“We suffer and fight for our survival”

Babassu palms grow naturally along the sweeping ecotone arc at the Amazon-Cerrado biome junction covering more than 25 million hectares (96,526 square miles), mainly in the northern Brazilian states of Piauí, Maranhão, Tocantins and Pará. Known as quebradeiras de coco babaçu, or coconut breakers, women like Trindade Mendes depend on the babassu palms for their traditional livelihoods and their identity — and have done so for generations.

While some palm nuts grow and are harvested on land owned by small agricultural producers, most flourish on common lands held by the Brazilian government — and increasingly claimed by private landowners — with the nuts collected by landless women between September and February.

The quebradeiras are recognized nationally as one of Brazil’s “traditional peoples and communities,” a legally recognized designation that applies to groups with distinct forms of social organization whose traditional sustainable use of natural resources and land is a condition for their cultural, social, religious, ancestral and economic existence.

However, in a country where agriculture makes up almost a quarter of the GDP, and land concentration among rural elites is at an all-time high, agribusiness claims made on the commons are increasingly in conflict with long-time uses by traditional communities.

Explosive expansion by industrial agribusiness, planting crops for international export, has not only reduced the amount of babussu grown along the Amazon-Cerrado ecotone, it has also fenced off lands where the palms still thrive, restricting access to the 400,000 coconut breakers, reducing their income and threatening their traditional livelihood in one of the poorest regions of Brazil.

The way things are going, “In less than ten years we will have no more babassu to remove the fruit and ensure our survival,” states Dona Cledeneuza Maria Bizerra Oliveira, the regional coordinator for the Interstate Movement of Babassu Nut Breakers, or the MIQCB as abbreviated in Portuguese.

Deforestation and enclosure of the commons aren’t the only escalating threats; the women also report increased physical intimidation, sexual assault, pesticide pollution and even electrocution.

“We suffer and fight for our survival,” Maria dos Santos, a 67-year-old Maranhão coconut breaker told Mongabay. ”There are electric fences in the field and in the woods. Sometimes to gather the coconut, we have to put a hat over our heads, crawl on the ground, go under the wire, and go back through the fence. It is an arduous, very big struggle that the breakers face against the farmers.”

Several women have been killed or disabled by electric fences which have been installed by agribusiness to stop the coconut breakers from entering once commonly held land, according to newspaper reports and testimonies of women interviewed by Mongabay.

In response to Mongabay inquiries, the state government acknowledged that “Maranhão is a state of great territorial proportions and historically marked by land conflicts.” However, “within its constitutional competence, [Maranhão] has sought to protect the traditional communities existing in the state with the development of policies in the area of ​​conflict prevention and combat, valorization of rural production of family farming, preservation of popular knowledge and promotion of racial equality.”

According to the Maranhão government, policies and initiatives are in place to address conflicts, including the State Commission for the Prevention of Violence in the Countryside and in the City (COECV), the Quilombola Table for Land and Land Issues of the Institute of Colonization and Lands of Maranhão (Iterma), a police subdivision specializing in Racial Crimes, Intolerance Crimes and Agrarian Conflicts. Maranhão has also launched “Operation Baixada Livre,” which inspects for, and removes, illegal electric fences inside the Baixada Maranhense Environmental Protection Area (APA) — covering 1,775,035 hectares (4,386,208 acres) in 32 municipalities in the northern part of the state.

The Federation of Agriculture and Livestock of Maranhão, FAEMA, which represents farmers and rural producers and is a member of the Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA), did not respond for comment.

Conflicts multiply in Matopiba

While public attention has long focused on Amazon deforestation caused by Brazil’s encroaching agricultural frontier, little notice has been paid to the staggering loss of native vegetation in the Cerrado biome, which has proceeded at a far higher rate as its unique biodiversity has been cut down, burnt and plowed under to make way for soy, corn, eucalyptus, cattle and other agricultural commodities. Between 2000 and 2014, the Cerrado lost 2.5 times more native vegetation than the Amazon. And in recent years, the rate of native vegetation loss in the Cerrado has been up to 5 times higher than in the Amazon. More than half of the Cerrado biome’s 200 million hectares (789,600 square miles) is already gone.

And while coconut breaker livelihoods have been under threat from commons agricultural encroachment for decades, the squeeze in recent years has been felt more severely largely due to government efforts to develop the northern part of the savanna, now known as “Matopiba.” That acronym was coined by agribusiness and the govenment, utilizing the first two letters for Maranhão, Tocantins, Piaui and Bahia, states that also contain some of the last large intact remnants of the worlds’ most biodiverse tropical savanna, but a region that includes few parks to protect that diversity. Soy expansion in Matopiba has been higher than any other part of the Cerrado in recent decades, increasing by 253 percent from 2000-2014.

