Farmers, craftswomen and other women from the Cerrado share experiences and knowledge in CESE Seminar

In 2020, the whole of Brazil saw how the Pantanal was affected by fires, which destroyed a large part of the biome’s flora and fauna.  According to a technical report from the geo-processing sectors of Public Prosecutor’s Offices (Ministério Público: MP) in the states of Mato Grosso and Mato Grosso do Sul, between 1 January and 30 November last year, 4.5 million hectares were affected.  However, according to Cláudia Sala de Pinho, the fire did not only destroy the environment.

“Our ancestors are in the trees, the waters, the animals. What was destroyed also destroyed a small part of ourselves, from within.  Of our history, of the entire Pantanal.  All of this connection between lives that exist within the environment.  We lost trees that were dozens of years old, that were reference points. ‘Near such-and-such tree which has that medicinal plant’.  Losing these references, we have lost a little of ourselves,” she declared.

This report was one of the issues discussed during the seminar “Gender and Race in the Cerrado. Where are we in this?” held by the Ecumenical Coordination of Service (Coordenadoria Ecumênica de Serviço: CESE) in partnership with HEKS-EPER on 9 and 10 June.  Biologist, Master of Environmental Sciences and Regional Coordinator of the Network of Traditional Pantanal Communities (Rede de Comunidades Tradicionais Pantaneiras), Cláudia was one of the women who shared her experience and knowledge at the meetings.

Despite the scenes of destruction, she noted that today the network is coordinating action to restore the Pantanal in Mato Grosso. “In Cáceres, there is a group of fisherwomen who are working.  They collect fruit in areas where there is still vegetation containing seeds, take them to their homes, distribute them between themselves and with other fishermen and women, and plant the seedlings they have organized,” she explained, describing an activity that has led to many others.

Everything is aimed at the restoration of the Pantanal, its colours and lives, the emotional bonds that have been affected by the fire. “It’s a process for the reconstruction of ourselves too. To close the wounds opened by the fire’s destruction. Restoring the environment involves a much bigger issue: one of reconnecting with the territory on a spiritual and cosmological level; and it is women who are on the frontline,” she affirmed.

Over this period, agribusiness activity in the Pantanal is one example of its significant impact on all of Brazil’s biomes.  Above all, the seminar “Gender and Race in the Cerrado. Where are we in this?” is an arena to denounce the crimes committed by big business and landowners who join the state in attacking traditional peoples and communities. More than this: it is an arena to provide hope for these peoples’ struggle.


The seminar: Gender and Race in the Cerrado. Where are we in this?

The seminar aims to promote a political arena for reflection about the expressions of racism and sexism in the Cerrado territories and how these have worsened with the COVID-19 pandemic; about the struggles for the rights of women and traditional peoples in and for their territories; in addition to enabling an exchange of the experience and knowledge between the peoples of the Cerrado, providing evidence of their situation and strengthening their struggles.

Apart from Cláudia, at different times during the meetings four other women were invited to directly share their experiences.  Fran Paula from the Ancestry Working Group of the Brazilian Association of Agroecology (Associação Brasileira de Agroecologia: ABA) and the Women’s Working Group of the National Agroecology Coalition (Articulação Nacional de Agroecologia: ANA); Francisca Sena, Popular Educator, Social Worker and Master of Public Policies and Society, member of the Black Institute of Ceará (Instituto Negra do Ceará: INEGRA) and the Network of Black Women of Ceará (Rede de Mulheres Negras do Ceará); Marli Borges, member of the Warriors of the Resistance group of the Quilombola Movement of Maranhão (Movimento Quilombola do Maranhão: MOQUIBOM); and Raimunda Nonata da Silva Nepomuceno from the Quilombola Cocalinho’s Warriors of the Resistance group.

Part of the meeting’s graphic facilitation prepared by journalist Mônica Santana

Raimunda Nonata describes how the maintenance of traditions is a strategy to confront agribusiness.  Herbal medicines are an inseparable part of her people’s culture – the boldo, the mastruz, the buriti oil. The union of women was also a highlight of her report. “We face many things together.  This is why we identify ourselves as the Warriors of the Resistance.  To confront agribusiness within the territory.”

In her talk, Fran Paula remembers an activity she participated in, in which transgene detection tests were run on the native seeds of a specific community and described how the sadness of one woman was immediately noticeable when she saw how the tests indicated the presence of chemical substances in her seeds, already contaminated by the pesticides used in the large-scale monoculture that increasingly surrounds traditional peoples.

