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English Report

Demolitions and 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.

The babaçu coconut workers and the struggle to end rural subjugation

* Helciane de Fátima Abreu Araújo[1]

** Cynthia Martins Carvalho[2]

*** Ana Carolina Mendes Magalhães[3]


 This 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[1], in the babaçu coconut regions in the states of Pará, Maranhão, Piauí and Tocantins.

 The 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.

 In 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 processing plants.

 The practices of subjugation described here represent only those able to be identified through the work of the Inter-State Movement of Coconut Workers (MIQCB) since 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.

 The 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 subjugation. 

Relations with businesses

 Beginning 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 Mearim.   The TOBASA Company purchases whole coconuts from the workers for R$10.00 (USD 3.33) per cubic meter.

 In 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.


 In 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.


 In 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.

House Burnings

 More 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 belongings.  The neighbor’s house was also burned, but suffered less severe damange.

 This 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  Codó.  By 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.

 Maria 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.

 The 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.  “When we 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.

Warehouse system

 In 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)

 To 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.

Government policies and the subjugation of women coconut workers

 Government 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 reproduction.

 The 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 the environment.

 The 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.

 The 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 national level.

 These laws comprise a legal instrument to support the women’s struggle.  Each was elaborated according to the context of each municipality, all based on their organic municipal laws.

 The 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.


 ALMEIDA, Alfredo W. Quebradeiras de Coco Babaçu: identidade e mobilização. São Luís. MIQCB,1995.

 ALMEIDA, 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.

 FOUCAULT, M. Microfisica do Poder (tradução Roberto Machado). Rio de Janeiro. Ed. Graal. 1979.

 FIGUEIREDO, Luciene Dias. Primeiro Relatório da Pesquisa Gênero, Terra e Globalização (GTG). Mimeo, 2004.

 MESQUITA, Benjamin Alvino de. Crise da economia do babaçu (1920-1980). Revista de Políticas Públicas, v 2, n° 2, São Luís.

* Sociologist, 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.

[1] The 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.