A rise in soybean growing and cattle ranching in northern Brazil is threatening the region's nut oil forests
SÃO LUÍS, Brazil, July 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - A rise in soybean growing and cattle ranching in northern Brazil is threatening the region's nut oil forests, and the women who have long survived by harvesting them, researchers say.
A group of Brazilian academics last week released a map that charts the threats to forests of babaçu, a palm tree that provides a sustainable livelihood to a traditional community of about 300,000 "coconut breakers".
The threat comes in a region plagued by growing deforestation and land-use conflict, the researchers said.
The "Social Cartography of the Babaçuais", as the project is called, is based on research and observations by the coconut breakers themselves, the academics said.
It seeks to raise awareness of the threats to a traditional industry as the government pushes ahead with plans to expand large-scale grain farming in the same region.
Right now, the work of the women "is a model of sustainability" and a key means of preserving the region's threatened forests, Jurandir Santos de Novaes, a professor at Maranhão State University (UEMA), said at a news conference to unveil the map.
"We hope the map can be used to counter these new development plans in the area," she said.
The coconut breakers, known as quebradeiras, make a living from gathering babaçu nuts from trees growing across an 18.5 million hectare (46 million acre) area of four states in Brazil's north and northeastern regions: Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Pará.
The women's traditional work involves gathering the nut pods that fall from the palm trees and working in groups to break them open with a traditional technique passed down through generations.
Brazil plans to expand grain production in some of the same areas as part of a new agricultural push called Matopiba - an acronym drawn from the first two letters of the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. It's considered the last agriculture frontier in the world and represents 10 percent of Brazil's grain production, according to the Agriculture Ministry.
The researchers said that data from Embrapa, Brazil's agricultural research body, suggests plans for Matopiba don't take into account small farmers and gatherers.
The academics' detailed map identifies existing soybean crops in babaçu forest regions, as well as huge babaçu areas that have been enclosed by electric fences to prevent the entrance of quebradeiras.
The map also shows where nature preserves have been illegally occupied by farmers, as well as deforested areas inside Indian reservations. It also maps all the large commodity companies that operate in the region.
Brazil's agriculture minister, Katia Abreu, didn't respond to phone and email requests for comment. When the Matopiba plan was announced in May, she said the expansion would be based on investment in innovation and infrastructure to boost productivity, and in projects to increase income for poor farmers.
For producers and farmers, government help with technology is the only way to increase productivity.
João Carlos Jacobsen, president of Brazil's Cotton Producers' Association (Abrapa), said the plan would make technology available to small producers, who need more help than large farmers. "What changes rural workers' lives isn't the size of their land, but the technology they can use to be more productive," he said.
Since 1991, through the Interstate Movement of Coconut Breakers (MIQCB), a group of women who make a living from the babaçu in four states, the coconut breakers have fought for access to land where the palm tree grows, to be able to harvest the their nuts regardless of who owns the land.
In 1997 they convinced legislators in one municipality in Maranhão to pass a law granting free access to any property to collect the nuts. The so-called Free Babaçu Law is now valid in 13 municipalities in three states, and the quebradeiras are lobbying for a national law to be passed.
The women extract oil from the nut kernel, use the shell for charcoal and make flour from the powdery substance found between the shell and the kernel.
They sell the oil to cosmetics companies such as the Body Shop and Natura.
(Reporting by Adriana Brasileiro; editing by Laurie Goering; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, corruption and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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