Gender and race inequalities, political participation and self-organization – the themes discussed by women from the Cerrado

“Women are like water and roots: when they come together, they are stronger”.  With this inspiring phrase Sônia Mota, Executive Director of the Ecumenical Coordination of Service (Coordenadoria Ecumênica de Serviço: CESE), opened the Workshop on Gender and Race in the Cerrado, run via online platform on 03, 04 and 05 August 2021, in partnership with the international cooperation agency HEKS-EPER.  Thirty-three quilombola and indigenous women and women from traditional communities exchanged information and experiences about confronting the challenges imposed by racism and sexism.

The workshop brought together female leaders from the Cerrado of Minas Gerais, Goiás, Mato Grosso do Sul and Mato Grosso.  In July, a workshop addressing the same content was held for female guardians of the Cerrado from the MATOPIBA region. The meeting also provided information about project management and the preparation and provision of accounts, meeting participant demands to equip themselves for grant funding and public proposals.

MATOPIBA is the name given to a region that brings together parts of the states of Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia. Located in the heart of the Brazilian Cerrado, covering 73 thousand hectares and containing 337 Brazilian municipalities, MATOPIBA is the final frontier against the advance of agribusiness across the country.  Little-known by most Brazilians, the name represents a development project constructed without listening to the traditional communities that inhabit these territories.  Populations that live in harmony with the biome and with natural riches, threatened by the giants of agribusiness and their monocultures.

CESE has invested in a series of activities with groups from the Cerrado, intensifying debate recognizing the extent to which the oppression experienced within the territory, through the power and force of capital, is intricately related to the intersections of gender and race.  Through the lens of discussions about racism and sexism, numerous experiences emerged of the fight against the different manifestations of this violence.

A region heavily impacted by large capital projects, such as the installation of hydroelectric dams, mining, agribusiness, the Cerrado is a biome that suffers from criminal fires, attacks on traditional communities and the loss of these populations’ way of life.  The participants concluded that the employment modality generated by large-scale works is mostly male and gives the false impression of development, irreversibly impacting on the flora and fauna, as well as the populations’ Good Living.

For Jaciléia Santos, from the Centre for Alternative Agriculture in the North of Minas (Centro de Agricultura Alternativa do Norte de Minas: CAA/NM), sexism has gained ground because of the national political situation and is impacting on the daily lives of women in the Cerrado: “when a mining company arrives in a city, it affects the cradle of the waters, it destroys the orchards, the places where women earn their livelihood.  Today there is a lack of land for planting and we often need to rent to be able to plant just a little.”  Célia Aparecida Silva, also a member of the CAA/NM, agreed and added: “for us, only environmental and social damage remains.”

For Laura Ferreira da Silva from the Association of the Rural Black Ribeirão da Mutuca Quilombo Community (Associação da Comunidade Negra Rural Quilombo Ribeirão da Mutuca: ACORQUIRIM), with the reduction of markets due to social isolation and the impact of mining activities, the situation has been further aggravated by a lack of recognition and the invisibility of the rights of quilombolas.  “Gender and race inequalities suffocate the communities. We are living in a racism pandemic”.

Matriarchs from the quilombos, leaders of community associations, fisherwomen, agricultural producers, female chiefs.  Women from traditional communities fight to study and to remain at the forefront of discussions and decisions about their territories.  A fight that takes place with their companions but also against the state and the economic powers.  There are many challenges that involve many layers of recognition and identity.

According to Amária Campos de Sousa, member of the State Coordination of Quilombola Communities of Tocantins (Coordenação Estadual das Comunidades Quilombolas do Tocantins: COEQTO), “structural racism places limitations on, or total lack of, access to health, education, public transport.  This doesn’t come from nowhere. It’s the project of the rich white man, from big business, who wants to restrain women from traditional communities, black and indigenous women, so that we don’t have access to our rights.  If we don’t have access, we can’t get stronger.”

In addition to the debate about Race and Gender, the workshop responded to a participant request from the seminar in June: to focus more on issues linked to the rights of LGBTQIA+ people. On this occasion, the activist Carmem Ribeiro presented a brief overview of the community’s challenges: facing obstacles that arise from school life, isolation from their families, remedial violence, restrictions to work opportunities and even the loss of life.  “Brazil is the most dangerous country for an LGBT person to live in.  Lesbians experience discrimination and correction within the domestic environment.  On the streets, especially at night, transwomen face risks to their lives and a lack of protection.  Recently we’ve had the case of a transwoman in Pernambuco, a street dweller, who was set on fire.  This isn’t an isolated case: transwomen’s lives are at risk.  Sexism is an oiled machine, not content with taking lives but also seeking to destroy identities.  Aggression often ruins victims’ faces” Carmem reported.

With its strategy of reinforcing and strengthening resistance and of confronting the racism and sexism in the Cerrado, following the workshop, participating organizations were invited to present a proposal to CESE’s Small Projects Programme, based on the learning and exchange of experiences in the drafting projects session, and on the organization’s priority thematic areas.