MST women produce healthy food and diversity in the areas of Agrarian Reform

Check out progress in women's leading roles at production of many different types of healthy food, herbal medicines and in the arts within MST
Land settlers from Rondônia State sell chocolate and cocoa products at the National Agrarian Reform Fair, in São Paulo. Photo: MST RO

By Solange Engelmann and Mariana Castro
From MST Website

Landless women are each day taking more space over and assuming leading roles in the struggle for land and Popular Agrarian Reform in Brazil. Taking on a variety of areas and collectives, such as production of healthy foods and herbal medicines, essential to ensure life, health and the survival of landless families in MST camps and settlements across the country.

“Experiences have changed several things in relation to peasant women’s life in settlements. Firstly, production of chocolates, nibs, bonbons and cocoa derivatives have represented us, where women play a leading role. Secondly, these women have felt appreciated with the result of their work. Thirdly, they also started to be bold and make important decisions, with their financial freedom. So, women have decision-making autonomy,” celebrates Zonalia dos Santos, a resident of the Madre Cristina settlement, in Ariquemes, Rondônia.

In the struggle against invisibility of peasant women’s work in areas of Agrarian Reform, Giselda Pereira, from MST’s Production sector national coordination, points out that Landless women have progressed into many different spaces in the area of producing healthy foods and in helping to ingrain agroecology in the movement, thus gaining greater visibility as result of the work and also these women taking part in the Movement’s settlements and encampments.

“I think the fair gives us visibility, it is also an expression of the origin of the products and who is directly involved in these processes. In the perspective, at the [Agrarian Reform] National Fair, there were more than 53% of women taking part. In the survey carried out at the last state fair in Pará, 60% were women”, she points out.

Giselda also says that it is possible to notice progress by women in conducting some organizational processes, such as the organization of cooperatives. The space of the MST women’s collectives have also contributed to expanding the work of peasant women in the production, commercialization and processing of Agrarian Reform food.

“The work of women in the production of healthy food in settlement areas all over the country has taken place in different ways. In daily life we see it in the output of food from productive backyards, the insertion of women’s production in collectives and cooperatives and of training processes and in debates on agroecology”, says Giselda.

But peasant women still live under gender inequality and  patriarchical dominance, exerted by various types of violence, discrimination and inequalities.

Generally, 8 out of 10 land plots are run by men and women’s participation in plot management and land ownership in rural territories is still little, including in areas of family and peasant production.

According to data from the 2017 Agricultural Census, men manage 81.3% (4.11 million units) of the total number of agricultural establishments among the 5.07 million surveyed units, while women manage only 18.7% (946 thousand units) of these areas, considering all forms of management.

Chocolate and herbal medicines production in the state of Rondônia (RO)

Chocolate produced by peasant women and young female settlers in Rondônia has grown following an agroecological production model, based on the implementation of agroforestry, with care for respecting and balancing nature and the living beings in the surroundings.

The settler Zonalia says that women and young people liking for chocolate production and cocoa derivatives processing came up after doing a few courses, production experiences for self-consumption and the recognition of consumers at the first MST National Fair, in São Paulo. Today peasant women produce chocolate bars, bonbons, powdered chocolate and cocoa-based sweets.

“We already had cocoa crops, most of which were done in recovered areas. And we just collected the seeds and sold the cocoa. Then we started taking some courses and producing the products for our own consumption and then we started selling them to friends and people started to like them. At the first National Agrarian Reform Fair we made a good amount and we saw that the chocolate, made by us in Rondônia, was enjoyed by all. We started to feel like making chocolates. People really like our chocolates and that has helped us a lot, because our chocolate came out of Rondônia and went all over Brazil, taking on a proportion that we didn’t even expect”, says Zonalia.

Settled families in Rondônia, most of them women, also work with the production of herbal medicines for treating their families and closer friends. Production is aimed at self-consumption and people’s survival within the agroecological proposal within the state’s settlements, she explains.

