Golden grass turns to gold in the hands of Jalapão artisans

21 dezembro 2023

By strengthening this important socio-biodiversity production chain, the project helps to maintain the culture of quilombola communities and conserve the Cerrado.
By Débora Rubin, especially for WWF-Brazil 

In Jalapão, golden grass (Syngonanthus nitens) is what heralds the arrival of spring. On September 20, when the harvest officially begins for this shiny stem with a small white flower at the end that belongs to the wavyleaf sea lavender family, hundreds of hands prepare to braid the "golden threads" and transform them into bags, boxes, jewelry, mandalas and other objects that glitter like the precious metal, in a centuries-old tradition that guarantees income for local artisans and helps conserve the Cerrado. 

In Mateiros and São Félix do Tocantins, municipalities that make up the Jalapão region, in the state of Tocantins, almost everything revolves around golden grass and ecotourism, since large Cerrado conservation units are in its territory.  According to IBGE figures, both are among the ten Brazilian municipalities with the highest proportion of quilombola people in the country, such as the golden grass artisans Luzia Passos, Laudeci Ribeiro, and Railane Ribeiro. 

All three learned the technique as children and today lead associations fighting for greater visibility for the work they do. Now, besides the practical items and bio-jewelry that these women and their ancestors have been making for decades, they are also known for producing works of art made from the grass. On December 7, the Jalapoeira Apurada collection, a series of sculptures created in partnership with the A Gente Transforma (IAGT) Institute, by the designer Marcelo Rosenbaum, was launched in Palmas.   

With the support of WWF-Brazil and in partnership with the Cerrado Central cooperative, the three associations led by Luzia, Laudeci, and Railane have undergone training over the last two years involving various stages. At first, the golden grass collectors (many of whom are the artisans themselves) were given guidance and kits on how to handle fire correctly - an important element in extractive cultures and in the conservation of the Cerrado itself, but one that can spread dangerously if not handled correctly. 

IAGT began the process of co-creating this project in 2021 and, for the first time, the three associations came together to strengthen their work and the positioning of quilombola artisans, bringing to life the pieces from the Jalapoeira Apurada sculpture collection. The IAGT's work was to take golden grass to other markets, such as design-art, where exclusive products have the possibility of building a narrative that qualifies this know-how as a product that symbolizes culture and tradition.  

Subsequently, the focus was on the commercial side, from the creation of new products to support in the physical structuring of the associations' craft stores. The artisans also received training on pricing, in partnership with the Federal University of Tocantins (UFT), and on reaching new markets. 

Local tradition

Products made from golden grass have become the big star of the handicraft stores in Mateiros and the other municipalities of the Jalapão since the 2000s. After a while, however, sales of the items ended up being restricted to tourists visiting the site and to a few places scattered around Brazil. With the project supported by WWF-Brazil, the aim is for this artisanal production to be expanded inside and outside the country.  

In addition to golden grass, there are other important socio-biodiversity chains in the region, such as buriti (which is also used in golden grass products), baru, nance, courbaril, and mangaba. These are used to make candies, oils, cachaça, flour, and other extractive products such as cashew and bee honey. "These are chains that keep the Cerrado standing and generate income, but which are not yet being organized like grass cultivation," explains Cassiana Moreira, the project's technical advisor from Central do Cerrado. 

Even the grass, whose cultivation is a symbol of Cerrado conservation in the region, is under constant threat. One of them is improper harvesting before September 20, which is illegal. Many middlemen harvest before the allowed date to sell to the craftswomen. According to Cassiana, a Curitiba native who adopted Mateiros 21 years ago, another problem is that the grass leaves the Jalapão and Tocantins as raw material - which is also forbidden. "Without supervision, it's difficult to do this," she says. Finally, the lack of water and frequent fires are also strong sources of pressure. 

"It's God in heaven and grass on earth” 

Laudeci Ribeiro de Souza Monteiro, 45, is president of the Community Association of Artisans and Small Producers of Mateiros (ACAPPM), which has existed since 2001. She was eight years old when she did her first sewing with golden grass. Her mother learned from an artisan in the quilombola community of Mumbuca and soon taught her five daughters. "We already sewed our own clothes, those of the dolls, so we knew the basics," she recalls. "Back then, we called it gold-grass. It was only after we took part in a fair in Palmas in the 1990s that it got its name, golden," says Laudeci. 

The golden grass is the most important source of income for the municipality of Mateiros. "Tourists come here because of it, they started coming for products and saw how beautiful the place was. Today, 80% of the inhabitants work with it. All women know how to sew. They may not want to do it for a living, but they know how to do it," says Laudeci, who raised four daughters on sewing grass. Two of them have higher education and live in Mato Grosso do Sul. 

