Women’s work in the Amazon: sustainable use of resources and women’s livelihoods

Rosana Pantoja collecting the healthy açaí berries

According to a recent study, female workers active in the sustainable use of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) need more credit, better transport facilities and technical assistance for production. The internet may change their productive landscape as an important communication tool

Rosana is a riverside inhabitant. She lives with her family of eight siblings in the floodplains of the Pará River, a 30-minute boat ride from Curralinho, in the island of Marajó. She is thirty years-old and has not yet had any children. She dwells in many trades – all learned from practice. As she often says, “riverside inhabitants have to do a bit of everything.”

During the rainy season, from December to May, her main activity is canoeing up the river and collecting the healthy açaí berries. Part of this goes to feed her and her family of eight children; part of it she sells in the city – at prices ranging between R$ 10.00 and R$ 20.00.

When the rain ends, Rosana sometimes works in artisanal fishing. She throws the net and sets up the matapi1. According to her, the shrimp “harvest season” occurs in June, when production is high. “The problem is that too much supply drives the prices down,” she complains. In order to add value, she peels the shells and salts the crustaceans.

In addition to the shrimp and açaí, Rosana also braids baskets and bio-jewels made of non-timber products. And that is not all: whenever there are public events happening in Curralinho, Rosana always finds work as a cook.

Satisfied with her way of life, she has no plans to find another job. Nor does she want to move to the state capital. She is always looking for technical courses, for example she currently attends training in açaí processing – offered by Instituto Peabiru2, in Belém, Pará.

Rosana’s case is part of a study, that will be published by the end of 2012, executed by the Women’s Secretariat of the National Council of Extractive Populations (Conselho Nacional de Populações Extrativistas or CNS), with support from GIZ, the German development cooperation agency. The CNS has consulted 46 women’s associations in nine states within the Legal Amazon region.

According to Cristina da Silva, the coordinator of this study, women’s associations in the Amazon region are still taking the first steps to organize themselves as producers. However, they lack information and training, and lines of credit do not reach them. “Not to mention cultural issues, which prevent greater self-determination,” says Cristina.

According to preliminary survey results, only 26% of interviewed extractive groups had a member who had benefited from such credit opportunities. The National Program for Strengthening Family Agriculture (Pronaf, Programa Nacional de Fortalecimento da Agricultura Familiar) has reached as little as 5% of them. For the Pronaf Women’s group (Pronaf Mulher) results were 0%. See chart 1 below.

Francisca Augusta Rodrigues, a resident of the Rio Ouro Preto extractive reserve in Guajará-Mirim, Rondônia, has never benefited from any type of financing. She was born near the river and has raised seven children, who now live in the city. She remains active and collects babassu coconuts around her home.

Francisca extracts oil from the babassu coconuts, and sells it the local market in Guajará-Mirim, for R$ 25.00 per litre.She participates in the Association of Women Extractive Workers of Ouro Preto, but the only benefit she gets is help in transporting her products to the city.

There are several challenges that the women workers face:

Transport – according to the survey, transport is not these workers’ strongest suit: the means of transport most used by is the canoe (41%), followed by boat and bicycle (35% and 33%, respectively). Public buses seem a distant reality for them: only 13% of the women extraction workers had access to them. See chart 2 below.

The associations strive to provide transport to their participants, but most can only provide canoes and bicycles (15%). Only 2% of the groups have cars.

Communication – Rosana has a mobile phone. Her house has a diesel generator, and is located only a few minutes’ walk away from a dirt road serviced by a bus line.

But here, once again, she is the exception. Of the surveyed groups, only 30% use means of communication such as telephone, radio or letters. But the good news is that 19% of them have e-mail, which may point to a revolution caused by the Internet in the Amazon environment.

According to the study coordinator, Christina da Silva, a preliminary analysis of this data shows that the reality of women extraction workers is not free from the contemporary world. But their lifestyle is still traditional and family-oriented.

“Women extraction workers are strongly influenced by indigenous ways of life,” says Cristina. According to her, up until a few years ago, these women did not need to plan ahead, given the slow pace of life in rural areas. “Living in the present was enough,” says Cristina.

“Notions such as management of organizations, lines of credit, long-term perspectives, etc., are very far removed from their day-to-day lives,” she concludes.

Joci Aguiar, director of the GTA3, agrees that cultural issues also hinder movements spearheaded by women in the region. “Their wages are lower than men’s, even when they work more than men do” she says. According to Joci, the prejudice begins at home. “The decisions are still made by the husband,” she says.

However, Joci believes that women’s movements are gaining ground, both socially and politically. And the 46 active groups surveyed are proof of just that.

On the other hand, Cristina da Silva said the government and potentially supportive institutions have far too little information about the local realities of women’s lives to be able to serve them efficiently.

“INCRA4, for example, offers housing to these women, but does not look into what the family’s needs are,” says Cristina. “So it purchases aluminium tiles which, albeit being more affordable, are inadequate, because of the heat in the Amazon,” she says.

Meanwhile, communities experience changes in the Amazon. Francisca says that the Ouro Preto River extraction reserve is currently experiencing a labour shortage in babassu coconut collection. “They all went to work at the plant,” she says. She refers to the Santo Antônio and Jirau hydroelectric power plant work sites, in the Madeira river.

Joci Aguiar analyses the situation. She insists that governors should increase funds for non-timber activities, and should support policies for basic education and vocational education. Governors must alsokeep in mind the importance of the traditional way of life. Joci says that “now-a-days we know that it´s the best manner to preserve the forest”.

Complete sudy here (in Portuguese): Women’s work in the Amazon

notes:

  1. Luiz da Motta is a journalist specializing in the Amazon rainforest.
  2. Joci Aguiar: General Coordinatorof the Acre Network of Women and Men – RAMH (Rede Acriana de Mulheres e Homens) and Executive Diector of the GTA Network.
  3. Matapi: artefact widely used in the Amazon for traditional shrimp fishing
  4. Instituto Peabiru: a civil society organization, based in Belém, Pará, whose mission it is to educate and promote the value of Amazo biodiversity.
  5. GTA: Amazon Working Group, an organization that brings together about 600 social movement entities from the Amazon.
  6. INCRA: National Institute for Colonization and Agrarian Reform; attached to the Ministry of Agrarian Development.
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