Cerrado: the challenge of defending those who protect

The Cerrado, which is present in 11 states and the Federal District, is the second largest biome in South America, covers approximately 22% of Brazilian territory and harbours important aquifers that feed the three largest hydrographic basins in South America (Amazon/Tocantins, São Francisco and Prata). However, the advance of deforestation in the biome and the repercussions of climate change jeopardize not only the country’s water wealth and the biodiversity within the biome, but also the traditional peoples and communities that inhabit it and fight for its protection.

With the advance of agricultural enterprises in the Cerrado, degradation has been increasingly evident: large areas deforested, the siltation of rivers and springs, prolonged droughts, fires that decimate entire areas of vegetation and animal reproduction cycles. All this seriously threatens the ways of life of the traditional peoples and communities that inhabit it.  Reduced rainfall compromises these communities’ production cycles, directly impacting on food security and on quality of life within the territories.


Women combatting the degradation of the Cerrado and rights violations 

Women in the territories play a fundamental role in the resistance. It is women who care for the management and wellbeing of their peoples.  They are directly responsible for the education of the youngest and the care of the oldest, so they can easily see violations of access to basic rights: health, education, food security, access to water, territorial security, and others.  Given this, they organize and lead denunciations in defence of the territory and the biome.

“In the pandemic, we noticed that indigenous women were getting organized within their own communities to make soap, masks, to ask for seeds and tools, concerned about the food issue.  Because they’re the guardians of their culture and their biome, they know what’s really happening,” said Eliane Rodrigues, an indigenous woman from the Kurâ Bakairi ethnicity and a member of the Federation of Indigenous Peoples and Organizations of Mata Grosso (Federação dos Povos e Organizações Indígenas de Mato Grosso: FEPOIMT).

“It is usually women who take the lead in denouncing these violations. They are the observers of the relationship between food, land and water.  This line of confrontation, thinking of alternatives for sustainable and ecologically just models, based on the gender perspective, all this passes through the hands of women,” noted Fran Paula de Castro member of the Women’s Working Group of the National Agroecology Coalition (Articulação Nacional de Agroecologia: ANA) (in Portuguese) and educator at the NGO FASE/MT (in Portuguese).

Women’s leadership for the sovereignty and independence of the territory is fundamental to the struggle for the preservation of the Cerrado biome, since the advance of agricultural enterprises jeopardizes the ways of life of quilombolas, the indigenous, geraizeiro farmers, tide water settlers, pasture farmers, sempre-viva flower pickers, extractivists, coconut breakers, riverside dwellers and others.  However, these women’s struggle remains unseen, despite its importance for the resistance.

“Women are always on the frontline in the defence of the territory, but this struggle is not always visible or recognized. The issue of gender is a theme based on accumulated discussion, while that of race is still a rather timid one, which needs to progress,” warned Maria Rosalina dos Santos, Executive Coordinator of the National Commission for the Coordination of Black Rural Quilombola Communities (Comissão Nacional de Articulação das Comunidades Negras Rurais Quilombolas: CONAQ/Piauí)

It is the race criteria that determines who can have full access to the land. When it comes to traditional peoples and communities, State provisions are even more limited.  There is a lack of access to highway infrastructure, education, health, security in the territory and so forth.  Without State recognition that they belong to the territories, these peoples are exposed to land conflicts that originate from the land grabbing of public lands for various purposes, such as the exploitation of the natural wealth found in parts of traditional territories.

The slow pace of territorial regulation and demarcation by the State is indicative of the structural racism that governs public institutions in Brazil.  There are currently more than 1,800 open applications for the demarcation of quilombola territories filed with the National Institute of Colonization and Agrarian Reform (Instituto Nacional de Colonização e Reforma Agrária: INCRA).  The dates on which many of these were opened go back to 2003.  When we look at other population groups that guard the native areas of Brazilian biomes, regulation initiatives do not even exist.

The defence of the Cerrado depends on the land regulation of the biome.  “Thinking about saving the biome means thinking about supporting its guardians, the people who are there, so they can continue doing what they’ve always done: caring for their home,” declared Eliane Rodrigues.