She noted that the entire traditional farming system is experiencing double violence. “There is a narrative that it is a backward system, that is has no use.  The fact that it is considered backward, not technological, is also a form of racism against these practices and communities. Agribusiness thinks that anything it is unable to appropriate is backward,” she declared.

Francisca Sena, who was also a moderator of the meetings, added to these words, noting that racism is not only seen in interpersonal relationships.  “It is structural.  It is in Brazilian legislation, in its composition and in the way governments operate.” She made a point of saying that she was not referring to only one government sphere but to all.  “They all work together to open the doors to agribusiness,” she reported.

For her, two current factors have tended to strengthen the inequalities resulting from racism: the coordinated and racist actions of agents of the State and the COVID-19 pandemic.  “There has been a drop in family income.  Not everyone was able to isolate, but with the suspension of classes and the loss of jobs, there are more people in the house, and this has represented an increase in violence against women in the home.  It’s no different in the Cerrado,” Sena said.

In addition to factors such as the poisoning of the land and the pandemic, Marli Borges outlined another element that has aggravated the situation of traditional peoples in recent times: drought.  She notes that there is no irrigation system in her community.   All these factors and the lack of rain have affected local production.  For this reason, she noted that women have sought other sources of income during the pandemic.

As one of her people’s resistance strategies, Marli talked about the establishment of a Cultural Centre which aims to give classes to reclaim and maintain traditions, running workshops in areas such as handicrafts. “We need to get stronger.  Since there have been no markets during the pandemic, our efforts are now focused on the centre.  It is a thread of hope that we have clung to for things to get better.”


The richness of the reports and the struggles

When the participants broke up into groups to discuss issues that permeated the debate about gender and race in the Cerrado, a number of stories emerged. One about an indigenous leader, a woman, chief of her village in the west of Bahia who took over the leadership of her people two years ago, confronting and overcoming the sexism of members of her own and other villages.  She also faced homophobia after opening up about her relationship with her current companion, who supports her in the community.  Today they have respect from everybody, including her two children; for Rosivania their opinions are the most important.

There was even a story in the groups about a small indigenous baby in Piauí. In a town located in the Piauí Cerrado, a young indigenous woman from the Akroá Gamela people encountered one of the faces of racism when she tried to register her daughter at the notary’s office: at first, she was prevented from including the name of her people as part of her child’s name.  As well as questioning the young woman’s indigenous origin, officials also asked her partner to submit an application authorizing the inclusion of her indigenous surname. The family was advised to use only the father’s name in the record and to initiate a lawsuit to include the name of the Akroá Gamela people in the child’s name later on.

This was the seminar.  From the debates we noted the need to have a more in-depth discussion about the LGBTQIA+ movements within the organizations, to talk about the importance of bringing young people into the struggles and to talk about women’s health, along with other themes.  There will always be space for a broad debate of these themes in CESE meetings.

Part of the meeting’s graphic facilitation prepared by journalist Mônica Santana

Olga Matos, CESE Projects and Training Advisor, noted that the seminar was made with many hands and many hearts.  “That’s how this beautiful thing we experienced over these two days emerged.” She added, “we know that women need to be empowered in this field of social relationships and gender, to be able to face up to conflicts and challenges and to construct something along the road to equity.”

Rosana Fernandes, CESE Projects and Training Advisor, noted that when we talk about gender we are talking about relationships, and there is room for everybody to get organized.  “But what matters a great deal to us at this moment are the situations of oppression where women are subordinate. A place most of the women here know very well: the place of black women.  This issue sustains everything we say about oppression – racial, cultural, and others.”

Sônia Mota, CESE’s Executive Director, noted that each of these seminars is extremely important, because they address important themes – such as combatting the patriarchy, sexism, racism, inequalities – but all run from different perspectives, from the sphere of indigenous women, quilombola women and traditional peoples, understanding that each of these groups is affected in a specific way.

Within the project there will also be a specific workshop for groups that belong to states in the MATOPIBA region (parts of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia) and another for those from other regions.  For the most part, these first meetings were attended by women from several Brazilian states including  Bahia, Piauí, Minas Gerais, Mato Grosso, Mato Grosso do Sul and Tocantins.