burning the houses of women coconut workers are common forms
of pressure by landowners to guarantee the exclusivity of
their coconut deals. There
are cases of physical violence against women, in which
managers, landowners, or supervisors submit the women to
beatings and sexual violence.
Women have also been forced to clear fields of grass in
order to gain access to the coconut collection area.
babaçu coconut workers and the struggle to end rural
Helciane de Fátima Abreu Araújo
Cynthia Martins Carvalho
Ana Carolina Mendes Magalhães
article seeks to present a reflection on the subjugation of
hundreds of women who feed their families through the
collection and processing of babaçu coconut,
in the babaçu coconut regions in the states of Pará, Maranhão,
Piauí and Tocantins.
purpose of this article is not restricted to denouncing
particular situations, but to also open a debate about the
micro-relations that are the fundamental basis of these social
practices and which underlay discussions of agrarian issues in
this country. Certain
micro-relations that directly affect women and children in the
Babaçu regions do not appear in the debates due to the lack
of recognition of this activity as an economic activity.
The practices revealed here do not appear in official
census data because they pass unperceived by the official
apparatus that deals with land reform and agricultural policy
more generally, but fail to reach the essence of the question.
addition to favoring the concentration of wealth, the reigning
structure of land tenure in this region generates and
reproduces relations of subjugation involving large
landowners, businesspeople, middlemen involved in coconut
sales, owners of warehouses and employees of babaçu coconut
practices of subjugation described here represent only those
able to be identified through the work of the Inter-State
Movement of Coconut Workers (MIQCB)
1990. At that
time, this movement began to bring together the
self-identified babaçu coconut workers in the states of
Maranhão, Pará, Piauí and Tocantins around common demands
related to preservation of the coconut palms, land reform,
passage of a law of free access to the coconut stands, the
regularization of extractive reserves, socially appropriate
technology, and change in gender relations.
activities of the Inter-State Movement of Babaçu Coconut
Workers (MIQCB) are not restricted to their geographic
location, going beyond local frontiers and
political-administrative divisions to become part of
transnational networks. The situations described in what follows appear as a result
of the differentiated forms of observation of both the
researchers and the coconut workers.
These observations were made through the work of the
MIQCB and the Settlement Areas Association of the State of
Maranhão (ASSEMA) both through systematic research and
reports by the coconut workers.
In what follows, we describe some of these practices of
in the 1980s, the appearance of business groups related to the
iron and steel industry in the babaçu region influenced the
relations of conflict between different social segments in the
babaçu coconut marketing network. In the region of Médio Mearim/Maranhão, the women coconut
workers have faced difficulties with the iron and steel
companies that buy babaçu coconut for the production of
vegetable charcoal for the pig iron plants.
When the companies buy the whole coconut, the women
have no control over the use of the product (the nut) and lose
the opportunity to increase their income through the
extraction of other subproducts of the coconut (oil, husks,
etc). When the
shells are sold, the women lose out given their lack of
control over price. In
this commercialization network, the middle-person earns more.
In 2003, in meetings with the Coconut Workers Research
Group, the women of Lago do Junco and Lago de Pedra/Maranhão
denounced some of these situations of subjugation.
According to the women, middlemen purchased 1 cubic
meter of coconut shells for R$ 6.00 (USD 2.00) and re-sold it
to the COSIMA company (Iron and Steel Company of Maranhão),
for R$20.00 (USD 6.75). In
the city of Tocantinópolis, in the state of Tocantins, the
workers are living a similar experience to that of Médio
TOBASA Company purchases whole coconuts from the workers for
R$10.00 (USD 3.33) per cubic meter.
São José dos Basílios/Maranhão, a large estate owner pays
the workers to collect coconuts, establishing with the women a
pricing relation known locally as “pagamento de meia”
(half payment). In
this system, the women give back half of their production to
the estate owner. The
owner pays R$0.60 per liter, subsequently re-selling to
middlemen who in turn re-sell the product to the pig iron
factories or for industrial oil.
the town of Petrolina in the municipality of Imperatriz, the
women coconut workers have signed a contract that is part of a
business strategy initially adopted by the Celmar Company.
This private contract, signed between the Coconut
Workers Association of the Town of Petrolina and the company,
specifies legal access for the women to 307 hectares within
the area of a Legal Forest Reserve for babaçu extraction.
