World Rainforest Movement

Brazil: Impacts of eucalyptus plantations on women

The social and environmental impacts of monoculture eucalyptus plantations have been well documented in many countries. However, the gender dimension has usually been overlooked, thus hiding the differentiated impacts they have on women. The following quotes from a research carried out in Brazil on Aracruz Cellulose’ plantations and pulp mill operation are therefore very useful to shed some light on the issue and to encourage other people to look further into these less well-known impacts.

“Indigenous women, Afrodescendents (Quilombolas) and peasants, who used to live with their families and communities in the places taken over by eucalyptus plantations, had their socioeconomic role well defined. As reported by Mr. Antônio dos Santos, from the Indian settlement of Pau Brasil, Indian women had specific tasks. They produced certain types of handicrafts such as sieves, for example, while the men made bowls and oars. Together with the men, they worked on the land planting and hoeing, and also fished. The Quilombola women, for example, produced bijú –a typical food of this population– to feed their families and to be sold and to produce income.

With the arrival of the eucalyptus plantations, the women, like the other inhabitants of the region, experienced the changes in the organization of their territory and of their place in the community; in what they produced and how it was produced. Their socioeconomic role in the family and community underwent alterations and several of these women, after having lost their land, were forced to seek another place to live and work. They migrated with their children and relatives to urban regions, close to the place where they used to live, which is the case of many families that moved to the cities of São Mateus and Aracruz. Others sought the metropolitan region of the state, increasing the size of shanty towns, and to continue caring for their houses and families, exchanged rural activities for those of maids, cleaning women or washerwomen of urban middle and upper class families.

The women that still resist in the midst of eucalyptus also continue taking care of their homes and families, but at the same time, face more difficulties than before. For example, the rivers and streams that were used for washing clothing, and from where they used to take drinking water and fish in, are mostly contaminated. Accordingly, the members of the family, including the women, are forced to go to other places to obtain drinking water. Doralim Serafim dos Santos, a Quilombola, says that ‘nobody here washes clothes in this stream, since the clothes become yellow and filthy. When I was growing up we used to clean fish in the stream and the water was crystal clear’.

Another problem is the lack of native forest, a source of the raw material necessary to create handicrafts. In addition, the contamination of the soil caused by the use of pesticides on plantations jeopardizes the planting of medicinal herbs by women. Medicinal herbs are used frequently by traditional populations to prevent and combat illnesses. The shortage of good and sufficient land also complicates the coordination of domestic tasks and agricultural production. Nowadays women have to cover long distances to work on third party plantations, in the coffee and sugar cane fields, for example. These women are more subject to occupational accidents. It is also worth adding that today, in the state of Espírito Santo, 26% of the families, i.e., 800,000 homes, have women as heads of the family. This means that Espírito Santo is one of the Brazilian states with the greatest number of homes headed by women in proportionate terms. This item of data indicates that paid work for women has ceased to be merely a form of boosting the family income and has become vital for the subsistence of women and of their families.

There is also the experience of indigenous women that, with the loss of their conditions of subsistence, sought alternative ways of contributing to the family financially. Some have become the maids of the bosses of the company Aracruz. However, in 1998, after the process of self-demarcation of indigenous lands, they were discharged in retaliation. They had to go after other types of work outside the Indian settlements. However, some of them were luckier and managed to get jobs as teachers and health agents in the actual settlements where they live. All this effort on the part of women to contribute towards the family income has produced changes in their traditional role, which has been affecting the entire community to a certain extent. On the other hand, in spite of the ruin produced by Aracruz’s large agro-industrial project, the company seeks to be close to this population at all times, organizing aid actions. One of the last alternatives that we have news of is the organization of professionalizing courses for these women, with the objective of making them into manicures, pedicures and waitresses, professions foreign to this population.

Another situation that merits emphasis is that of the reduced quantity of women from neighboring communities that work at the company Aracruz. It is not surprising that in the year 1998, only 6.8% of the company’s employees were women, according to data from the time.

Nevertheless, most of the women that worked at Aracruz performed cleaning services, worked in the administrative sector of the plant, or in the nursery and in planting of seedlings, perhaps because women are supposed to be more qualified for this type of activity that requires careful manual work. However, nowadays this activity is already almost totally mechanized. The majority of these services are now outsourced.

In work on the land, women also suffered occupational accidents like men. One example of an accident occurred on July 14, 1986, when a former worker from Aracruz Celulose was descending a ‘grota’ with a box of 30 eucalyptus seedlings, weighing 45 kilos. She fell and broke her spine. After having been transferred to an office cleaning job, she was fired as she was unable to stand up any more. Now aged 51, she cannot even carry a chair and needs to control the pain in her spine with medication. She has never managed to get another job.

Often, however, women, in an invisible role, had to care for their husbands, sick and the victims of accidents caused by the work carried out on the plantations. Doralina says that ‘there were days when he came home with his eyes hurting and was almost unable to get to sleep at night, then his eyes got really bad, he couldn’t see properly, and did a few tests’. There are cases of widows of ex-workers from the company Aracruz and outsourced companies that need to maintain the house alone, without any support”.

Excerpted from the research “Eucalyptus Plantations and Pulp Production. Promises of Jobs and Destruction of Work. The case of Aracruz Celulose in Brazil”, by Alacir De Nadai, Winfridus Overbeek, and Luiz Alberto Soares, commissioned by WRM and The Network Alert against the Green Desert, May 2005,