The advance of monoculture and violations of the peoples of the Cerrado’s right to life

The relationship traditional peoples and communities have with nature is harmonious and lasting, since the needs of these peoples are supplied by the cycles of nature within the biome.  But this balance has undergone drastic changes because of the intensification of the economy sustained by the countryside.  Large-scale production using genetically modified seeds and a lot of pesticides contaminates native vegetation and the people who are directly in touch with it.  This is violence but it is not usually considered.

There is a great deal of contamination of people as a result of spraying pesticides on large-scale crops, given that most of the communities are surrounded by monoculture.  Pesticides also enter the communities via the rivers that pass through them and are their sources of water supply and life.  There have been several cases involving pesticide crop spraying that have affected these communities.

Resistance and food sovereignty for the traditional peoples and communities of the Cerrado

Women from the Cerrado have become organized in various ways in order to resist and confront rights violations and guarantee the territory’s food sovereignty.  “The women of the Cerrado have always had their resistance strategies.  We cultivate and organize to confront violence through dialogue, roundtable conversations, through small projects that make us sustainable,” Eliane Rodrigues noted.

The fact that traditional communities are surrounded by monoculture leads to the loss of native seeds.  The genetically modified contamination of native seeds recurs throughout this violation process, given that many communities are the guardians of centuries-old seeds.  This is not just a genetic loss, but a cultural one too, since these seeds have an immeasurable value for traditional families.

Increasingly, because of climate change and devastation, water sources are drying up. This lack of water is directly linked to food insecurity in the communities. Without water there is no agriculture, there is no planting, there is no harvest, and there is no food.

There is a need to integrate public food policies and land regulation in defence of the Cerrado. “There is no food security in the context of social and environmental impacts and the violations of traditional peoples’ and communities’ rights.  It takes much more than local collaboration and resistance in the territories to guarantee the food security and sovereignty of the traditional communities of the Cerrado,” Fran Castro stressed.


CESE and the Cerrado

On 11 September, National Cerrado Day, CESE reasserts its commitment to the traditional peoples and communities of the Cerrado, particularly women, its greatest guardians.

“The expansion of mining, agri-business and water business is directly associated with the devastation and loss of biodiversity in the Cerrado, the expulsion of its peoples from their territories and threats to the ways of life of those who, throughout history, have kept the Cerrado going and generated knowledge, beauty and life! Women of the Cerrado have shown us that confronting inequalities of gender and race and of the capitalist system is something constructed daily, with their feet rooted in the territory and with the power of ancestry”, asserted Olga Matos, CESE Projects and Training Advisor.

CESE considers the Cerrado, or rather, the Cerrados in all their diversity, as a strategic region for action and for many years has worked supporting projects in this territory.  It is also a member of the National Campaign in Defence of the Cerrado (Campanha Nacional em Defesa do Cerrado) (in Portuguese) and has more recently run training, communication and political advocacy activities, including holding Ecumenical Missions (Missões Ecumênicas), (in Portuguese), seeking to strengthen grassroots struggles for rights, particularly the rights to land, water and territory, for the guarantee of their ways of life and for Good Living.


Ecumenical Mission for the Waters of the Cerrados of Bahia/2019

In 2021, a series of meetings was held with populations from the Cerrado, particularly ith the women who live there.  These included Seminars, Workshops, Roundtable Conversations, debates and dialogue with a number of knowledge and experience exchanges, but also of pains and struggles, and identification.  Following the workshops, as a strategy to reinforce and strengthen resistance and to combat gender and race inequalities in the Cerrado, the organizations were invited to present a proposal to CESE’s Small Projects Programme, reflecting each organization’s priority fields and the learning acquired during the sessions.  The support of partners such as Heks-Eper, the Ibiraitanga Institute and Misereor have been essential for maintaining the traditions and experiences of the populations in the Cerrado.

Find out more about the guardians of the Cerrado:

The handbook “Mulheres do Cerrado: construindo resistências” (Women of the Cerrado: constructing resistance) is one of a series of materials launched as an initiative from the Women of the Cerrado Coalition (Articulação de Mulheres do Cerrado) with support from CESE.  The material contains traditional knowledge, training and mystical content based on the voices of women from the Cerrado, which are multiple and plural. 

The publication ”As Mulheres do Cerrado’‘ (The Women of the Cerrado) is the result of a dialogue and training process involving women from 25 organizations who work in the Brazilian Cerrado, in a partnership between CESE and HEKS-EPER

Text by Maryellen Crisóstomo with contributions from the CESE Team