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Organizing Women-Headed Households in Brazil

Since 1989, our partner the Association in the Settlement Areas of the State of Maranhão (ASSEMA) has organized thousands of women-headed rural families in Northeast Brazil to expand access to rights and to improve their quality of life.  ASSEMA provides technical, organizational and political support to communities of babaçu nut harvesters, Quilombola (Afro-descendent) communities, youth and families in settlements, working with them to implement small-scale family agriculture and production.

“ASSEMA has been giving us technical support and teaching us how to collect seeds, plant them, and all the knowledge needed to manage the nursery,” says Elizonete Sousa Souza, one of the youth leaders of ASSEMA. “This work has been meaningful for us and the community because we have been able to reforest the community and along the river and creeks. We are trying to increase the production of seedlings to start marketing, and generate extra income to help our families.”

In addition to the youth program, ASSEMA also organizes among communities to advocate for a more equitable distribution of resources and to address the structural inequities that have kept the poor in Maranhão hungry for generations. Through local cooperatives and associations, babaçu nut harvesters are able to sell their products, such as soap sold under the Babaçu Libre brand, for a fair price. They also benefit from royalties payments from cosmetic companies like Body Shop that use the Quilombola’s traditional knowledge. In addition, ASSEMA supports the widespread use of organic farming practices that include the intercropping of babaçu trees with grains and fruit bearing plants.

When we visited ASSEMA’s headquarters in Pedreiras in 2014, ASSEMA was working with 4,500 families located in 300 rural communities and 18 municipalities of the Medio Mearim Region that is characterized by the presence of babaçu forests. Several of these living-giving forests have suffered widespread destruction and have been replaced by eucalyptus or sugarcane plantations, or were felled to make space for cattle ranching.

Since many babaçu forests are on private lands, communities that are not organized do not have access to collect the precious nuts that sustain their families and communities and are instead forced into low-wage work for the landholders.

During the dictatorship era of 1970s, many nut harvesters lived in a situation of need, renting land to produce their food. Women, who make up the majority of the nut harvesters, began organizing in small groups with some unions and began the struggles for land and free access to the babaçu areas. The men joined afterwards, when they saw some of the land victories. The nut harvesters faced difficult times and criminalization, as the elite landowners united and burned their houses in an effort to drive the harvesters off the land.

Maria Alaides Alves Sousa, a babaçu nut harvester and ASSEMA General Coordinator, explained ASSEMA’s history:

“We used to live in a situation of need, renting land to produce our food. I remember that in the 70s during the dictatorship era, we organized in small groups with some unions in secret, and began the fight for land and free access to the babaçu areas. The women were the first ones in the struggle and men joined afterwards, when they saw some of the land victories. This was a time where we suffered the loss of many lives; blood was shed in the name of our struggle. We faced difficult times; the elite landholders united forces to start the criminalization of the movement and burned our houses.

In 1989, people from municipalities joined forces with rural unions and religious organizations, and we won the land, but without legal tittles. The initial structure of ASSEMA was work for the rights to land, then for free access of the babaçu areas, and evolved to support the organization of production of the land, and political and technical formation.”

Since that time, ASSEMA has evolved to support production within the babaçu forests, as well as political and technical formation of the nut harvesters.

With the mission to improve the quality of life of the babaçu harvesting families, ASSEMA has been providing education and technical support around forest management, ecology, marketing, and the solidarity economy. As Silvianete Matos Carvalho from ASSEMA’s Executive Secretariat describes it, “The motivating spirit for us is the farming families; family farming is the solution for our people to have a better life.”

ASSEMA has developed a coherent set of agroecological practices appropriate for their regional biomes, which they call “Integrated Agroextractivism System of Production” (SIPA). This system combines agroecological farming practices, such as intercropping fruits, vegetables and basic grains in babaçu forests with harvesting of the babaçu palm nuts, also complemented by fruit and palm nut processing strategies that enhance the economic value of local crops. This system is the foundation for increasing the productivity of family based subsistence agricultural practices, diversifying local diets, and developing a sustainable economic base for the region’s poor families.

As a result of ASSEMA’s intervention in rural communities, more families have been implementing agroecological practices on their lands, increasing the volume of crops produced by households. In 2015, ASSEMA expanded the geographic radius of its activities to support families living in extreme poverty, who have been neglected by the state. The organization has been promoting agroecological transition, cooperativism and income generation through the solidarity economy. There has been an increase in women’s general participation and leadership in marketing. The agroecological farmers’ markets organized by ASSEMA and the local base organizations they accompany have been mostly led by women.

ASSEMA has also been working hard to bring social programs to the settlements such as credit, homes, water, and commercialization programs, among others. ASSEMA has played a leadership role in pushing for several important policies to support peasant women at the state and national level.

Along with Grassroots’ partner the Popular Peasant Movement (MCP) and other rural social movements, ASSEMA worked to push the federal government to create the National School Meal Program. This program sources food in public schools through the agroecological production of local peasant families. Before this program, schools bought all food from big supermarkets and large multinational companies. Now, at least 30% of food must be bought directly from the farmers, with no need to bid, but based on the prices in the local municipality.

There are still communities where ASSEMA doesn’t have the capacity to organize and that don’t have free access to the land yet. So, one of ASSEMA‘s goals is to extend its organizing to other areas, so more women and achieve their autonomy.

Nasim G. Memon, M.Sc. holds a B.S. in Biology from Northeastern University and a M.Sc. in Biotechnology from Johns Hopkins University. She is currently is working with two startups dealing education and social justice: SkyLab Boston and 1 Room, and is a volunteer with Grassroots International.