“When we first camped in Rondônia, in the 1990s, we were taught a proposal that was performed at the Base Ecclesiastical Communities (CEBs). When we go to our camps we bring about that knowledge with us, that is, doing work with herbal medicines. Today we have people in all the settlements who dedicate themselves with great care and love to herbal medicine and helping others. And most of the groups are made up of women”, states Zonalia.

This lady from Rondônia explains that with the production and sale from Agrarian Reform, peasant women in the state have sought to guarantee income, adding value to their work, as well as “guaranteeing healthy food at a more accessible price for all, and so guaranteeing our survival as peasants, and also our activism”.

Landless women from Rondônia reckon chocolate and herbal medicine experiences play a central role in several senses to progressing women’s leading role in the struggle of MST: “First, the crops are close to the backyard, and as the cocoa tree is a big, beautiful one, the backyards are well wooded; second, there are places where women get together to make chocolate or harvest cocoa. And third, the issue of financial freedom, which has been very fruitful for the comrades in Rondônia”, concludes Zonalia.

RO chocolate at the National Agrarian Reform Fair, in São Paulo. Picture by MST RO

In this sense, Giselda points out that productive backyards in the areas of Agrarian Reform are becoming an important space in the lives of Landless women, in the production of food for their own families, and production of herbal medicine around their homes. In many settlements, in addition to the land itself, the backyard is also used for the production of fruit, vegetables, small animals, medicinal plants, among others.

“As it is around the house, and women spend most of their time in that environment, generally speaking, they end up having a very strong role in this way, including, in many cases, the production of staple food for family’s self-consumption, which is not accounted for, thus weakening the work of those who formally do it. This production has its importance in terms of food security and in the diversification of food, which arrives at the table of those who live in the areas of settlement”, evaluates Giselda.

Women fill in Maranhão (MA) settlement with “Art and Life”

In the state of Maranhão women from the Cristina Alves settlement, located in the municipality of Itapecuru, are at the forefront of producing crafts, healthy food, raising small animals, invigorating culture, leisure and education.

Created in 2012, the Coletivo de Mulheres Arte e Vida (Women’s Art and Life Collective) emerged from the production of handicrafts with recyclable materials collected in the settlement itself, such as PET bottles, tires, pots, paper and others, transformed into decorative pieces, as recalled by member Maria de Jesus, known as Djé.

“The group came up from the production of crafts at Vila Cabanagem art classes. From the handicrafts group we also got involved with the vegetable garden where we produce vegetables such as cabbage, chives, lettuce. With the knowledge we gained collectively we nowadays also grow vegetables in our individual plots and guarantee an ever-increasing income”, explains Djé.

From the recognition gained after a year of creating the collective, women guaranteed friends support, from the settlement itself and the Cooperative, so to set up their own headquarters – which was previously an improvised wattle and daub building – and little by little they organized themselves for the guarantee of equipment such as freezers, pulping machines and other tools for expanding and strengthening production.

The Cristina Alves settlement is organized by family groups and it is divided into three agrovillages: Vila “17 de Abril”, Vila “Cabanagem” and Vila “07 de Março”. Currently, the collective “Arte e Vida” works with a group of around 20 women in Vila 17 de Abril, another with around 30 women in Cabanagem and a children’s group.

A leader at MST in the state and settled in Vila 17 de Abril, Alzerina Montelo explains the strengthening of the collective over the years, by introducing the production of vegetables from 2016, with babassu products in 2018, such as mesocarp and biscuit, sold via cooperative. And recently, the creation of small animals, such as pigs and poultry.

Collective garden, maintained by the women’s collective in MA. Picture by Coletivo Arte e Vida

“In 2021, from the Solidarity Credit of CCA (Central Cooperative for Agrarian Reform), women have also accessed financing for pig production, which are sold locally and with resources destined to the women’s collective. At an initial phase, they are also raising free-range poultry for sale”, explains Alzerina.