It is along the northwestern border of Matopiba that the majority of Babassu stands are located, an estimated 18 million hectares (69,5000 square miles), according to Alfredo Wagner, an Amazonas State University anthropologist.

Advocates for the coconut breakers note that much agribusiness destruction of babassu, and the denial of access to Cerrado common lands, is illegal. “Because of the privatization of land, women are being cut off from accessing land that they constitutionally have the right to access,” Anny Linhares, coordinator of traditional lands for ITERMA, a Maranhão state institute responsible for land titling , told Globo Rural in a video interview.

Because Babassu stands can survive a wide range of disturbances, such as fire, they can often be found growing in monospecific, or pure stands, dominating the landscape. Historically they have been integrated by farmers into pastureland or agroforestry systems, but the onset of mechanized industrial agriculture has eroded this practice.

The Matopiba region, referred by the Brazilian government as the  “last agricultural frontier in the world,” now produces 10 percent of Brazil’s crops, a statistic expected to soar if the government gets its way. A federal presidential decree in May 2015 made the Matopiba Agricultural Development Plan (MADP) official; it is the brainchild of Kátia Abreu, former president of the ultraconservative Brazilian Confederation of Agriculture and Livestock (CNA), who was the governor of Tocantins until 2014, when she became the federal minister of agriculture. The plan was created to guide federal projects and actions in the region, focusing specifically on agricultural development.

However, MADP has been heavily critiqued for not meeting the requirements of global agreements such as prior consultation under the International Labor Organization’s ILO Article 169, and for not including in its governance body any environmental or social representation from the Cerrado’s many diverse traditional groups, including the coconut breakers.

In November 2015, a group of 40 civil society organizations, including MIQCB, which represents a large percentage of coconut breakers, wrote an open letter to Brazilian Society and the Presidency, arguing that the Matopiba agricultural development plan will “promote even greater destruction of life and exclusion of Cerrado people, reinforcing the growth of the rural exodus, the increase of poverty and the invisibility of populations existing in the territory.”

The Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Supply (Mapa) replied that babassu breakers are part of its Bioeconomy Brazil – Sociobiodiversity Program, which promotes income generation and quality of life improvement through its bioeconomics efforts. “In the specific case of babassu, a partnership with the Osvaldo Cruz Foundation (Fiocruz) allows the insertion of traditional peoples and communities into the value chains of babassu oil and medicinal and herbal products. Opportunity mapping actions are carried out, as well as training of farmers in production processes.” However, the ministry added that “It is important to note that it is not up to Mapa to oversee labor and safety issues mentioned.”

Suzano: a case study

It’s not only soy and cattle devouring the Cerrado biome; tree plantations, most notably eucalyptus, are also a significant cash crop in conflict with traditional communities.

One of the most publicized fights between traditional peoples and agribusiness in Matopiba involves the Suzano pulp and paper mill in Imperatriz, Maranhão’s second largest city. The mill opened in 2014 and has an annual production capacity of 1.65 million tons of pulp and 60,000 tons of toilet paper. That demand has prompted quick conversion of native vegetation to eucalyptus plantations over the surrounding area.

“Suzano, with its plantings, devours the babassu. To plant that [eucalyptus] tree, that is not sustainable for anything,” says Maria do Socorro Teixeira Lima, who lives just south of the Ciriaco Extractive Reserve, created to preserve babassu stands for use by traditional communities, “The palm tree is sustainable, as is the nature that made it, and [as is] our own work.”

According to quebradeiras Rosalva Gomes, when the paper mill was constructed many coconut breakers not only lost access to large stands of babassu, but they were also impacted by increased rates of sexual violence due to the influx of mostly male agribusiness workers.

Suzano denies these claims and in an email to Mongabay replied that “Such allegations are unfounded and do not correspond to the practices adopted by Suzano.” Furthermore, the company “values ​​its strict compliance with current legislation, which guarantees coconut breakers and their families the right of free access and communal use of babassu.”

According to a Mongabay investigation published last year, Brazil’s eucalyptus plantations are primarily owned by, or sell their trees via contract to, Suzano Pulp & Paper, a mega-company. The firm recently acquired Brazilian eucalyptus pulp producer Fibria to become the largest eucalyptus pulp producer in the world, overseeing an area of eucalyptus plantations the size of the U.S. state of New Jersey.

