Chapter 6 - Luciania

Luciania sugar plantation

Luciania

The distillery

Chapter 6 - Luciânia

 “He that plants trees loves others beside himself.”

- Thomas Fuller

 

“No advance in wealth, no softening of manners,

no reform or revolution has ever brought

human equality a millimetre nearer.”

- George Orwell

 

“Plantations of good morals are easily captivated, colonised

and corrupted by the pests of a bad company.

Spray away bad companies and you will experience

a bumper harvest of your dream fruits!”
― Israelmore Ayivor, The Great Hand Book of Quotes
 

 

Period of time covered: from 1949 to 1990s.

Location: Luciânia, near Lagoa da Prata, MG, Brazil.

           

            I have noticed that people sometimes confuse my father and my grandfather. It is true that they had almost the same name, due to the custom of naming the first-born son after his father. But that is where the similarity ended. My father Antonio Zeus became known as Dr Luciânia because he graduated from medical school, and he was known as Totóca by his closest family. While grandfather, in his youth, was honoured with the early-republican title of Colonel, due to his importance and services to community where he lived. He was then known as the Colonel Totônio, or in this book Colonel Antunes.

            In 1949, my father Antonio Zeus and my grandfather the Colonel Antunes bought an old sugar refinery and some land near the town of Lagoa da Prata situated in the western part of the state of Minas Gerais. But after a while my grandfather sold his share to my father. As the years went by my father bought all the surrounding land as each plot came up for sale, until the property became very large indeed. This is a rather flat landscape, crossed by two rivers, the Sao Francisco and the Santa Ana.

            Most of Colonel Antunes’ resources had always been invested in land where he planted coffee and other crops suitable to the area. As his children grew up he dutifully supported them through their studies and helped them with the usual necessary expenditures. Later, as each child planned to marry and start a family of their own, grandfather also helped them to buy a home.

            Antonio Zeus, became economically independent surprisingly young. The story told in the family was that on one occasion when grandfather was giving his three sons their monetary allowances for their next term at university in the capital, Antonio, said to him “No thank you father. I do not need help anymore.” Apparently, everyone was amazed by his words as they had not realised how well Totóca was doing in his various endeavours while continuing with his studies.

            Antonio, who was my father, knew how hard his parents worked to provide a comfortable life for the family, especially at the time immediately after the 1930s depression, and he did not wish to be a burden anymore. The various stories about Totóca’s early moneymaking ideas are priceless. I heard them often from him and also from various family members.

            Father never missed a chance to make or to save a few pennies. Any little economy was worthwhile. As soon as he had saved enough he would buy some real estate in town. And slowly but surely, he built an empire. He had such determination and single mindedness. I never had that much, being too fond of my comforts. Indeed few people have. And my father was always a kind and charitable person who hated showing off and insisted on keeping a very low profile.

            Whenever our family went to the Sugar refinery we were taken by plane. My father flew us there in his four-seater single engine Cessna and I would go in front with my father, standing on my seat when we were in the air. I watched everything my father did and would sometimes ask him if I could hold the plane on course by myself. For a little while he would pretend to give me sole control, which made me giggle with happiness.

            Before my brother Antenor was born we used to stay at the Residence, which was a house situated on a gentle slope close to the refinery and a certain distance from the lake. My grandfather Antunes was often then with us, as was my grand-uncle João Gualberto, whom I also loved very much. From the veranda of this house we could see the green sea of cane reaching for the sun.

            On one occasion my father was talking to a man and they had many bags of seeds on the table. I took a handful of one of them and said I was going to plant them outside. A tree did grow on the site, and each time I went back there I would see how my tree was doing. It turned out to be a wide-bodied frangipani. I am not sure if it grew the seeds I planted there, or if  my father planted it to make me happy.

            My mother and we children had a regular schedule of holidays on which my father did not come because he was always too busy with work. July was always spent in Rio, January often in Uruguay, but there remained the shorter holidays such as Easter and Carnaval for us to spend at Luciânia or occasionally at my grandparents farm near São Gotardo. This was known as Guaritas, and it was where my father had grown up. My grandfather had herds of horses and cattle, but I found the large Zebu oxen with the big hump on their backs particularly interesting.

