Hunting for water springs: how black communities in Brazil won over drought

These communities are often marginalized and suffer a high exposure to drought. In Arturos, residents managed to adapt with traditional community gardens, and today they produce food without pesticides. 
These communities are often marginalized and suffer a high exposure to drought. In Arturos, residents managed to adapt with traditional community gardens, and today they produce food without pesticides. 

José Bengala gets emotional retelling the moment when his Quilombola community — a rural black community located in Brazil— found a water spring, buried for many years. In the face of drought, all of a sudden there was hope.

“We spent three days opening the ground. The moment we pierced the right place on the ground, water started to spurt everywhere. It was a party,” he recalls.

Quilombolas communities are territories in Brazil formed by enslaved blacks who escaped from captivity. In these places they could maintain their African culture. José’s community, Arturos, is located in the state of Minas Gerais, in Southeastern Brazil.

These communities are often marginalized and suffer a high exposure to drought. In Arturos, residents managed to adapt to drought conditions with traditional community gardens, and today they produce food without pesticides. 

This was only possible because they managed to solve the biggest bottleneck for small farmers—access to water. After suffering from harsh droughts, the community of Arturos began a successful hunt for water springs, using scientific methods.

The centenary community of Arturos had historically used water from local springs. With the surrounding urbanisation and the arrival of a company that exploited clay in the land, the springs were silted and buried. The community started to receive piped water from the city’s official water company.

When the two springs of the land were disappearing, the native forest of the region also suffered. Part of the vegetation was lost. They began to feel a difference in the weather: the place before was pleasant, and it became very hot, locals said. This was increasing their vulnerability to climate change.

“Over the years, water has become more and more expensive. Collective plantations have been interrupted”, says Maria Goreth Costa Heredia Luz, from the Arturos community leadership group.

Quilombola communities are some of the most vulnerable to climate change, as they tend to face historical racism along with a lack of infrastructure. The methods used in Arturos to find spring water could benefit other communities in the country to adapt to the climate crisis.

Comunidade Arturos – Photo Marcela Martins

Collective plantations 

The Arturos community is a quilombola community, formed by families descendant of Camilo a slave from Angola, in Southern Africa. Today, there are 113 resident families, who preserve their ancestors’ habits and culture.

With the surroundings’ urbanization, their sustainable farming traditions had to be abandoned. Faced with drought and lack of of easily accessible water, it was more difficult to maintain gardens. In addition to vegetables, the Arturos have a tradition of cultivating medicinal herbs. There are hundreds of recipes for medicinal use and plant blessing.

The desire to recover the spring had existed among the residents for some years. Several times they searched but did not find the buried water sources. 

“Older people used to remember how good this water was. We wanted to have the springs again”, says José Bonifácio da Luz, known as José Bengala, who is part of the community leadership group.

In 2021, the community received a visit from professionals from the Senar (Rural Learning Service), the UFV (Federal University of Lavras), and the Sub-secretariat of Food, Nutritional Security, and Agroecology of the Contagem City Hall.

They provided guidance for the community to start a three day search for spring water. After a few days, they found their hidden treasure.

Finding the spring

The main method to find underground springs is to observe where the vegetation in the area is different. The difference is quite visible, they say. This happens because of the humidity or the watering of the soil in this region. 

The search for the spring must be done during the dry season, so that the observation of where the soil begins to soak becomes easier. 

The first step in Arturos’ community was to patrol the area where fountains used to exist. At some point it became visible where there was different vegetation.  

From there, they began the search for the spring, which lasted three days. The quilombolas began to open the soil where it was wetter. With this technique, they had to observe the moisture signals in the soil and remove excess mud. 

When the right spot was found by Joseph Bengal, the water began to gush. Once the spring had been found, the area was marked and protected. At least a 50 metre radius around the spring was granted protection.

To protect the water source, residents also planted native seedlings in the vicinity of the spring.  

An analysis by the Federal University of Lavras proved that the water was pure and suitable for consumption. 

After that, a structure of pvc pipes was built, which were used to carry water to a tank for storage. Another structure of the pipe was built to bring the water directly to the community garden. 


Restoring agriculture amidst the drought

From the water spring, the liquid goes straight to the collective garden, which was restored after years of inactivity. There, people from the community take turns in the planting and care work. The garden allows for better resilience in the community’s food security.

In this shared garden, there are dozens of cultivated vegetables and medicinal herbs. All cultivation is done without pesticides, and anyone in the community can harvest the plants whenever they want.

“Soon we will also plant corn and cassava. When there is a surplus from the garden, we will sell it. The work takes time because it is all done on a voluntary basis by the residents, who also work outside the home. But little by little the garden grows”, observes Goreth.

The community already has a larger water tank, which holds 16 thousand liters, and should be installed soon. They are also already organizing to begin the work of recovering another spring. With that, the 113 families will be able to be supplied with the territory’s water.

José Bengala says that the recovery of springs also helps to keep the community closer and stronger. It is a benefit recognized by all, and the collective work in the gardens strengthens the bonds between the families, he says. 

“There is no greater joy for us than having our own water. We had a lot of memories of these springs, and now seeing this water gushing out again is too beautiful”, he concludes.

This story is a part of our collaborative Local Solutions Reporting Fellowship, with One Earth.

Marcela Maria Martins de Souza
Marcela is a journalist, based in Brazil, with special interest in the environment and climate change. Currently, she is a reporter and TV presenter at Rede Minas, and a Public Science Communication postgrad student at the Federal University of Minas Gerais. For the past seven years, she’s been covering environmental issues, with a focus on mining impacts, and she’s produced dozens of reports about themes such as traditional and indigenous knowledge and conservation projects. She’s also the director of a short film, “Amazon Rainforest TV”, and a writer, author of the novel “O nome do Lobo” (The wolf’s name).