"I've been sewing with golden grass since I was 12. I learned it from my mother and my grandmother, Mrs. Miúda, who was the forerunner of this art in the world.” This is how 28-year-old Railane Ribeiro da Silva, president of the Association of Artisans and Extractivists of Mumbuca village, a quilombola community, begins to tell her story. "Today, our community is what it is because of it. It's God in heaven and grass on earth. It's what makes it possible for us to eat, drink and live". 

Completing the trio is Luzia Passos Ribeiro, 35, president of the Quilombo do Prata Association. In her community, further away from Mateiros and close to São Félix do Tocantins, 90 families live off family farming and extractivism. "Few people here have a salary, fishing pays very little, so the grass represents a different kind of work in terms of income," says Luzia. Another source of income in Prata is community-based ecotourism, in which visitors stay in the homes of local residents. 

Still without an official title issued by the government, the Quilombo do Prata today is under pressure from agribusiness, which is advancing in the region mainly with soy monoculture. "That's also why we need to keep this culture alive, to preserve our region, our home. Can you imagine Jalapão without the golden grass? It just wouldn’ exist," says Luzia. 

Brazil's most threatened biome 

The Cerrado has already lost around 50% of its original cover. Holder of 30% of all Brazilian biodiversity and home to the three largest river basins in South America, it is today Brazil's most threatened biome. Containing the pressure from agribusiness, which is advancing mainly through Matopiba (an acronym for the region that includes Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí, and Bahia), is a huge challenge. 

"It has already been proven that traditional peoples and communities are the great protectors of the land," explains Ana Carolina Bauer, conservation analyst and project leader at WWF-Brazil. "We want to draw attention to this region which is threatened, ironically, even by the conservation of the Amazon. With the protection of the Amazon area, agribusiness is advancing into the neighboring Cerrado, which doesn't have the same visibility as the forest. Obviously, we need to continue fighting for the conservation of the Amazon, but governments and society must also step up in the fight for the Cerrado," she warns. 

Compared to its neighboring biome, the Cerrado has smaller legal reserve areas, less legislation focused on preservation, much more private land, as well as local and native populations that are less empowered than the indigenous and other traditional communities of the Amazon. Empowering artisans who use plants as raw material and who don't harm the planet is a great business for them and the environment. 

Jalapoeira Apurada 

Elevating the work of Mateiros' and São Felix do Tocantins craftswomen to the category of art is a way of empowering them. Jalapoeira Apurada - a name that refers to the place where the pieces were born, the attentive eye and the hands that weave from ancestral knowledge - features 38 sculptures that were exhibited as pieces of art, and that will be on sale. After Palmas, the sculptures should travel to São Paulo in 2024 and then the idea is to take them to exhibitions around the world. 

In addition to the Cerrado Central support for the sale of the pieces, an Instagram profile (post the link) was created to help spread the word. "Our aim is for them to earn money from this work so that they can continue to live in their home territories," says Ana Carolina. In addition to the art collection, the WWF-Brazil project has also yielded a new collection of utilitarian pieces, with lower prices than the sculptures. The idea with both collections is to reach new audiences, with the most different income ranges. 

"This is not a ready-made project, we’ve built it together. And it has to be for everyone, it has to be the best for our craftswomen," says Laudeci, from ACAPPM. "Before, so many projects arrived here with everything ready, without listening to us. No wonder they didn't get ahead.”  

Luzia, from Prata, recalls that the beginning of the process with Rosenbaum wasn't easy. "Until I understood what he wanted, it was difficult. He didn't understand our language and we didn't understand his. We began to understand each other on the second or third meeting," she recalls. "But it was worth it, the result is incredible. The sculptures are one more charming than the other.” 

"It's a wonderful project, but it was very challenging at first because we were afraid we wouldn't be able to do it," adds Laudeci. "The models he brought had never been made of golden grass, so we were afraid to risk it.” Once we "took the risk", we realized that we are capable of doing it. "This project has also brought a lot of unity between the three associations, a lot of strength, a lot of determination for all of us," she adds. 

Maria Aparecida Ribeiro de Sousa, president of the Cerrado Central and artisan from the village of Prata, celebrates the achievement. The Central, which has accompanied the three associations for 18 years, knows the importance of this collection. "Golden grass is nothing new, but now it's coming with a new look and new perspectives," says. "We expect that it will broaden the horizons of the associations, that it will increase the market. That's what helps keeping our culture afloat. After all, these women are the main guardians of the Cerrado". 
The goal of the project was to promote the production of the artisans.
© Loiro Cunha/IAGT
The pieces carry memories and tell stories of ancestral knowledge passed down from generation to generation.
© Loiro Cunha/IAGT
As esculturas foram feitas com capim dourado e buriti
© Loiro Cunha/IAGT