, aren’t they, child?
It’s despairing, bisa. There are so many discussions on issues that have nothing to do with what really needs to be discussed…I don’t know what to do. Nobody wants to listen to the other, bisa, nobody.
Actually, some people did listen to the other side: the problem was that they were called traitors and had to move to the enemy ranks. The day before, an anti-GMO activist agreed that maybe using genetic engineering to create plants capable of capturing more CO₂ from the atmosphere wasn’t a bad idea. He was rejected by his former allies and even had to transfer his hammock to the other side of the oca.
This is not a matter of wanting, child. They HAVE to listen to each other, they HAVE to work together.
And what can I do for people to understand it?
Nothing. Just wait. In the right time, they will figure it out.
But how long will it take, bisa, how long?
The fourth day of the event was dedicated to issues of security and food sovereignty. During the lecture of a researcher who opposed GMOs, the problem of crossbreeding was raised, and how the unrestrained use of GMOs in agriculture could contaminate near plantations with manipulated genetic material, causing economic losses, since Brazil had become an important exporter of agroecological items—and the buying countries wouldn’t be pleased if a transgenic orange was found in their organic products basket.
“We have technologies which are able to reduce this risk to zero,” protested a retired professor who had kept silent until then.
“What? Terminator seeds?” provoked an activist from the opposite group.
“No, I’m not talking about terminator seeds, even though this technology is not the demon you think it is. Today, there are mechanisms that guarantee that the seeds and even the pollen of transgenic plants are not transgenic. It’s the gene-deletor technology.”
“A technology created to protect transnationals’ copyrights,” the lecturer replied.
“Yes, it was created for this purpose, I admit. But in our current economic system it obviously wouldn’t be used for this goal. Its only function would be to avoid…hmmm…‘contamination’ by genetically modified material.”
“I understand your point, comrade,” the lecturer resumed. “But is it ethical to use a technology that was created for purposes we consider unethical?”
Kauane didn’t listen to the answer. Right this moment, Sandro, an employee from the Ministry, touched her shoulder and asked to speak to her outside the amphitheater. She felt relieved to escape what would be a long discussion for a few minutes.
“Minister, I want to report something…strange that happened in the community where my mother lives. They received a package with seeds, but there was no sender name on it.”
Kauane didn’t understand why the lad thought it was strange. There was an intense exchange of seeds between the agricultural decolonies, and it was usual to receive seeds even if they were not requested: this type of non-market flow of commodities was part of the solidarity-based economic system that was stimulated in the Republic. The lack of sender might have been an inattention—or the proof that exchanges were in fact selfless.
“Nonetheless,” Sandro proceeded, “I sent the seeds to a lab for analysis. I don’t believe we’re going to find any problem, but…”
“You’ve done right. It’s best to prevent trouble.”
The minister said goodbye to Sandro without giving much thought to the matter. All her concerns were focused on the progress (or lack of it) of the assembly. There would be ten more days of the event, and the situation was already chaotic.
The two rival groups were subdivided in at least six sub factions. In the anti-GMO field, there was an essentialist group that defended that genetic manipulation is playing god; a pragmatic faction which affirmed that this technology presents expensive and complicated solutions to problems easily solved by ecological management techniques; and a third party that could be called “the conspiracy theory tendency”, which believed that there were hidden interests behind genetic engineering experiments, and that researchers wanted to patent GMOs abroad and make profit in countries where capitalism was still the current economic system.
In the pro-GMO field, splits in the group had to do with the model of liberation that should be adopted: there was a more political group, inclined to compromise with the rivals, and that defended that each new GMO should be subjected to popular vote before being liberated for use; while the scientism group insisted the decision should be based only on scientific and technical data, and that people in general don’t have enough information or knowledge to deliberate on this matter. Beyond this issue, there was a third tendency formed by a tiny group that wanted to take advantage of the discussion to postulate the resumption of research using genetically modified animals, forbidden since the promulgation of the New Agrarian Laws, prior to the foundation of the Ecosocialist Republic.
Inside the oca, the new divisions turned into new clotheslines fragmenting the collective space in small niches, mini fiefdoms protected by walls of hanging clothes. Within each fortress, the armies forged and sharpened the arguments for the next day of battle.
