The Babassu Coconut Breakers, whose numbers reach over 350,000, make a living collecting the babassu fruit, similar to a coconut. The crop is used in dozens of ways including for food, oils, crafts and beauty.
But the livelihood of these women, whose work protects forests across four states and 25 million hectares, is perpetually under threat from large-scale cattle farmers and ranchers who impede access to trees or charge them for collecting coconuts.
Their income and traditional way of life are also being endangered by deforestation and forest fires triggered by the development of industrial agriculture for the production of soy, corn, sugar cane and cattle.
The coconut breakers’ land has been occupied for years by cattle ranchers and farmers – who have destroyed great swathes of the forests. Many of these farms belong to global supply chains that produce beef, soy and eucalyptus to be exported to Europe and other regions.
The activists, known as “quebradeiras de coco”, have to deal with routine threats and violence from landowners and armed farm workers – as well as having to battle against sexual harassment, electric fences, fires and the trees being poisoned to carry out their work.
The unflagged electric fences often lead to women sustaining severe injuries.
Maria Alaides Alves de Sousa, who is the general coordinator of the Interstate Movement of Babassu Coconut Breakers, tells The Independent farmers sometimes steal the axes that the women use to break coconuts. The farmers also cut their baskets so coconuts fall loose and physically seize the baskets from the women.
She adds: “They also sometimes scare women with horsewhips. I have heard farmers call coconut breakers ‘vagabunda’ which means whore or ask, ‘Don’t you have anything better to be doing?’ or ask their husband, ‘Don’t you take care of your wife?’ or say, ‘If you don’t take care of your wife, I will’.
“In the vast majority of the cases, farmers are men. The farmers themselves are not the ones committing the violence directly. They hire ‘jaguncos’ or ‘pistoleiros’ who are gunmen. The formula of this violence is the same everywhere: they first send a message telling the leader to leave the community, then they try intimidation tactics – such as pretending to run them over, or invading their houses, or throwing the babassu coconut basket after they have collected the coconuts.”
Ms Alves de Sousa explains there were several cases of physical violence at the end of the 1980s and the beginning of the 1990s, when land conflicts were “very intense”.
“People were evicted from their homes, and their houses and whole communities were burned down,” she adds. “While trying to escape, pregnant women gave birth in the woods. There was one emblematic case in [the state of] Tocantins where one woman coconut breaker was tied to a horse and dragged through the fields. She survived because she could hold the rope and managed to hold her neck, but had severe injuries.”
She says that conflicts have increased between coconut breakers and farmers since the 1990s because indigenous and traditional communities have increasingly had their rights recognised.
The number of disputes has also risen because conservation NGOs have had their funds reduced, she adds.
She says: “After the most violent period, after the consolidation of land and tenure legalisation, conflicts and aggression became more ‘sophisticated’ and are now centred on intimidation, threats, property damage – setting fire to crops or houses, killing of animals – and invasions.”
Ms Alves de Sousa notes the coconut breakers also face sexism within their own communities – explaining many do not take part in the movement because husbands commonly say women join in to cheat on their spouses.
Maria do Rosario Soares Costa Ferreira, the president of the Babassu Coconut Breakers Interstate Cooperative, is being protected by a national programme for people facing death threats.
The activists strive to protect the Cerrado savannah and the Amazon with their work – and are referred to as the guardians of the babassu forests. They are aiming to broaden the Free Babassu Law, which protects palm trees in private properties and bestows them with access.
But Raimunda Nonata, a coconut breaker from Tocantins, says: “We know the farmers have relations with politicians or even are politicians.”
Maria Alaides, a 62-year-old who has been a coconut breaker since she was 11, describes the farmers as “sexist, authoritarian and violent”.
The campaigner hit out at Brazil’s new far-right president Jair Bolsonaro – saying his election made her worried for the future of the planet. She said the current government was making false statements about NGOs and social movements and “gets in the way” of their livelihoods.
“But even though we have this worry, we will continue our fight for the forest to keep standing,” she adds. “We will keep striving for the good of the environment and our community and that of the rest of the world. This is a women’s led movement because we want to prove women can organise production and market products and stand side by side with men and guarantee their financial autonomy.”
Ms Alves de Sousa says these workers represent a “huge number” of women who are facing “daily threats to their lives and livelihoods”.
She adds: “We want the outside world to understand the impact of trade deals on our communities and support us to protect our forests from deforestation and harmful farming practices that contaminate water supply and poison palm trees.”
Emmanuel Ponte, campaigns adviser for ActionAid Brazil, who supports the coconut breakers, said: “With 80 per cent of global deforestation down to the expansion of agriculture, countries that consume the meat, soy and sugar cane grown in Brazil have a responsibility to create deforestation-free supply chains that protect the rights and livelihoods of indigenous peoples and traditional communities.
“Deforestation and the destruction of the Amazon and Cerrado biomes are sadly nothing new, but we are reaching a point of no return. We are at risk of losing the world’s most important carbon sink and centre of biodiversity. Babassu coconut breakers and other traditional peoples are on the frontline of the fight to save these vital natural resources. In the face of growing threats from the expansion of agribusiness and the reduction of environmental protections, they need support more than ever.”
The Brazilian Ministry of Environment was contacted for comment.