In addition to establishing collection limits, the
contract transfers the responsibility for the preservation of
the reserve to the Association, establishing daily fines if
the contract is not renewed on a yearly basis.
The Celmar Company did not achieve its mission of
establishing a cellulose industry in the region, selling the
area to the Carajás Pig Iron group.
This group, in addition to maintaining the contract
system, has systematically attempted to negotiate the purchase
of babaçu coconut shell for vegetable charcoal production.
the municipality of Capinzal do Norte/ Maranhão, the manager
of the Santa Rita estate attempted to institutionalize the
exclusion of women from the babaçu collection areas by
creating an identification system.
He made up and distributed 50 “license tags” among
the women coconut workers, prohibiting those without the tags
from entering the estate.
According to the report presented by Globo Rural, the
estate was trying to “organize” collection in order for
the estate to function as a business.
The problem, according to the version presented by the
women, was that the number of coconut workers in the
municipality is much greater than 50, causing an
intensification of the conflict.
The strict control over the system carried out by an
employee impeded many women from entering into the collection
areas, and they were subjected to death threats made with
firearms to women’s faces.
recently, the Inter-State Movement of Babaçu Coconut Workers
(MIQCB) denounced the situation of Maria da Luz de Oliveira, a
coconut worker from the town of Lagoa do Tufi in the
municipality of Timbiras/ Maranhão.
Her house was set on fire on the night of July 15,
2004, around 10:00 pm, while she was sleeping along with her
three children, a daughter and two sons between the ages of 11
and 15. The
principle suspect is the landowner Francisco Rodrigues
Sampaio, known as Chico Adonias. When she became aware that her house was on fire, Maria da
Luz managed to escape with her children, but lost all of her
neighbor’s house was also burned, but suffered less severe
episode reveals a conflict situation that has been sent to the
District Court of Timbiras/Maranhão. After the event, the case was transferred by Judge Samira
Heluy to the District Court of
the present time, two hearings have occurred without any
resolution to the case. Seeing
no alternative, Maria da Luz returned home and is living in
the shell of a house, suffering constant death threats by the
estate owner and his sons.
da Luz Oliveira explains that she has lived on Mr. Adonias’s
property along with 20 other families for more than 18 years,
selling coconuts to him every year.
In April, she collected 22 kilograms of coconut on
another property and was going to sell this to Adonias.
As he was not at home and she needed money to purchase
food for her children, she sold her product to another buyer.
When Adonias, the estate owner, found out he began to
threaten her, and even petitioned the Judge of the District
Court of Timbiras,
Samira Heluy, to serve an eviction notice on Maria da Luz.
The judge called Maria da Luz to a proposed agreement:
the landowners offered R$ 400.00 (USD $133) to leave
the property. Maria da Luz did not accept and remained in the area,
collecting coconut and selling to the owner, despite threats
and a prohibition against obtaining water from the community
well. In May,
Maria da Luz entered a petition in the Timbiras Forum to
overturn the eviction notice, but nothing has yet been done.
practices of burning and demolishing houses are recurring in
the town as a form of pressure by landowners to guarantee
their exclusive right to purchase the coconut.
collect the coconut and don’t sell to him, he begins to kick
us out. Just now
he tore down the house of …everyone is run out of there,
everyone is run out”, explains Maria da Luz.
the municipality of Olho D’água das Cunhas, in Médio
Mearim Maranhense, women and children collect babaçu coconut
for later sale to the owner of a warehouse.
This person rents outlying areas of nearby estates,
contracts the women to collect and process the coconut and
then sells the nuts to regional oil processing factories. The women receive as payment only half of the
production of processed nuts, while the other half remains
with the warehouse owner, who also keeps the husks/shells.
The warehouses are open, with straw roofs.
An average of 15 women and children work in each
warehouse. The portion of production that belongs to the women and
children is sold to the owner of the warehouse, for R$ 0.25
per kilogram. Women
that work under this system are coconut workers without land
or an area in which to work.
Some live in urban peripheries.
According to one worker, the earnings from a week’s
intense work does not exceed R$9.00 (USD 3.00)
the experiences described above we could add others like
“quebra a meia” (half-shares), and “quebra de terça”,
or third shares, where the coconut worker is required to give
a third of her production to the estate owners.