Images of bioluminescent plants, created by inserting a mushroom gene in the DNA of ferns and small bushes, were projected on the walls of the amphitheater. The figures, which seemed almost fantastic, emitted a dim green light and inspired wonder into some and loathing into others.
“This is still a rudimentary technology, but if we get support to develop it, someday it will be possible to provide public lighting almost exclusively by plants. This will result in energy economy and, consequently, less need to install new hydroelectric power stations, wind farms…”
“This is a monstrosity that looks as if it came out of the worst sci-fi pulp magazines!” exclaimed the angry lad from day one. “And what about the thing the other comrade said, that you no longer take the genes from one species and insert in another, huh? Biotech is Godzilla!”
“Don’t put words in my mouth,” the “comrade” retorted rising from his chair. “I said it is not as common as it was before, not that it vanished completely.”
“Even if it’s not Godzilla nor Frankenstein nor anything of the sort, these plants that shine are nonsense,” the agrobiodiversity researcher stated. “We have more than ten different sources of energy currently in operation in the country, all of them pretty functional and adapted to the weather of each place. Nobody needs plants performing the role of streetlamps.”
“I bet the comrade of the shining plant is dying to sell it to silly gringos!”
A new chaos took place in the amphitheater and Kauane felt hopeless: the same discussions were repeating over and over and over. She still had no opinion about the matter. The arguments of the two groups (that is to say, the six) were not enough to deal with the complexity of the subject, and a synthesis of opinion seemed increasingly impossible. It was almost a relief when Sandro softly nudged her and asked if they could talk outside.
“The results arrived from the lab, minister. And they’re not good at all…Fungus, bacterias and even a kind of mite were detected. They are all quarantine pests.”
Kauane’s heart started beating so madly that she thought she would have an infarction. A package without sender, microorganisms that are not native to Brazil…What looked like an unimportant thing the day before could in fact be a biological attack?
After recovering from the initial shock, Kauane rushed to her office and ordered the employees to send an alert to all communities, cooperatives and autonomous farmers, urging them to forward any suspicious material to the Seeds Ministry right away.
“Highlight that they should not, under any circumstances, open the packages!” she commanded.
Then, she got in touch with the Agricultural Committee:
“Gabriela Schmidt? Good morning. This is Kauane Souza, Seeds Minister.”
“Hi, Kauane. Long time no talk! We haven’t seen each other since…”
“Gabriela, I bring bad news. A potentially…catastrophic situation.”
“Oh my god, woman! What happened?”
“The community where the mother of an employee lives received a package of seeds without a sender. He got a bit worried and sent the material for analysis. The results arrived today, and the seeds are infested with plagues. Plagues that do not exist in Brazil.”
“Fuck!” Gabriela shouted. “I’m sorry, it’s that…”
“We’re already sending alerts, in case someone else receives the seeds.”
From the other side, the new boss of the Agricultural Committee proceeded with a series of swear words. It had been less than two months since she took over the position, and she already had to deal with a possible disaster scenario. Contamination with exotic plagues could risk the country’s agriculture and force producers to use chemical pesticides, which had been banned for decades.
“The contaminated seeds should be shipped right away to the Agricultural Committee, stored in level four biosecurity packages. Also forward the reports from the lab to me, please. We’ll start an investigation about the origin of these seeds, but more important than finding out where they came from is ensuring they do not spread. I’ll open a direct line for denounces and release a massive campaign via TV and social media about the danger these seeds represent. Please keep me informed of any news regarding the communities the Seeds Ministry is in touch with.”
“Ok, I got it, Gabriela. And congratulations on your new position, I was so impatient I forgot to salute you.”
“Oh, comrade, I’m already a little sorry for accepting it.”
“I fully understand you. I still have this same feeling every single day since I became a minister.”
As soon as she said goodbye and opened the door, Kauane again had the impression that she would have a heart attack just by seeing the panic on the employees’ faces.
“Ma’am, we got in touch and…about fifty communities and farmers reported having received the seeds.”
“Ask them to send us the material immediately!”
“We’ve asked them. The problem is that…” the employee paused for a few seconds to check on her computer. “In twenty-seven places, the seeds were planted. They thought the seeds were a gift from the Ministry.”
