Arab roots of Brazilian agriculture

Researcher and author Evaristo de Miranda pens article about the Arab influence on the development of the agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula and Brazil.

Artigos ANBA

Evaristo de Miranda*

The Brazilian agriculture is deeply rooted in the Arab world, the so-called Al Alam Al Arabi. Centuries of Arab presence in the Iberian Peninsula led to unprecedent improvements. The year of the discovery of the Americas, 1492, was the same year that the Catholic kings retook Granada and once and for all drove out the Muslims of the Western Europe. The agricultural knowledge, though, remained.

This heritage of Iberian agricultural knowledges arrived in Brazil with the Portuguese settlement and its dynamism in the sciences and discoveries like the scaling up of sugarcane. To this day it marks the rural world.

The first Arab presence in agriculture is etymological. The Arabic is the origin of names of products like the Portuguese words for coffee, sugar, alcohol, orange, lime, cotton, rice, tamarind, apricot, sesame, date, olive, olive oil, tangerine, and others. The same goes for vegetables, flowers and herbs: lettuce, eggplant, chicory, carrot, artichoke, saffron, caper, rosemary, lavender, jasmine, lily, and even salad. And in livestock, too: res, sorrel, gibbon, saddlebag, rump, butcher shop, dam, duck, and even boar. Measures, dimensions and valuations of Arab origin resist the metric system and are used to this day: alqueire, arroba, almude, resma, as well as the Portuguese words for harvest, auction, tariff and customs.

The flourishing agriculture in the Iberian Peninsula from the 10th century on resulted in new techniques developed by the Arab agriculturist. They included Ibn al-‘Awwam, who are something like the Hippocrates for agronomy and veterinary. This Andalusian Arabic agronomist died in Seville in 1145. He set up the bases for the agronomic science, went beyond the simple accumulation of empiric knowledges, created several original agronomic concepts and gave rise to the agronomy as an observation and experimentation science.

The Book of Agriculture written by Ibn al-‘Awwam, is a treatise of agronomy with approximately 1,500 pages. Its 35 chapters divided across three volumes present the results of an extremely comprehensive literature review of Greek, Latin, Egyptian. Chaldaic, Persian and Nabataean authors confronted with experiments carried out in residences, fields and palaces of the caliphs in Granada and Seville. These places operated as “test gardens.” And the results were evaluated with a basic “statistic” supported by abacuses. In Morocco, Ibn Al Awan gives his name to an agronomic research journal, Al Awamia, similar to the Agronomic Institute of Campinas’ Bragantia.

Its work describes the cultivation of 151 species of trees, covering propagation techniques, multiplication mediums, plantation, conduct, pruning, grafting, and phytosanitary treatments. And it recognizes the sexual reproduction of trees. The Chapter XIII is called Artificial Fertilization of Trees.

Except for pigs, all domestic animals were studied by Ibn al-‘Awwam, according to a consistent logic: animal selection, reproduction, stabling and confinement, feeding, and health aspects. Horses, a well-known passion of the Arabs, occupy a whole volume of the book. Among several technical topics, he covers 112 diseases and presents recipes of over 20 eyedrops for horses (sic). The title of this chapter: “Treatment of some diseases come upon horses in different parts of the body… Symptoms and diagnosis of diseases; medicines. This part of the science is the veterinary medicine.” The last part of the book on poultry farming addresses artificial incubation of eggs and broadly covers pigeons, chickens, peacocks, ducks and geese. An article teaches how to make foie gras. And the last part covers bee keeping.

Following the period of Portuguese settlement, the contact with the Arab world was resumed in a new context by Dom Pedro II. The emperor made two trips to the Middle East and North Africa (MENA). He visited Lebanon, Syria, Palestina and Egypt. Dom Pedro II was polyglot, he spoke over 20 languages and was fluent in 10, including Tupi, Hebrew and Provençal. He wrote, read and spoke Arabic. And he left a great legacy of his trip to the Middle East: he encouraged and organized the Arab immigration to Brazil.

Dom Pedro II’s interest in Lebanon started from his contact with Count Miguel Debbane born in Sidon. After emigrating to Egypt, he became Brazil’s Honorary Consul to Alexandria, where he built in 1868 a Greek Melkite church to Saint Peter in tribute to Dom Pedro II and visited by the emperor in 1871.