             My father had named his sugar refinery Usina Olvidio de Abreu after his friend who was then Minister of the Interior and who had helped him in this new endeavour. Initially, some of the transportation of the cane into the factory and again from the factory to the nearest railway station was done on a private railway line that had been there from the time of the previous owners. On an old steam engine that ran on this line my father had painted his three children’s names and this made us jump for joy every time we saw it. But eventually the federal railway service built a little station where the interstate train would stop, mostly to load sugar. The authorities named the station Luciânia, which was painted on the outside walls. In time the refinery became known as Luciânia.                                                                                                                                    No matter what, every Friday afternoon my father would fly off to Luciânia in his little aircraft and fly back to the capital on Sunday afternoon. He spent Saturday with his faithful manager, Oswaldo Damaceno, overseeing the fields, the sugar refinery and an alcohol distillery, a by-product of the main operation of sugar producing and refining.

            In the early days there were three old sugar cane cutting machines in the refinery, like great mouths into which the cane was first thrown when it arrived from the fields. One of these, probably the refinery’s original one that they bought in 1949, was a very old piece of equipment of early 20th century English manufacture. As my father did not like taking risks and avoided taking out loans, he would expand step by step, buying second hand equipment from other refineries, and buying additional plots of land as the funds became available. This caution with money was inherited by the three of us.  It has long proved a very useful trait in life.

            After some years my father built a new house for us in Luciânia, which we came to call the Country House. It was built on a sand isthmus formed by a wide, shallow lake. The house had wide verandas on three sides and was surrounded by sand and palm trees beyond which the tranquil waters of the lake shone in the midday sun. At the end of each day a cloud of wild ducks circled the lagoon in salute to the setting sun.

            The level in the water of this lake was affected by a system of canals, which made it rise in the rainy season and fall in the middle of the year. It never rose enough to endanger the house built on higher ground, but was safely channelled to the plantations stretching out as far as the eye could see beyond the lake.

            On our side of the lake roamed an immense herd of buffalo, which my father had bought and diligently reared. This became the second largest herd of buffalo in the country, eclipsed only by the well-known one on Marajó Island in northern Brazil. As a small child I used to look fearfully at the large black buffalo that were kept away from our house only by a flimsy fence. My fear, however, did not deter me from the great pleasure of going in the mornings to savour fresh buffalo milk. 

            At the end of the summer rains a ceremony would mark the beginning of the production cycle. This was an important occasion attended by the local authorities and all the workers, starting with the celebration of mass as thanksgiving for another year.  We would then go to the refinery for the ceremony to begin the new year’s production, and later we would host a number of people for lunch at the Country House. Midyear production would continue through the winter, and in the spring the planting would start again.

 

 

LUCIÂNIA  

Seas of green waves of continuous fields

Go to the far ends of horizons.

Gently they sway in the breeze,

And rejoice in life-giving abundance

That springs from sun-kissed earth.

 

Food and energy shoot up from rich soil,

Cover the seas of green, all swimming,

Eternal views, memories of childhood,

Of black buffalo by the lake grazing,

Silver lake shining in the light of moon.

 

Wild duck formations in flight that at

Day’s end surround, in formal salute.

Sand hills and palm-trees contouring the house

And spacious verandas, inviting a pause

To rest in the calm of evening.

 

Our secret forest of growing stones,

Rich greens hide the trails and caves

Journeys, horses in late afternoon,

Life’s memories bathed in golden sun

That live on and are seen in the mind.

 

Travels in jeeps along far away fields,

Low flying great distances to behold

Aerial vistas in panoramic splendour.

Adventurous, the fun-loving days of a

A life we alone led in the distant past.

 

©ALP Gouthier, 2009

 

            When I was sixteen years old, I told my father that I wished to have flying lessons and he agreed, to my mother’s horror. I started my lessons with a pilot called Waldir in a Piper Cub that my father kept in his hangar at the tiny Padre Eustaquio airport in Belo Horizonte. Later I also studied thecnical subjects like navigation at a flying school located in a quaint little old building in Rua da Bahia in the city centre.

