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SPECIAL SERIES-Brazilian nut breakers seek legal boost from UN gender goal

by Adriana Brasileiro | @Adribras | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Thursday, 17 September 2015 04:01 GMT

Maria de Fátima Ferreira breaks open a babaçu coconut at a cooperative in Esperantina, Brazil, July 14, 2015. THOMSON REUTERS FOUNDATION/Adriana Brasileiro

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Under gender equality goal, women will get equal rights to land and other forms of property and natural resources

ESPERANTINA, Brazil, Sept 17 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sitting on the bare floor of a thatched-roof hut, Maria de Fátima Ferreira holds a babaçu coconut firmly against the sharp edge of a hatchet and cracks it open with two quick blows using a piece of hardwood.

In just a few seconds the nut, about the size of a large lemon, is split into quarters to produce six slender kernels. Ferreira, 35, removes them and grabs another nut from a straw basket at a workers' cooperative in Esperantina, a small town in the northeastern state of Piauí.

"The babaçu is such a big part of my life, I can probably break it with my eyes closed," she said with a smile.

An estimated 300,000 babaçu breakers like Ferreira, living in some of Brazil's poorest states, make at least half their income by gathering the nuts that fall from the palm trees and using everything they have to offer.

Oil is extracted from the kernel, the shell is used for charcoal, and mesocarp, a nutritious starch-like pulp under the shell, is mixed in cakes and porridge. The leaves of the wild-growing tree are used for roofing.

Over generations, the coconut breakers, or "quebradeiras", have endured many threats to their way of life, including deforestation, the expansion of agriculture and cattle-ranching, and pressure from large-scale mining operations.

Many live in settlements founded by escaped slaves in the late 1800s. Others are descendants of native tribes that lived in the area before European settlers began arriving in the mid-1500s.

Nearly all quebradeiras are women and only a minority have rights to the land where they harvest the nuts. Their vulnerability has been worsened by the lack of formal recognition for their activity, which is not considered economically important by the government.

But these tough, hardworking women hope the new U.N. Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), due to be adopted by world leaders later this month, will boost their fight for a federal law to protect the palm tree and give them access to babaçu forests, regardless of who owns the land.


Under one of the planned goals to achieve gender equality, governments will commit to reforms giving women equal rights to economic resources, as well as enabling them to own and control land and other forms of property and natural resources.

"Anything on the international agenda that will push the (Brazilian) government and Congress to pass the Free Babaçu Law will help us advance our cause," said Francisca da Silva Nascimento, coordinator of the Interstate Movement of Coconut Breakers (MIQCB), a group set up in 1991 to help women fight for their right to harvest the babaçu.

The women also want to be recognised and protected under a new agricultural investment push led by the government in the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia, an area considered by officials as the last agriculture frontier.

Much of that territory is where the babaçu trees grow across 18.5 million hectares (46 million acres), partly in the Amazon Basin in northern Brazil.

In 1997 the coconut breakers' movement persuaded legislators in one municipality in Maranhão to pass a law granting free access to any property to collect nuts. The law is now valid in 13 municipalities in three states, and the quebradeiras are lobbying for a national law to be passed.

They hope that push will be supported by a new map that charts the challenges to the babaçu forests and their livelihood, presented to Congress members in August .

"This approach of not wanting rights to the land, but rights to harvest the nuts, which are seen as a nuisance by farmers, is incredibly progressive," said Aurélio Vianna, a programme officer at the Ford Foundation, which supported the map project.

"The quebradeiras carry out a truly sustainable activity that is a great example of what the world wants in a post-2015 development agenda," he said.

The nuts are harvested only in the wild, meaning there is no need to cut down forests for plantations. With a small investment by cooperatives, the entire nut can be used to generate income for hundreds of thousands of families in northern Brazil, allowing them to stay in their rural homes rather than heading to cities in search of work.

The babaçu production chain is a way to reduce poverty, end hunger, ensure healthy lives and manage forests sustainably, among other aims of the SDGs, Vianna added.


Over the past two decades, the quebradeiras have learned how to add value to babaçu products to increase their income. But improvements have been uneven across different communities.

In some areas, the quebradeiras have organised themselves into cooperatives and bought equipment such as industrial ovens and oil extractors to make production more efficient.

These groups are able to sell babaçu oil and mesocarp flour to government school lunch programmes, and even to foreign cosmetics companies such as Aveda and The Body Shop.

But in poorer and more isolated communities, most quebradeiras subsist by gathering nuts and selling the kernels as they lack the equipment or knowledge to do more, said agronomist Alvori Cristo dos Santos.

In a study of 113 families in 16 communities in Maranhão state, where the biggest babaçu forests are located, Santos found that family income increased fivefold when the quebradeiras could produce oil and flour.

There is no comprehensive government programme to support the nut breakers, though some have benefited from initiatives backed by state governments, municipalities and charities.

Brazil's special secretariat for women's policies recognises the need to do more, but its small budget was recently reduced under government cost-cutting efforts, said Executive Secretary Linda Goulart.

"We believe the quebradeiras are a great example of sustainable activity and we support them in their fight for better living conditions, but unfortunately the resources we have are scarce in the face of all the challenges we are up against," Goulart told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

(Reporting by Adriana Brasileiro; Editing by Megan Rowling. 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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