Complete Maria Gomes da Silva 135 years in January. “All the time breaking coconuts, all my life picking up the ax to help my mother.” Ludovico, in Lago do Junco, MA), the old woman deftly handles the club that beats the coconut against the blade fixed to the wooden block. From each fruit, he extracts an average of four almonds, with which a vegetable oil is produced in growing demand by the cosmetic and food industry.
“I raised four children, all under the straw-lined house”, is proud. The clay house shelters the granddaughter, as hers is now made of masonry, a sign of the improvement in the lives of the children 300 thousand babassu breakers from Brazil, 135 thousand of them in the state of Maranhão.
Today Maria manages to extract 3 kg of almonds from babassu coconuts, but there was a time when she took it out kg, from Monday to Friday – or Saturday. Maintaining a production of 5 kg per day, throughout life you will have obtained some 250 tons, or about 35 million almonds.
There was a time when the kg daily would earn him 1 kg of rice or coffee with middlemen and farmers who owned babassu plants. Today, you can choose between receiving R$ 3,80 per kilo and exchange the lot for goods between more than 2.500 items from the eight canteens in the region (in neighboring Tocantins, the price can drop to R$ 1,39 per kilo).
Cantina is the local name of the Coppalj (Lago do Junco Small Agroextractive Producers Cooperative) markets, one of the
organizations involved in the creation of the Free Babaçu Consortium and in its realization, in 000 and 10 of November, of the preparatory meeting Não Derribe Essa Palmeira, bringing together the breakers of the Middle Mearim, Maranhão region where Lago do Junco is located.
The consortium will be created at a general meeting in March and crowns the effort of the breakers to conquer the international market with a sustainable product of traditional origin. The breakers have technical assistance from the Central do Cerrado, a cooperative based in Brasília.
“There are breakers in Tocantins / breakers in Piauí / breakers in Pará / breakers in Maranhão”, chanted dozens of women gathered in the church of the village of São Manoel, to the rhythm of applause. They are part of the Interstate Movement of Quebradeiras de Coco Babaçu (MIQCB).
The babaçuais, or cocai forests, are characteristic of the ecological transition zone between the Amazon forest, cerrado and caatinga. They extend for 140 thousand km2 –a surface comparable to that of the state of São Paulo– and are under strong pressure from agriculture in the four states (there are surveys indicating that the area may have increased in recent decades, although with variable density of palm trees).
In any case, in the portion of Maranhão Legal Amazon, 5.838 km2 (5.4%) of rainforest have already been deforested, 250 km2 only in the last year. In the part that belongs to the cerrado (savannah), the devastation was greater, .593 km2 (10, 6%), with the advance of agribusiness over the sector known as Matopiba (acronym for Maranhão, Tocantins, Piauí and Bahia ).
Rebeca, 1, does not smile in the hammock where she observes grandmother Maria Célia Sousa Lima and grandfather Francisco da Conceição break coconuts. He climbs down from the hammock to see the incoming strangers up close and points out the chairs they should sit on, still not smiling or speaking.
With the help of her husband, the grandmother even extracts 17 kg of almonds per day, of which the “olive oil” is produced by a homemade method, which starts with roasting and grinding in a forage machine, after cooking. “It takes too much work”, he says, to obtain up to four liters a day of the oil that he sells for R$ 11 the liter for neighbors.
The traditional process is inefficient, as it removes about 15% fat from almonds, which actually contain 56% of Oil. In the factory installed by Coppalj in Lago do Junco, the industrial presses and kettles achieve a much higher yield, on the order of 50%.
During the visit from Sheet, there was 24 tons of almonds stored for processing at the factory. Three employees were filling . kg of crude oil for Natura, sixth shipment of one of the ten batches contracted by the company.
One day before, with the kettles at full steam, 4.255 kg of almonds had yielded 2.430 kg of oil and 1.496 kg of cake, the residue containing 30% in protein and 6% oil for cattle feed. In a shed next door, Coppalj began to refine the oil to sell with organic certification.
In the conventional babassu oil market, common oil earns R$ 7,39 per kilo. Refined, it reaches R$ 13. With certification, it can reach R$ 15. In Brasilia, R$ 21 – this is what is called adding value, which is key to improving the income of breakers.
The organic certification came in 1990, important recognition for a community-based and cultural product, in a region marked by agrarian conflict and social movement.
“We are not just selling oil”, says Gilsimar de Jesus Ermino, manager of the Coppalj factory. “Behind there is a work of resistance, a work of environmental preservation.”
In 2020 the factory processed 500 tons of almonds and produced 200 of Oil. This year, only refined oil came out .430 kg, due to problems in the operation of the equipment installed for three years to extract all impurities from the crude oil and reduce its acidity to 0.2%-0.3%.
The cooperative was created 24 years has 200 associated families. According to director João Valdeci Viana da Silva, the demand for Coppalj has increased, as there are more and more people interested in guaranteeing the minimum price of almonds and the cash leftovers that are distributed among cooperative members each year.
In the Ludovico community, there is another establishment aimed at adding value to babassu products, a soap and soap factory. Opened just four years after Coppalj, it was an initiative of the Association of Rural Women Workers.
Founded 30 years old , AMTR is the “mother of all”, says Alódia Maria Sousa da Silva, director of the factory, referring to the pioneer organization of the social movement in Médio Mearim that would give rise to the cooperative and Assema (Association in Settlement Areas in the State do Maranhão), in 1989. In 2000, all would participate in the creation of the Central do Cerrado.