             After over a year of training I was going with a group of students to Paris to study French at L’Institut Catholique, in Rue d’Assas. Waldir asked me if I would go to a cemetery somewhere outside Paris where his mother was buried to check on the upkeep of her grave because he did not have the means ever go there. I told him that I would do so. After a while, on a cold Sunday afternoon in January, I kept my promise. I took the underground to the nearest station to the cemetery and walked from there. I asked where the grave was and walked among some beautiful, solitary looking tall trees until I found it. It was a calm and pleasant place of rest and I laid some flowers for Waldir’s mother. When I returned to Belo Horizonte I described it to Waldir. He told me he believed I had been there and that he was grateful to me. He said he had asked other people before, but they had not bothered to go. They had returned and told him they had been, but he could tell they had not.

            I continued with my flying lessons, never going far from the small airport. One afternoon the wind strengthened considerably while I was flying, and when I came to land I had trouble controlling the descent and hit the ground very hard. This caused the rubber straps that held the two wheels together to snap and the plane veered to the left and slid off of the runway, the wingtip scraping along the ground and the propeller bending, until we stopped and started to overturn.  From the cockpit I immediately saw the danger of capsizing. I remembered what I had learned about the centre of gravity, and proceeded to raise my arms and force my body backwards as much as I could in the hope of avoiding the danger. Poor Waldir watching from the tarmac was terrified and later told me that the plane’s tail had gone up to 90 degrees to the vertical and then simply dropped back. And he asked me frantically why I had taken so long to get out of the plane.

            “I was doing the emergency check that you taught me, and specially switching off the petrol. But the lever was stuck and I could not do it. Isn’t that what I was supposed to do?” Waldir just looked at me, speechless. When I got home I phoned my father to tell him about the accident and told him that I had asked them to repair it. And my lessons continued as soon as possible.

            Some years later in the early 70s I continued my training in England and got a British Pilots License. I did this at a flying club near Denham on the way to Oxford. My favourite instructor there was called John Hollidge. He had previously done missionary work, flying in Africa. At the time I still thought that I would soon be going to go back to live in Brazil where a pilot’s licence would be of practical use, when working with my father. But I never did, so all that effort was a waste of money, but not a waste of time - because learning never is. 

            A large enterprise such as the Luciânia Refinery can be plagued by setbacks. In the 70s the Brazilian government was encouraging any initiative that would increase production in the private sector, and consequently augment its tax revenue. So in the early 80s the company took the unfortunate step of eliminating a loop of the Sao Francisco River that was responsible frequently flooded the whole area and caused a great deal of destruction not only to our plantation, but often also to the surrounding area. More than twenty years later, what had been encouraged became a crime against the environment. But again years were to pass until it was finally agreed that to re-divert the flow to its original course would now not be beneficial to nature.  

            And I wonder who is to blame for having covered over the Arrudas river that goes through Belo Horizonte. This waterway has just about disappeared. It would be really good to see a river traversing the city. Perhaps the present environment watchdogs should complain to the Municipality of Belo Horizonte for cutting down two magnificent rows of trees that used to line the central avenue, named Avenida Afonso Pena? We do not have to look far to find desecrations of nature in the past, as they are everywhere, in every country in the world. What has changed in time was the concept of desirable or permissible intervention.  

            However, on our front, we have also had successes, even where the environment is concerned. In 1996 the company invested in seedlings of trees native to the area. The authorities, the population of the town of Lagoa da Prata along with the workforce of the Luciânia Refinery joined this initiative in an effort to bring about the reforestation of various areas of the region, with special attention to the banks of the local rivers, the Santana and the São Francisco. This effort was crowned by an entry at the Guinness Book of   Records.

 

 

            In 1996, the largest newspaper in the capital of the State of Minas Gerais – O Estado de Minas – published a full-page reportage with colour pictures (Page 14, May 3) entitled:

                      Luciânia Sugar Refinery - when man imitates nature.