In 1876, the emperor arrived in Lebanon accompanied by the empress Tereza Cristina and an entourage of 200 people. Lebanon was a small emirate, relatively autonomous, under the Ottoman Empire. Dom Pedro II had meetings and gave lectures on Brazil, was featured in the local media and encouraged Arab immigration. He detailed daily logs of his experiences in writings, drawings and photographs. The D. Thereza Christina Maria Collection, with approximately 40,000 pictures is the largest collection of a 19th century ruler. They include pictures of this visit to Egypt in 1871 as well as Lebanon, Syria, Palestina and Egypt in 1876.

The writings of Dom Pedro II show his countenance of a stateman in seeking to develop an agriculture in Brazil that wasn’t based in slave labor, sugarcane, tobacco and coffee. He advocated family agriculture, similar to the Europe’s, but with traits of the American entrepreneurship. He made connections and signed agreements with rulesr in Prussia, Austria, Russia, Poland and even Japan to make farmers come to Brazil.

And he gave lands to these immigrants, in an organized manner, particularly in the South and Southeast, in a colonization and settlement model whose success still has much to teach us. In Lebanon, the emperor said: The Arabs would be welcomed in Brazil and would thrive. His policy to boost immigration was successful. Could Dom Pedro II imagine a Lebanese community in Brazil numerically higher than the population in Lebanon? Four years later, in 1880, the first Arab immigrants arrived. They were joined by immigrants from different nationalities from Europe and the East, and they were the basis for the new agriculture and agroindustry. Even the recent expansion of the agribusiness in the Center-West and MATOPIBA results from their descendants.

Families of Arab origin stand out in sciences, medicine, agriculture, politics, construction, arts, literature and other fields, from Acre to Rio Grande Sul. Thanks to the Syrian and Lebanese immigration, we have surnames like Abdala, Abib, Abouchar, Aboud, Afif, Alckmin, Amin, Assad, Attala, Bitar, Buainaim, Buaiz, Buzaid, Calfat, Calil, Caram, Cassab, Chalita, Chedid, Curi, Curiati, Cutait, Daher, Farha, Fuad, Haddad, Hage, Hamu, Helou, Houaiss, Jabor, Jafet, Jatene, Jereissati, Maluf, Mansur, Maron, Massaad, Mattar, Medina, Miguel, Mofarrej, Murad, Nagib, Nasrallah, Nassar, Nassif, Rachid, Richa, Saad, Salim, Salomão, Sater, Seif, Skaf, Tanuri, Temer, Zahar, and others, with prominent figures here and around the world. The Brazil-Lebanon Chamber of Commerce, with over 60 years, shows the vigor of the Lebanese support to the country’s development.

Now we’re entering a new moment in our history with the Arab world, thanks to the Brazilian agriculture: The growth of trade relations with the 22 states of the Arab League. According to figures of the Arab Brazilian Chamber of Commerce (ABCC) and COMEX, in 2021 the bloc purchase USD 14.42 billion in Brazilian products, up 26% from 2020. A historical record. The Arab League is now the third largest trade partner of Brazil, only behind China and the United States.

Poultry, sugar, beef and cereals lead agricultural exports. The two biggest highlights were the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. The Arab League is the fifth supplier in imports: USD 9.82 billion in 2021, up 82% from a year ago (fuels, fertilizers and aluminum).

Trade missions in both directions follow one another. Arab investments in Brazil have grown, so does the scientific and technologic cooperation. Brazil’s agricultural research company Embrapa maintains actions in Arab countries like the UAE’s International Center for Biosaline Agriculture.

In agribusiness, ties deepen between Arab and Brazilian firms and entrepreneurs. The future of relations with the Arab world, based on a yet little-known rich past, could reach dimensions far beyond the significant economic connections.

إِنْ شَاءَ ٱللَّٰهُ , Insha’Allah! Oxalá!

Evaristo de Miranda is a researcher at Brazil’s agricultural research company Embrapa Territorial. A master and PhD in Ecology from the University of Montpellier, with research carried out in Africa and author and coauthor of over 50 books, he has just published Shades of Green in Arabic.


This article was first published in the Revista Oeste journal.


The opinions expressed in the articles are those of the authors.


Translated by Guilherme Miranda


Related Posts