The Movement’s support and access to credit for small female farmers have provided a leap in quality in the collective’s production and improved income for peasant women in the region, who are now fighting for production certification so to expand sales.

“This year we were able to access support for the agroecological production, and thanks to it, we are expanding our gardens and regulating our production of fruit pulp, with the dream still being to get all our registrations and certifications by the end of this year”, says Alzenira.

In addition to being at the forefront of production, the Arte e Vida collective plays an important role in guaranteeing access to culture, leisure and education for settlers, with the organization of collective festivities and spaces for continuous study and training.

“We have meetings every month so to share the tasks for production, but also leisure and education and training of the settlement. We always organize ourselves to celebrate the birthdays of the month, square dances, carnival, tourist trips and we take on parties and collective studies. We are currently attending the Feminism and Cooperativism course, by the Movement, and we also have our meetings of the women of the settlement, every three months, with debates such as the confrontation of violence against women”, continues Alzerina.

Based on agroecological production, women ensure improvements in the family’s income and all the resources produced are shared among them, who guarantee that production is important not only for them, but for the entire settlement, as it gives life to the space and shows a possible dynamics of collective organization, in conversation with MST.

“It is not enough to organize people, and then not being able to have a proper dialogue with the organicity of the Movement and the families, influencing politics and decisions!”

Agroecological rice and the building up of female autonomy

Advancement in building up autonomy for MST women has also become a reality in the production, commercialization and certification of agroecological rice in Agrarian Reform settlements in the state of Rio Grande do Sul (RS). As production here is more mechanized, it is usually seen as “man’s work”. However, in the opposite way, in the Cooperative of Settled Workers (Cootap) in a city around Porto Alegre , peasant women have been organizing themselves by increasingly appropriating this type of production, working in the cultivation of crops, in administration, for the agroindustries, in commercialization and certification.

“At the Cootap cooperative, we currently have 33 people working permanently, including management and sector coordination, 18 men and 15 women. That is, 45% are women who are in management and in all over the sectors. In the Rice Management group we have more or less 350 families involved, where about 20% of these are women who get actively involved in the work”, says the settler and agroecological rice farmer, Dionéia Ribeiro, who lives in the Hugo Chaves settlement in Tapes, RS, where she is on the managing board of Cootap and coordinates the Bioinput sector in RS.

Picture by Alex Garcia

However, she argues that the expansion of female participation in this type of production was only possible because of agroecology, which has enabled greater insertion and empowerment of women in this culture of producing healthy foods.

“It was through agroecology that we women began to have a voice and a place and to insert ourselves ever more into the production sector. So, certification was also very important, because it is a participatory certification system, so it is also an instrument that gets the whole family involved. This ends up generating greater empowerment for us women”, celebrates Dionéia.

Nevertheless, peasant women still need to deal with inequalities in the social division of household work, culturally seen as the responsibility of women and girls. According to the Inter-Union Department of Statistics and Socioeconomic Studies (Dieese), peasant women dedicate 28 hours a week to domestic work, while in urban areas women dedicate around 22 hours to this type of work.

The double shift work – in  the field and at home –  for women also remains a challenge to be overcome in the Agrarian Reform and collective spaces of MST. Some initiatives such as children’s cirandas, collective kitchens and gender equity in leadership spaces and training already exist in the Movement, playing a very important role in women’s involvement, but these are initiatives that need to be expanded. “So, it is a challenge to be overcome, and also the way to organize cirandas, laundries and spaces beyond only the sharing of tasks, but also in the processes of formation and understanding of activities themselves, so to allow greater participation and action by women”, suggests Giselda.

In this context, there is also a need to further in female involvement at the work fronts and management of cooperatives, seeking gender equality and building more egalitarian work environments. “In cooperatives and associations, especially, it is still a challenge to increase the number of women in management activities, which will in turn lead to the production organization processes”, concludes Giselda.

*Edited by Fernanda Alcântara