Times are different. Instead of the usual threats of the sugar monoculture - with liquid wastes into rivers, the 62 kilometres of sugar cane plantations along the São Francisco River in the municipality of Lagoa da Prata - West of Minas, are presently the hope of environmental recovery of this course of water, the Sao Francisco River that was once the river of national unity.

            Although being one of the state's greatest producers of sugar and alcohol the Luciânia Refinery since 1968 has also been an example in the sector of awareness and ecological actions. The difference is felt immediately at the entrance of the Refinery, situated five kilometres from the land of the painter Heleno Nunes. As one enters the area there are kilometres long of landscaping with multi-coloured bougainvillea and many sibipirunas and licoris trees, as well as imperial palms, usually unthinkable for a sugar and alcohol factory.

This natural beauty is sided by the train line and the company's own runway, all the way to the administrative board-room, where the poetry of Fernando Brant and Milton Nascimento is present under the glass of the table:

 

“Cutting the cane stalk

Collecting sugar cane juice

Stealing cane’s honey sweetness

To smear oneself with its honey.” 

            On the wall in the room a map presents the extent of the ecological development achieved by the Refinery, which is recognized by the State of Minas official NGOs, like AMDA – the Minas Association of Environment Defence - as well as by the government itself - the State Secretariat of Environment and Sustainable Development.

            Changing attitudes: And within the Luciânia’s land, in a pioneering step by step work, every water source of the river basin until the greater course of the San Francisco, which runs through the back of the Refinery’s headquarters and through the company’s agricultural and industrial monoculture, has been of preserved and recovered.

            “In the previous centuries the practice was rather different. The government itself - through programs for the expansion of economic production - encouraged the private sector to take the agricultural frontier to the riverside, especially along the São Francisco, due to the great natural fertility of its banks. But today, led by newer principles of ecology, we try to change this attitude, which is not easy”, explains Ronaldo Duarte Pereira, industrial director of the Luciânia Refinery.

            According to him, who also presides over the Minas Gerais Union of Alcohol Producers, “not all the regular 1800 workers employed in by the company in the off-season, understand why we must replace the traditional cane-monoculture planted next to this great river’s margins by longitudinal bands of land planted with the various species of ciliary vegetation that had once there grown natively”. Ronaldo is right in explaining how difficult it was to achieve this replanting which started in 1987. Aiming at the imbedding of almost 400 thousand trees, mainly on the banks of the river Santana, which is the largest confluent of the São Francisco River, within the company property.

            The Luciânia company’s manager for ​​agricultural development and environment, Gilmar Geraldo Vieira, emphasized that the first phase of the venture was to compete with the bush, which is naturally aggressive in the region. “And we have to do it in the direction from the sugarcane plantations to the banks of the river, and not in the opposite direction. Working first on the water's edge does not work. In addition to exposing soil to erosion, we have learned that when the rains come it floods and the currents take everything we planted away.”

            A model for the country: Recognized by the State Reforestation Institute - the IEF, as a successful recovery project for riparian forests in the São Francisco basin, the effort of the Luciânia Refinery sounds simple, when explained. But it is not easy in practice to achieve or to maintain. “Once the soil is made ready, the so-called pioneer species, such as embaúbas, leucenas and paineiras are transplanted from our nurseries only when each one has already grown enough to produce a shade, which helps to prevent the return of the bush. It is only on a second phase that the hardwoods, such as cedar, peroba and also fruit trees are planted in little clusters to better compete with the bush, and also to attract and maintain the fauna.”

            “The entire process is not easy at all. For three years after the first planting the weeding between the trees planted must be done by hand. And it is only a few years later, when the natural forest in an area parallel to the river has been recovered, that we may safely try the final step. That is, to take the new artificially recovered forest all the way to the river margins.”

            The social reward: The sugarcane is a crop that still generates many jobs in the field - 200 people / hectares. In the harvest, the Luciânia Refinery offers 3000 direct jobs, all of them recruited only in the municipality, according to company policy. And it is part of the company’s social strategy to make available 25% of their land, destined to reforestation, for their employees to privately plant corn and beans. In such manner, in addition their environmental concern in the region of Lagoa da Prata, the Luciânia Sugarcane Refinery plays a socially and economically important role.