Kauane sat down with her eyes closed, taking deep breaths. She realized it wasn’t a heart attack, but the beginning of a nervous breakdown. She tried to focus on the flow of air coming in and out—she had to make decisions, therefore needed to think clearly. After one minute, she already felt better, but this did not last long.
“There’s another issue, ma’am…By the way, this didn’t start now. The Campina community informed us that the first seeds arrived almost a month ago.”
“Yes, they received a new package this week. Everything was planted.”
Another Ministry’s employee approached and whispered in the ear of the one who was talking to Kauane.
“Numbers have been updated. Seventy-three places received the seeds. They were planted in thirty-one of them.”
How could this be happening in so many places for so long without her knowledge? What was the use of the Ministry she commanded if a probable biological attack was under way, and she did not know anything about it until now? Kauane felt useless, a wax doll representing an authority that didn’t even exist.
The next day, the numbers were consolidated: eighty-two producers had received the mysterious seeds and fifty-four had planted them. She informed Gabriela.
“Delegations have to be urgently sent to every place where the seeds were planted,” the boss of the Agricultural Committee said. “But we don’t have enough staff for it. I have to call people from other Ministries, from universities…with how many employees can the Seeds Ministry contribute?”
It’s your chance, child.
Chance of what, bisa?, Kauane answered to the voice that suddenly appeared on her right ear in the middle of a conversation. Usually, bisa only manifested when Kauane was silent.
Of making the muvuca.
“Kauane, Kauane, do you hear me?” Gabriela called impatient after the other side became mute for a few seconds.
“I think I have everyone needed for this task, comrade.”
Kauane said goodbye and hung-up the phone. Then, she called the intern:“Tiago, bring me the list with the names of all the participants of the assembly. Do you like solving puzzles? You’re going to help me with a very difficult one.”
Half an hour later, Kauane strode into the amphitheater with firm steps and made a gesture for the lecturers to leave the stage. Holding the microphone, she announced:
“Point of order, comrades. Due to a possible biological attack across the entire country, this assembly is suspended for indeterminate time. And from now on you’re all under the rule of the Seeds Ministry and the Agricultural Committee.”
Looks and murmurs crossed the audience. Resolute, Kuaune explained the gravity of what was happening and informed them they would be divided in groups of four or five people and sent immediately to places where the seeds were planted. There, they would destroy the specimens that bloomed and analyze if the quarantined plagues had dispersed in the plantation. Then, she started reading a list:
“Rodrigo Halfer, Marineide Santos, Raoni Buarque, and Estevão Iacosta, you’re heading to the Aliança community in Goiás.”
The four that were announced had barely the guts to look at each other. They belonged to rival factions and had not exchanged one single kind word since the beginning of the assembly.
“I think maybe there’s an error in this list,” Rodrigo tried to plead.
“There’s no mistake. Get out of the amphitheater right now, pack your stuff and be at the office of the Ministry in five minutes. There, you will receive more information about the transport to your destination.”
Rodrigo lowered his head and retreated feeling ashamed. The other three followed him. In the amphitheater, Kauane continued to read the names and, although all groups consisted of opponents, nobody dared to protest.
By the end of the afternoon, everyone had been sent to their destination. Illuminated by the red rays of sunset, the oca seemed desolate. In the rush, some belongings were left behind: an earring, a box of hairpins, striped underpants, a bottle of propolis. The clotheslines had also remained there, dividing the oca’s ceiling as if they were the webs of deranged spiders. On the bare ropes still hung a pillowcase and the poncho. When she saw the piece of cloth so odd to the Amazonian weather, Kauane laughed for the first time in days.
Good work, child.
When the family’s house was burnt down, the mother begged they should move to a place far away from there, but the father’s decision was unwavering:
“I won’t move from here. Going away is assuming defeat, and I won’t be a loser in this war.”
“They will burn it down again, homem!”
“Let them do it. We build everything from scratch once more.”
“Think about your family, your kids. If Kauane and Cristóvão were asleep in their bedroom when…” She left the sentence unfinished, the rest of it was too terrible to be pronounced.
“We’ll organize. I spoke to Zé Caboclo, and we will set up a security committee. Each night, five men will do patrols to protect the houses in the village.”
“And what house do we have to protect?” the mother questioned, furious, pointing to the ashes on the floor.