And Brazilian eucalyptus is only set to grow. Under the Paris Climate Agreement, the government pledged 12 million hectares (46,332 square miles) in reforestation.  However, a new paper published in Nature shows that much of this forest regrowth will not come as natural forest, but rather be accomplished via new plantations, including eucalyptus, accounting for 82 percent of Brazil’s reforestation goal.

One big buyer of Brazilian pulp is Kimberly-Clark, which sources significant eucalyptus in Brazil from Fibria and Suzano to make tissue and paper towels under brand names that include Scott, Cottonelle, Kleenex and Andrex. The Brazilian National Investment Bank (BNDES), one of the world’s biggest development banks, owns significant stakes in both Suzano and Fibria — encomic clout that puts the coconut breakers at great disadvantage.

Kimberly-Clark did not respond to a request for comment.

Babassu nuts — small, brown oblongs, resembling coconuts — hang suspended from a palm. Image by Eduardo Rodrigues courtesy of ISPN.

“She is the mother of everyone”

Eucalyptus, mostly native to Australia, is a thirsty plant, sucking vast amounts of water out of soils and aquifers, giving back massive export profits, but little else in return.  Walk through a eucalyptus plantation in Brazil and you will notice a peculiar silence — the lack of water and biodversity, along with eucalyptus leaves that are toxic to many animals, results in few insects, birds or endemic plants living among the exotic trees.

The number of uses for exotic eucalyptus — made mostly into bathroom tissue and paper— stands in meagre contrast to the many uses for the native Babassu by traditional communities. The average palm begins bearing fruit when it is 15 to 19 years old, and doesn’t stop producing until around age fifty. It is “like a woman,” explains coconut breaker dos Santos. “We take the nut, make the oil and milk for the children and grandchildren’s breakfast, and the shell makes charcoal. From the bark we make flour of the mesocarp [the fleshy part of the fruit]. All of this is [provided by] the babassu coconut.”

More than this, the babassu is emblematic of the struggle by traditional rural women to maintain their identity, traditional way of life, livelihood, and the environment itself — with a vital emphasis on their roles as women: “The palm tree is not only the mother of the breakers, it is the mother of the Brazilian people,” declares Lima, who has been breaking babassu nuts since she was a child. “The last air we breathe is from her leaves. She is the mother of everyone, the guardian of the forest!”

Rural women united

Today, the quebradeiras are federally protected under Decree 6.040/2007 — the law that guarantees protection of Brazil’s many traditional communities and peoples, including quilombolas, Amazon rubber-tappers, and small-scale fishing communities. And like other traditional agroextractivist groups, the coconut breakers have built their social and political identity around their trade.

“We fight to conserve [the babassu trees] against the farmers who want to take the land,” explains dos Santos, “Without land we have no palm tree. And without the palm we can’t live.” The majority of coconut breakers remain organized around the MIQCB, founded in 1991.  That organization quickly became a voice for rural women at a time when they didn’t even have the right to vote in union assemblies, or discuss labor demands specific to women.

One of the greatest successes of the movement came with the establishment of a municipal “Free Babussu Law,” first implemented in Lago do Junco in Maranhão in 1997. In municipalities where the Free Babassu Law is upheld, rural women can enter private farms without negotiation, and farmers are prohibited from cutting and burning, or using pesticides, on the palms.

But this initiative’s protections success remain limited. Of Maranhão’s 217 municipalities just 15 currently have laws giving free access to coconut breakers. MIQCB’s goal is to make the “Free Babassu law” a national one. But while a bill to that effect was introduced in the Brazilian House of Deputies in 2007, the legislation has yet to achieve passage — a prospect grown less likely under the Jair Bolsonaro administration and bancada ruralista, agribusiness lobby that dominates the congress.

“The president [Bolsonaro] comes and says he won’t do anything [for us], only acts for agribusiness,” says Trindade Mendes. “Before, the land was all common; we lived and worked freely, and did what we wanted. Not now. Now we are caged in more than cattle.”

Today, the coconut breakers are in something akin to a state of seige, with MIQCB presently monitoring over 30 conflicts related to babassu access. And those battles are only likely to multiply as global investment in Matopiba focuses almost exclusively on cash crops for export. But that harsh reality has only hardened the resolve of coconut breakers in a fight for their livelihood, identity and constitutional rights.

“I tell the younger people, ‘what rights are you going to have?’ They are taking everything away. There is almost nothing left, just the fight,” says Trindade Mendes. But for her, and other quebradeiras de coco babaçu, giving up isn’t an option. “We were born breaking coconut, and we will die breaking coconut!”

Banner image caption: Women strip away the outer husk of the babassu palm nut. Image by Peter Caton courtesy of ISPN.

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Article published by Glenn Scherer
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