Along with Saulo Araujo, Grassroots International’s Program Coordinator for Mesoamerica and Brazil, I just visited the central region of Brazil, about three hours outside the capital of Brasilia.
And the women of the Central Cerrado have gone nuts. Or, to be more precise, they have begun to process and sell Baru nuts.
These members of the Popular Peasant Movement (MPC) in Goias, Brazil, began to package their food as a collective factory with more than a dozen women (and a few men).
“I’m very glad I’ve been learning about agroecology. There’s a myth that we cannot survive on our land but it’s not true. We can. Agro-business says we need huge farms that grow one thing, but it’s not true,” said Clai Xavier Louredo. Clai is a member of the MCP and Treasurer of the Farmers Association. The factory is run in the house that her sister and her husband, Gabriel, own.
The MCP has championed biodiversity in the region through a dynamic Creole Seeds Project, as well as challenging the expansion of agro-business set on planting vast fields of sugar cane for agrofuel.
Luizina Aparecida, another collective member explains it this way: “The processing plant is a good thing for the community and members—we work collectively, share ideas, talk. And it provides another source of income for the workers. It is good that we are learning how to protect our seeds, our land and our community. It took two years until we were able to make a profit, but now we can diversify our income as well as consume the products at home.”
For these women, and for the community as a whole, the collective’s importance expands far beyond a profit margin. They talk about the importance of protecting the Baru trees, which have been felled by both logging industries and farmers intent on growing monocrops instead of diversified fields. And they discuss the impact the collective has made on a personal level.
“When I started participating in the women’s coop, I was depressed and sick [from agro chemicals],” said Luizina. “Now I am much better. I used to never question men, even my husband. Now I question and speak my mind. I was 18 when I was married and afraid to speak up. Now I’m the one who represents the family at meetings, and I spend weeks outside of the home doing this work, and my husband is supportive. So for me it has been very powerful to join the movement.”
For Lilian Pereira de Siqueira Santos, it has also meant a chance to teach her daughters about the struggle for food sovereignty: “I always talk to my daughters about staying here and having a dignified life… My mother grew a vegetable garden around the house. Since she died, I’ve tried to expand the garden,” she said with tears in her eyes. “My mother left a big heritage that I try to keep. I tell my kids that it’s important to come and learn this because it’s our tradition. I dream that my daughters will go to school and learn how to protect this tradition.”
Members of the MCP continue to advocate for biodiversity, including protecting heirloom seeds (also called Creole seeds) and teaching agroecological methods of farming. This includes harvesting the Baru nuts and using the whole nut—the outer hull for grazing animals, the shells can be made into charcoal, and the nut itself is packaged and sold as a high caliber, high protein and delicious food. It is a traditional component of the regional rural diet.
The women’s collective also sells a wide range of jams and pickled vegetables, as well as hibiscus flour. They are considering expanding their products to include shampoos and other items as well.
When we asked her how the women moved from being small farmers to leaders and collective owners of their company, Clai told us: “In part, we have gotten to this point because of the technical and financial support of people and organizations like Grassroots International and those who support us.”
Photo above: Lilian cuts open a Baru nut