Babaçu breakers: the hidden strength of small rural communities in Brazil
by Giovanna Grandoni*
Brazil is the fifth largest country in the world and is growing so quickly that in 2011 it overtook the UK as the sixth largest economy in the world. This Latin American giant
is also well known for the commitment of its government to socially equitable development and, in particular, to food security and gender equity. For this reason, it is really difficult to understand why the importance of female rural workers as food producers is still not receiving the recognition it deserves.
Brazil has all the resources to ensure the subsistence of its entire population but, over the past years, it has been characterised by severe inequality in wealth distribution particularly in rural areas. Furthermore, it has historically been recognised that unequal land distribution, together with development policies focussing on commercial agriculture and foreign investment, mean that rural workers’ needs are neglected, which leads to problems of food insecurity, particularly when there are severe gender inequalities in access to land.
Even so, some rural workers, particularly women, are bucking the trend. One of the best examples of women contributing to food security, while preserving local ecosystems and supporting their families, are the babaçu breakers (quebradeiras de coco). In Brazil, particularly in the north and north-east of the country, more than 300,000 women are gathering and breaking babaçu nuts to produce oil and charcoal. Among the poorest of the poor, these women are now struggling to find enough babaçu palms due to government policies in support of large-scale profitable activities such as mining, cattle and the production of biofuels, all of which result in deforestation and scarcity of land for food production.
In order to better understand the social and economic relevance of the work of the babaçu breakers, it is fundamental to analyse who they are and how they work. Women of all ages are involved in the work and knowledge is passed down from mother to daughter. They are of indigenous origin or the descendants of black slaves. Each woman has a different story to tell, but in most rural communities all the women work together. From 6 o’clock in the morning you can find babaçu breakers working together under a tree or protected by a roof made of palm leaves.
The women break the babaçu, which looks like a small kind of coconut, to separate the kernel from the hard shell of the nut. Each woman holds an axe between her legs, steadies the nut on the blade of the axe and then hits the nut with a wooden stick. In order to get out the three to five kernels contained in each shell, the women must hit the nut and rotate it several times, which means that it becomes a very hard and repetitive activity.
The breakers often stress that they use every part of the babaçu palm tree. They use the leaves to make the roofs of their houses and baskets. They burn the shells of the babaçu to make charcoal and they squeeze the kernels to produce oil to cook with, to make soap with or to add to petrol to use as a fuel. They also take advantage of the mesocarpo, found between the shell and the kernels, which they often grind into flour which they use to bake cakes, to make ice creams and porridge. It is really rich in protein and represents a fundamental part of the children’s diet.
Inside the shell it is also common to find a fat worm called a gongo which is full of coconut milk. Some families toast the gongo and eat it with manioc flour, while others use it as chicken feed. Moreover, the milk within the gongo is also considered a good hair conditioner.
Spending together at least seven hours a day, the women have time to talk about a huge variety of topics, sharing opinions about the social and economic problems of their families or of the entire community. This is one of the activities that really shapes the identity of the rural communities in the north and north-east of Brazil and it is at risk due to new difficulties in gathering the babaçu nuts.
There are two growing tendencies that are drastically reducing the number of babaçu palms available to the breakers. First, large areas are being deforested for cattle farming and the cultivation of soya and sugarcane for biofuels. Second, public land containing babaçu palms is being taken over by private landowners to produce charcoal used in mining. In this last case, the landowners produce charcoal by burning the entire nut, preventing the extraction of kernels to produce oil. Considering that the price paid for oil is at least seven times more than the price paid for nuts, it is evident that small communities are being severely damaged.
Over the last decades, the babaçu breakers have faced all sorts of challenges with great determination and fearlessness but today the problem is that they are losing their livelihoods. In most of the cases the women provide the only source of income for their families but thy get little official recognition or support. As a result, the babaçu breakers have started creating their own organisations to fight for unambiguous laws that guarantee them access to babaçu palms and that recognise their role as food producers and protectors of biodiversity. It is not enough to speak about gender equity and sustainable development when what is needed is substantial change in official policy.
* Giovanna Grandoni is a PhD researcher in Environment, Politics and Development in the Department of Geography at King’s College, London.