            Who confirms this is the deputy mayor of the municipality, Jose Teófilo, who also highlights the permanent participation of the Luciânia Refinery in several other social projects. He explains that Lagoa da Prata, with a population of 30 000, is one of the few cities in Minas today that has no favelas or beggars on the streets. Teófilo also informs that “We are now also implanting, within the municipality, a whole neighbourhood with water and electricity and sewage collection in partnership with the Refinery, always sensitive to the difficulties I have in administering our municipality with social justice”.

            This new neighbourhood is called Monsignor Alfredo. It has been built since 1993 to welcome the former Luciânia’s employees who previously lived in a village next to the Refinery, the old Vila Luciania, which longer exists though one still just see traces of what it once was. Instead, most of the area has been planted with native species of trees, forming a forest that joined the landscaping existing in the land of the Luciânia company.

            Ronaldo Duarte recalls that the AMDA superintendent Maria Dulce Ricas, during her recent visit to the Refinery, went so far as to state: “I have always seen cities unfortunately expanding and taking the place of nature. This is the first time I have seen it happen the other way around. Here the trees are again taking over the areas which was once their own.” 

            The sun by witness: The Luciânia Refinery is now, therefore, a live example of how nature will reward for the planting with environmental and technological awareness. The old productivity that was 40 tons of cane per hectare ten years ago, has today achieved 73 tons per hectare planted. And, contrary to what has always preached against this monoculture, the quality of the soil also improved.

            Such soil improvement is result of another principle of nature here applied, which states that we must return to nature what is from it taken. This was achieved by the use of green manure started by the company through the intercropping with a king of legume, the ‘Crotalaria Juncea’, that precedes the actual planting of sugarcane. Thus, annually between October and March, in the process of renewing its planting grounds the company introduces this leguminous species to the soil, which at the same time fertilizes and protects it, and is to it finally incorporated by the time of harvest. This technique naturally fertilises the soil through the gains in the micro fauna or humus which finally also results in rich agricultural gains.

 

            Back to your author, I have to write about the Vila Luciânia mentioned in this newspaper article. Prior to the 1980s most of the refinery’s managers and workers lived in company’s houses in the proximity of the refinery. This company-village blossomed with many facilities for those working and living there such as free medical facilities for emergencies, vaccinations, general practitioners and dentist; a nursery and a primary school; a supermarket, bakery, butchers, barbershop, hairdressers; a cinema, sport grounds, police station and also a church. And most of these services were heavily subsidised, for the benefit of the company’s people.

            There was even a small-scale local currency use in the village called the Boro. My father explained to me that when new workers arrived, during their first month before pay-day they actually had no money with which to buy food. So they were given some Boros which could only be used for the purchase of food in the company’s supermarket.

            I have recently heard from people who used to live there how it was such a pity that most of these conveniences as well as the homes were terminated. But it must be remembered that under the old system at the time of retirement many of the families had no home of their own in which to live.

            The actual process of encouraging and helping people to move from the old company homes and actually building their own habitations in the nearby town of Lagoa da Prata took many years. It was a painful process for some who had become attached to the old village. I remember hearing of some people who refused to be budged and at the end remained there alone when everybody else had moved away, along with the supporting living facilities.

            This complicated re-housing process was largely achieved by donating to those who qualified a plot of land in which to build a home and initial help in the purchasing of building materials combined with the right to remove everything useful or removable from their old homes. So people helped themselves to wood-work, such as doors, window frames and other useful materials from the old village with which to build their new habitations. But it must be remembered that the great advantage of the new system was that it resulted in people’s actual ownership of their homes. So when a person retired after years of labour with the company they would have ensured a place of their own in which to live and eventually pass on to their children as a reward of their relationship with Luciânia.

            Many decades have now passed since my early childhood visits to this area that made such a visual impression on me. The Luciânia train station is still there and so is the Country House. The land is still used as a sugarcane plantation and we occasionally still visit it. The buffalo, however, are long gone and the ducks have left to fly elsewhere. 

The work never matches the dream of perfection

the artist has to start with.

                                      – William Faulkner

The old train station of Luciania village

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