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Environment

The Brazilian women on the front line of the climate change fight

In Brazil thousands of women have banded together to defend their traditional, sustainable way of life. They’re also one of our best hopes in the fight against climate change.

Earth Day - Maria Alaídes Alves de Souza is the coordinator of the Babaçu Coconut Breakers Movement

Earth Day - Maria Alaídes Alves de Souza is the coordinator of the Babaçu Coconut Breakers Movement. Photographer credit: MIQCB 2021 / Ingrid Barros

In the forests of northeast Brazil, more than 350,000 women rely on the babassu palm tree to support their families. Their livelihoods are increasingly under threat from big business and creeping privatisation of the babassu groves.

But these women are not letting their traditional way of life go without a fight. More than 2,000 of them have joined together to form the Babaçu Coconut Breakers Movement [Movimento Interestadual de Quebradeiras de Coco Babaçu (MIQCB)], a female-led group at the forefront of the fight to protect human rights and the environment in which they live.

It’s a battle for their survival, but also an important frontier in the global struggle to halt runaway climate change. Once home to some of the biggest carbon sinks in the world, Brazil has lost an estimated 80 million hectares of natural forest since 1990. In its most recent report, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) emphasised we cannot reach our goals to reduce carbon emissions without tackling deforestation and land use change.

Maria Alaídes Alves de Souza is at the sharp end of that clash. As the coordinator of the MIQCB in the states of Pará, Tocantins, Piauí and Maranhão, she protects the babassu forests as a common good, for community use. Speaking from her home in Largo do Junco, in Maranhão state, northeast Brazil she explained how the forests are being sold off to large scale agricultural businesses, who burn or poison the babassu trees, clearing the land to plant lucrative crops such as soybean, eucalyptus and sugarcane.

The Big Issue: How has deforestation and privatisation impacted you and your community?

Maria Alaídes Alves de Souza: Deforestation and the destruction of biodiversity of Amazon, Cerrado and the other biomes extremely impacts us. I’m one of more than 350,000 women engaged in the harvesting, processing, and marketing of the babassu coconut products, but this activity is constantly threatened by difficulty of access to land. The threat stems from large-scale farmers and ranchers who prevent women accessing babassu trees, because of their intention to expand agribusiness in the region. We as babassu coconut breakers also have difficulty gaining direct access to markets for our babassu products, which would provide greater security for our livelihoods and futures.

What would you like to see change to protect your way of life?

In order to avoid the worst climate change impacts around the world, we believe that preservation and expansion of sustainable production methods are urgent. Our way of life maintains these modes of production. So we would like to see more public policies that protect our way of life, our territories, our women and our palm trees. Our daily struggle is focused on that change.

Why is it important for the global environment that traditional peoples’ rights are protected? 

Our struggle for rights is directly related to efforts for meeting broader environmental goals. When our rights as traditional peoples are respected and guaranteed, we can maintain our livelihoods through a combination of sustainable agriculture and extraction of natural resources. Our way of life and our production chain maintains a balanced environment, a diversity of planting and land use. Our way of life also reinforces the struggle against the use of pesticides and the reduction of waste that contaminates nature. When our rights are maintained, there is also progress in the search for cleaner forms of energy, for example. Strengthening people’s rights means strengthening those who make good use of nature, seeking a healthy life for all of us.

Traditional peoples think of wellbeing in a broad way, which benefits land, animals, water and human beings.

How important is it to you that you are a women-led movement?

Being a women-led movement is extremely important. We’ve been proving to society that we are capable of managing projects and movements, having autonomy and occupying all spaces in society.

Women are on the front lines of food security in their homes. In many places, in Brazil or in other countries, it was women who started the fight for the right to land. Women have this understanding that we can only be healthy if we have “real food”, clean water, good soil. The struggle for land rights and ecosystem defence is led by women in general.

What lessons could the rest of the world learn from your relationship with nature?

I believe the whole world could learn from our relationship with nature. Protecting the forest means protecting food security, water, air, life for all of us. There are ways to live while protecting the forest and biodiversity. We, the traditional peoples and communities, do that.

How could people in the UK support you in this struggle?

We need support to continue protecting the forests and our livelihoods. People in the UK can support by not accepting commodities from Brazil that harm the environment and its traditional peoples. They can also support us by donating and strengthening those organisations that already support us, like ActionAid. By doing so, they will be protecting the environment, and helping us train the next generation about the babassu traditional way of life and production.

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