Brazil: Agrofuel Industry Threatens Women’s Way of Life

As the agrofuel gold rush continues in Brazil, women are fighting to retain access to the babaçú, a palm tree native to the states of Maranhão, Pará, Piauí and Tocantins. Currently, nearly half of a million people, the vast majority women, make their living gathering and processing the babaçú coconut.

The work has never been easy due to completely unequal land distribution in the 18.5 million hectares of forest between the Amazon and the semi-arid northeast of the country. Lack of land ownership makes it difficult for women to access babaçú growing in the wild. The “Quebradeiras de Coco Babaçú,”the female workers who break the coconuts, also face discrimination due to gender or racial prejudice against descendents of slaves or indigenous people. While the Quebradeiras receive very little compensation for their work, the sale of the babaçú seeds often provides the families’ only income.

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Still, this tradition and cottage industry is under threat. In the area, few laws guarantee the Quebradeiras basic rights as workers, and the encroaching commercial agriculture industry has no concern for the Quebradeiras’ lack of resources and protections. Industrial farmers who own vast parcels of land, want to clear cut and burn the forest to breed cattle or grow soy for agrofuel. Commercial farmers don’t see babaçú as a profitable enterprise, and they would like to stop the Quebradeiras from accessing private land to gather babaçú (which would otherwise fall on the ground and remain unused). In the past, they have “tried to charge women workers or to prevent them from collecting nuts by erecting barbed wire fences or hiring gunmen.”

Photo Credit: André CamposGathering babaçú is part of a matrilineal industry and culture that could be thousands of years old in the region.The skill of cutting the babaçú nut with knofe to preseve the seeds inside is taught from mother to daughter, and is nearly impossible to replicate with a machine. Not only do the Quebradeiras then sell the seeds they gather, but they use the rest of the babaçú in nearly all aspects of their lives.

“Every part of the babaçú is used,” the saying goes, and truly the often 20-meter-tall tree is used for making everything from cattle fodder to natural medicine. People use the leaves to make roofing and baskets, the wood is carved and used to frame buildings, the rind is burned as fuel, the flesh and milk of the coconut is eaten, and the “almond,” or seed is made into oil for food, burning, lubricant, soaps and cosmetics. “The babaçú has 49 different uses that I know of, but I believe that there are more”, says Emília Alves, 53-years-old, of which more than 30 have been spent collecting the coconut.

Photo Credit: Luciana SilvaOver the last 30 years, the lives of the Quebradeiras have changed drastically. Until the 1980’s, families could easily squat land and had easy access to the babaçú growing in the wild. Then, as agroindustries began to take over, the Quebradeiras found they needed to organize to protect their right to babaçú. Social organizations have worked together to pass legislation and advocate for “Free Babaçú Laws.” These organizations include the Interstate Movement of Babaçú Coconut Breakers (MIQCB, Movimento Inter-estadual de Quebradeiras de Coco Babaçú), the Federation of Male and Female Rural Workers from the State of Maranhão (FETAEMA, Federación de los Trabajadores y Trabajadoras Rurales del Estado de Maranhão), the Collective of Rural Women Workers (CMTR, Colectivo de Mujeres Trabajadoras Rurales), and the Federation of Women’s Clubs of Maranhão (Federación de Clubes de Mujeres de Maranhão).

Photo Credit: André CamposThe Interstate Movement of Babaçú Coconut Breakers (MIQCB) has been particularly active. Quebradeiras of the MIQCB have “established important links with local, regional and national government and  . . .  had meetings to discuss the law for free access to the babaçú forests, develop[ed] local partnerships for procurement of babaçú products, and  . . . [held] the government accountable for illegal logging and forest destruction” In 2003, they were able to pass a regional Free Babaçú Law, which permits Quebradeiras free access to babaçú on privately owned land. Now the movement is fighting for a national law guaranteeing access to the babaçú, and have marched to the national capital, Brasilia, to protest and pressure politicians. 

Photo Credit: André CamposThough the babaçú could technically be made into an agrofuel, currently the supply could not keep up with the demand of a processing plant, and seeds sell for more than the agrofuel would. Small cooperatives of workers with NGO and government sponsored machinery are starting to process the seeds for biofuels, but the majority of Quebradeiras are concerned about the use of babaçú for agrofuel. While NGO and university projects try to woo the Quebradeiras toward agrofuel production, the use of babaçú for agrofuel production has brought conflict to the area. In addition, as families see the damage that the soy and sugarcane industries do to independent farmers, they have no reason to want to turn babaçú into a corporate industry. 

"Experience leads us to predict new difficulties in access to the babaçú," says Eunice da Conceição Costa, one of the coordinators of the MIQCB.

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Andre Campos, Reporter Brazil

War On Want

Luciana Silva, Agência Amazonia