There are cases of violence being used against the
women workers, including cutting the strap of their jacá,
the work basket made of woven babaçu palm straw in which
the women carry the coconuts; in addition to physical violence
in which the estate managers, ranchhands, and employees submit
the women to beatings and sexual violence. There are cases in which the women are forced to clear the
vegetation from the coconut stands in order to access the
coconut collecting and cracking area.
policies and the subjugation of women coconut workers
actions around agrarian and agricultural questions do not
invest in changing the structure of land tenure, especially in
the babaçu areas. According
to data from the 1995/96 agricultural census, the land
concentration index in Brazil continues to be one of the
highest in the world. The
so-called land owners control 93% of land while representing
only 32% of the total number of landholdings (MESQUITA, 1996).
Government investment is concentrated in support of
business interests through credit and fiscal incentives.
No line of credit exists for women working in
extractive industries, and their work is invisible in spite of
the importance of this economic activity for family
alternative for the extractivists is in mobilization and
organization in social movements and non-governmental
organizations working on these issues, especially in calling
for citizenship rights. Without
any government incentives, in the last 15 years these
movements have constituted the only channels for denouncing
practices of subjugation in rural areas which have been
consolidated into the micro-relations of power often
overlooked and unconsidered in debates over agrarian issues.
These movements also discuss and propose specific
public policies to liberate women and children from violence
and hunger, and at the same time, contribute towards saving
Free Babaçu Law proposed by the women coconut workers is an
alternative to the various situations of exploitation to which
the women are submitted in the babaçu region.
This law proposes to guarantee free access to babaçu
regions in public and private lands, as well as prohibit house
destruction, burning, and the use of agricultural chemicals.
first Free Babaçu Law was passed in 1997, in the municipality
of Lago do Junco as part of a collective effort of the Lago do
Junco and Lago dos Rodrigues Women’s Rural Workers
Associations - AMTR, ASSEMA, and MIQCB. The struggle then expanded to other municipalities.
Today, the law has been passed in the municipalities of
Lago dos Rodrigues, São Luiz Gonzaga do Maranhão, Esperantinópolis,
Capinzal do Norte, Imperatriz and Lago do Junco, in Maranhão,
and Axixá in Tocantins.
Similar legislation is being debated in the Federal
Congress, sponsored by the Deputy Terezinha Fernades (PT),
which proposes the passage of a Free Babaçu Law at the
laws comprise a legal instrument to support the women’s
was elaborated according to the context of each municipality,
all based on their organic municipal laws.
passage of these Municipal Laws, and their validity today, was
only possible due to the courage and struggle of the women
coconut workers as they confront a diverse array of situations
to guarantee their free access to the babaçu areas.
The women document the house destructions and burnings
and denounce these practices to the appropriate authorities. Where laws have been passed, the babaçu areas are being
better preserved. The
Free Babaçu law could mean the construction of a new concept
of property and new relations in the countryside, in which
there is no subjugation.
Alfredo W. Quebradeiras
de Coco Babaçu: identidade e mobilização. São Luís.
Alfredo W; SHIRAISHI, Joaquim; ARAUJO, Helciane; MESQUITA,
Benjamin; MARTINS, Cynthia; SILVA, Miguel Henrique. Economia
do Babaçu: Levantamento Preliminar de Dados. Ed. – São Luís,
MIQCB/Balaio Typographia, 2001.
M. Microfisica do
Poder (tradução Roberto Machado). Rio de Janeiro. Ed.
Luciene Dias. Primeiro Relatório da Pesquisa Gênero, Terra e Globalização (GTG). Mimeo,
Benjamin Alvino de. Crise
da economia do babaçu (1920-1980). Revista de Políticas
Públicas, v 2, n° 2, São Luís.
journalist, and Máster of Public Policy, university
professor and communications advisor to the Settlement
Área Association of the state of Maranhão - ASSEMA
Sociologist, Máster of Public Policy and doctoral student
in Anthropology at the Universidade Federal Fluminense
Sociologist and advisor to the Inter-State Movement of
Babaçu Coconut Workers– MIQCB.
fruit of the babaçu palm, a secondary forest species that
covers about 18.5 million hectares in Brazil, especially
the states of Maranhão, Piauí, Pará, Goiás, Tocantins
and Minas Gerais. Maranhão
is the largest producer, with 10.3 million hectares.
The babaçu economy is comprised primarily of women
called “quebradeiras de coco babaçu”, or literally
“babaçu coconut breakers”, involving approximately
300,000 people in the babaçu palm region.
All parts of the palm can be used.
Scientific studies show that at least 68
sub-products can be harvested from the palm.