World Rainforest Movement

Brazil: Women and Eucaliptus; stories of life and resistance

The invasion of local peoples’ territories by Aracruz Celulose S.A.’s agro-industrial project, established in the sixties and seventies in Espirito Santo, caused enormous material and symbolic losses to the indigenous and quilombola peoples. Some are irrecoverable.

 “They are my cousins. When Aracruz came here and evicted them… it arrived by invading. When it arrived, they were afraid and abandoned their lands and left. It arrived with a lot of tractors and rode over their little houses. The houses were made of mud and straw, where they lived. So, they are my cousins who would like to come back to the village again.” (Maria Loureiro, from the Tupinikim village of Irajá).

The arrival of this agro-industrial project was demolishing for the local peoples: out of 40 indigenous villages, today only seven are left. According to information from the Quilombolas (*), of the 100 communities existing in the northern region of Espirito Santo – comprising some 10,000 families – only 1,200 families are left, distributed in approximately 37 communities, surrounded by eucalyptus trees and sugar cane for the production of alcohol.

Many of these peoples became scattered. A group took refuge in the margins of their old territory, others sought out a place to live in the cities of the metropolitan region of Vitoria (the State capital).  The new territorial conformation drastically interfered with the division of work by sexes, and as a consequence, in the social and family roles of men and women. Indigenous people and Quilombolas had to suffer the dispersion of their relatives. The families that managed to remain in their territory crowded together in small plots of land.

Paradoxically, with the sadness of the violence and genocide that these peoples have had to support, there is also a beautiful story of resistance over the past six centuries. The most evident proof of this resistance is the presence of Indigenous people and Quilombolas in all the regions of Brazil.

With modern and developmental components, the relationship between the traditional peoples of Espirito Santo and Aracruz Celulose S.A. replays colonial history and imposes irreparable material and symbolic losses on the Indigenous and Quilombola communities.

In this new context, men and women experience both common and different impacts. With the loss of territory, women have lost their space to plant, rear domestic animals and produce medicinal plants.

 And for us, women, it was also a very strong impact. We have this feeling, this feeling of loss of our wealth. (Maria Loureiro, Commission of Indigenous Tupinikim and Guarani Women).

The replacement of forest by eucalyptus plantation caused the loss of foodstuffs that previously had come from fruit-gathering, fishing and hunting. The end of the tropical forest also caused the extinction of rivers and streams, which had been places where women used to gather and provided a privileged opportunity to exchange feminine knowledge.

It was very hard for us because we lived off it…we used the river to fish.  Now, this difficulty… the river dried up because of the eucalyptus, right? And we can only blame the eucalyptus. It was very hard for us. But we women always suffer with this, with the lack of water. Before, there was channelled water, but it did not reach our houses properly and we suffered a lot. (Marideia, Pau-Brasil Tupinikim village).

Indigenous and Quilombola people had to live with environmental pollution due to the agrochemical products used by the monoculture industry.

Then they started to spray the pesticides, as this young woman said, they started to finish everything off. The pesticides killed the animals we used to hunt, the birds; the water also became polluted, killing fish, crabs such as those in Pau-Brasil.  There is a little river there that went up to Barra do Sahy. So, that river disappeared. The fish also disappeared because of the poison they put down; they killed our fish, our crabs. Nothing is left in the mangrove. You can go and look and you will see nothing, crabs, blue land crab, all this was our food, what fed us. We lacked nothing, we fed our children (Rosa, Pau-Brasil Tupinikim village).

The disappearance of the forest also caused the end of the raw material used in making utensils and crafts which, in the case of the Indigenous people, is an activity mainly carried out by women.

The loss of biodiversity meant the loss of a considerable number of medicines derived from forest plants, roots and animals. In the case of Guarani indigenous women, who had previously used herbs to stimulate or to reduce fertility, this meant the loss of their right to family planning and becoming hostages of contraceptive devices and having their tubes tied. Indigenous and Quilombola women no longer find the lianas, the trees and the fat from animals they used in practicing their medicine.

Without the ecosystems that ensured reproduction of the way of life of these traditional peoples, the masculine role, within the family and the community/village, was undermined. Great hunters, farmers and fishermen, the indigenous men found themselves forced to sell their work-force to Aracruz Celulose’s outsourced companies and in the case of Quilombola men, they were also forced to work for companies producing alcohol, such as the Disa- Destilaria Itaúnas S.A. However, most of them became unemployed as the companies’ have a policy of not hiring indigenous and quilombola labour, as a means of forcing those who stayed in the region to leave. The weakening of the male role has exposed women to live with their partners’ alcoholism and with domestic violence.

 […] So, it ruined part of our lives, our freedom and our culture, our daily harmony, our health. This arrival of the large companies here ruined everything, it took away a piece of ourselves, it is like a piece, as if we had one part alive and another dead, as if we were living-dead, do you understand? Due to the large companies that came here. We were happy, not now, we are unhappy with this life, we need to fight for what is ours, for our territory, for what they have snatched away from us, and with that everything left, everything that was ours, so all that is left is for us to protest, that’s right, on behalf of us all, of all the community. (Eni, from the Quilombera Community of São Domingos).

Some indigenous women, bearers of a rich knowledge of the fauna and flora, became maids, daily workers, nannies and cooks for the officials of Aracruz Celulose. The obligation to carry out new tasks has affected the exercise of motherhood, obliging mothers to stop breast-feeding earlier and to leave their babies in order to look after the children of city women.

Faced by these transformations in their lives, these peoples have established alliances with movements and NGOs supportive of their struggle. Today, they are joined in a network, seeking to increase their capacity to resist.

Thus we have been struggling, uniting with the other 36 communities to fight for the issue of our lands; lands that were taken from our people, from our predecessors, today in the hands of Aracruz Celulose. So the struggle that unites us today is against the expansion of eucalyptus plantations within our communities.  (Katia from the Divino Espírito Santo Community).

The women, who are also protagonists in these struggles, have started a process of organization in specific spaces, with the objective of discussing the impacts of eucalyptus monoculture on them and the ways of contributing to recompose the way of life of their people. They intend to take up their place in this process of struggle in an increasing way. When “[…]   the environment starts to affect their children, many women will take action.

The process of women organizing in specific spaces is recent. For example, in the case of indigenous women, there are organized groups in each village devoted to the production of crafts and recovering knowledge and use of medicinal herbs.  Some are in a more advanced process of organization, others are just starting. In order to strengthen their process of organization, a little over a year ago they set up the Commission for Indigenous Tupinikim and Guarani Women, which seeks to link indigenous women from all the villages and to develop activities and struggles in their interest.

It is noticeable that the organizational movement involving women has encouraged public recognition of the various tasks they carry out: on the battle-front, in the self-demarcation of the territory, in confrontation with the police on occupying the Aracruz factory (in 2005), in the kitchen, on preparing food for the large indigenous assemblies.  In this way, they are increasingly broadening their opportunity to socialize, and seek partial replacement of the spaces that were taken from them. Organization has also contributed to increase their self-esteem.

Indigenous and Quilombola women, who for so many decades shared the impacts of eucalyptus monoculture plantations, now want to share their experience of organization and to discover together the path of freedom.  They are women who are increasingly united, fighting against the oppression of agro-business and patriarchy.

Exerpted from “Women and Eucaliptus, stores of life and resistance”, WRM’s research commited to Gilsa Helena Barcellos, e-mail: gilsahb@terra.com.br, and Simone Batista Ferreira (members of the Alert against the Green Desert Network), e-mail: sibatista@hotmail.com

* Quilombolas: the descendents of runaway slaves