Nothing was left: no roof, no wall, not even the old photographs of her grandparents or the saint images that belonged to her family for generations. With a long stick, Kauane tried to scoop the wreckage in search for her doll Miminha, but could not find even a single plastic hair.
A few days later, fellows from the seed gathering group united to build a new house for the family. While the men prepared the mortar to fix the bricks, the women cooked lunch in an improvised stove made with tin cans and coal, and children played tag. Except Kauane, who remained crouched in a corner thinking about her charred doll.
Go and play, child.
She turned her head frightened. Where did this voice that whispered in her ear come from?
Go and play. This will help you to forget, child.
Another fright. There was nobody around. Kauane realized it was an old woman’s voice. Was it a ghost? It was best not to disrespect a spirit…Moved by fear, she stood up and started running with the other kids.
The childhood memory appeared in her dreams every night after the dismantling of the assembly. The events were presented in fragments and out of order…the most vivid image was the floor covered in ashes. In those dreams, Kauane usually watched everything from above: she saw herself wearing a flowered dress that was already short for her height, the stick scooping the scene of destruction, her doll’s absence… Although Kauane looked at everything from an outside perspective, she could feel the same anguish she experienced as a ten-year old.
It was not by chance that these memories were invading her sleep: the news was devastating. In almost every place where the seeds were planted, the plagues dispersed—in some cases, they’d reached nearby plantations. It was necessary to set the crops on fire. Entire communities lost their production.
Some farmers, upset by the situation, recorded videos against the Seeds Ministry and the government in general, accusing them of letting the plagues enter the country. To make matters worse, the investigation about the contaminated seeds reached a dead end.
“We were able to find out the seeds were sent by mail,” Gabriela told Kauane. “The packages were taken personally to five agencies, one in each region of the country, but we don’t have the register of the names of the people who did it. They were simple shipments, so they didn’t have to sign any forms. Maybe if we had a little more bureaucracy it would have been better…” She sounded frustrated. “Anyway, I think these people were only used as stooges in a much bigger scheme. The seeds contain quarantine plagues, so they came from abroad. They might have entered by airport, hidden in the luggage or in the stomach of some ‘mules’. Who knows…”
“Égua! Is there any chance we may discover some more?”
“To be honest? I don’t think so.”
“And what can we do about the farmers’ unrest?”
“The videos? To tell you the truth, if I were in their shoes, I would do the same. It was pretty fucked up these seeds entered the country and spread without anyone knowing. The least we could do is offer support. I worked in many wasted lands in the time of the brigades. It won’t be easy to undo this mess.”
That night, Kauane dreamt again of the events of her childhood. But instead of the floor covered in ashes, the image that appeared was of the reconstructed house, even bigger and more beautiful than before, and of her father feeling proud:
“Now you have an entire bedroom for you, and Cristóvão has his own too.”
The mother was also happy, although she still feared for her children’s security. The new house had a large yard on the front, and she wanted to fill it with flowers.
The next day, Kauane commanded that every participant of the assembly (who remained under the rule of the Seeds Ministry and the Agricultural Committee) should return as soon as the work with the plagues was finished.
“Do you think it is the case of resuming the discussion about transgenics now?” one of the employees asked rather embarrassed.
“There will be no discussion, we’ll get to work. I want everybody here as soon as possible to draw together a plan for our agriculture’s recovery. By any means necessary.”
She called Tiago, the intern, and they headed to the oca.
“Help me to dismantle this,” she said, pointing to the chaotic clotheslines.
She knew things were not going to be easy. There would be discussions, disagreements. But she was sure the members of the rival factions would come with a different disposition after being forced to work together and after seeing the destruction made by an actual enemy.
She remembered her family once more. They never knew who ordered the fire, but the tragedy united the seed gatherers even more. The men settled the night patrol and there were no more attacks. When the civil war was over, they were on the winning side.
“Minister, what do I do with this?” Tiago asked, showing her the poncho.
“Leave it with me. I want to find out who owns it myself.”
If it’s a handsome man, ask him to have a glass of jambu liquor with you, child.
Raquel Setz (she/her) is a journalist and science fiction writer from São Paulo, Brazil. She’s an Ursula Le Guin fan and creator of utopias, because reality is dystopian enough.