The facility manufactures about 38 thousand soaps a year with the Babaçu Livre brand, which sells for R$ 2 a unit. It also produces soap bars, sold for R$ 7 per kilo on site, or R$ 8 in canteens, but in neighboring cities it can reach R$ .
“Soap like this doesn’t exist”, says the director. “What is made with animal fat doesn’t compare.”
A team of 17 breakers work free hours at the factory, as needed, for a daily fee of R$ 50. Most take between R$ 500 and R $ 593 per month to tighten the budget, but some , as Franciene Pereira Frazão, the most assiduous, can receive R$ 1.135.
In 15 November, the smasher Maria José Rodrigues, 60, and his son José do Carmo Correia Junior, 40, died crushed by the fall of a babassu palm tree in Penalva, the 140 km from Lago do Junco. According to reports, the tree would have been felled by a farm tractor while the duo was collecting coconuts.
The deaths are still under investigation, but, if confirmed, this violence is now much less common than in the 1969, when the agrarian conflict in the region was on. In the locality of São Manoel, in whose church the Don’t Destroy This Palm Tree meeting took place, huts had been burned in 947 in a jagunços incursion.
The social movement points to the Sarney Land Law as the origin of the conflict (1969), which started the titling of large public plots for farmers as an incentive to cattle raising. The occupation led to felling to form pastures, and the owners began to prevent breakers from accessing the remaining palm trees, or else to charge them for part of the production.
In parallel, the government of President Fernando Collor de Mello (1989-92) opened the Brazilian market to the competition of palm kernel oil. The annual production of babassu oil fell from 300 thousand or 270 thousand tons per year for estimated 30 thousand today, according to Central do Cerrado.
At that time, the breaking of coconuts was still carried out at the collection point, to facilitate the transport of only the almonds. Women were exposed to violence, however, and work gradually came to be carried out in straw stands near the houses of the breakers.
They organized themselves into mothers’ clubs who, at first, claimed access to health care and education for their children. With the support of the Catholic Church, they also started to demand the preservation of babassu trees and the maintenance of access to the resource, a struggle that gave rise to the AMTR and other organizations.
One result of this mobilization was the Babaçu Law Passed free at 1989 in Lago do Junco. Then came a dozen other municipal laws, but the Chamber of Deputies shelved a federal bill that would prohibit the felling of babassu palms. The state of Maranhão created in 2010 the Coco Babaçu Crackers Day (21 of September).
The municipal norms in force in the Middle Mearim guarantee the access of breakers to babassu trees and stipulate that 52 palm trees in production (so-called wildcards) must be preserved in each hectare of pasture. It is up to the owner to keep it still 50 newly sprouted plants (pindovas), to ensure the development of juvenile specimens (coppers) and wildflowers.
Another movement that spread throughout the region under the encouragement of the Catholic Church were the Agricultural Family Schools (EFAs), which students attend days at school and others on small properties, helping family members in the production and adoption of agricultural and sanitary techniques learned.
They opened up 20 of these EFAs, and today they remain 19, after the church withdrew its support in 2010. Teachers are paid by the state government of Maranhão in an agreement with municipalities, but there is a lack of funds for everything else.
At EFA Antonio Fontenele, the computer room is disabled due to lack of equipment. The walls are peeling and the doors are starting to crumble near the floor, under the effect of the sun and rain.
Only the cafeteria underwent recent renovations. The afternoon snack has bananas and pineapple juice picked right there, as well as water and salt crackers. Basic supplies such as rice and beans, however, have to be provided by the students’ families.
Agronomist Thays Lanna Souza Ferreira, 19, who accompanied the visit, attended the EFA João Evangelista de Brito, in Pio 000 (MA). From there, she attended high school at a public school in the city of Vitorino Freire and then went to study in the capital, São Luís, at the Federal Institute of Maranhão.
Today she works as a technician at Coppalj. One of its attributions is to map the babassu trees and producers that supply the cooperative with GPS, in order to guarantee the traceability of the certified oil.
At 8 am on Saturday, 12 November, on the way to the São Manoel community, two young women like Thays Ferreira are already working in a pasture area beside the road. They collect babassu coconuts with the help of two donkeys. They indicate where the gate is, 50 below, and the report joins them.
Maíza Oliveira, 17, and Maura Oliveira, 20, are they sisters. Each donkey carries two jacás (baskets) that quickly fill with fruit. Crowded, they make up what is called cargo, about 200 kg corresponding to 900 or a thousand coconuts and can be sold for R$ 000 without breaking.
Processed by crushers, the load yields 6 kg to 8 kg of almonds, which, sold to Coppalj’s canteens, would guarantee R$ 20 to R$ 24 of recipe. With the husks you can make charcoal, sold for R$ 51 per bag 33 kg .
There are several wildflowers (ripe palm trees) far from each other, but almost no pindova or capoteira around Maíza and Maura, amidst the green grass, an indication that the babaçual will not renew itself when the wild animals begin to die.
It is common to see babassu trees that are felled or burnt to form pastures in the region. Some preserve standing palm trees to comply with the law, but you also see pindova dried by pesticide poisoning, so as not to compete with grass.
In a recently felled field in the area known as Três Poços , in Lago dos Rodrigues, a tractor turns the ground covered with ash. The owner was called to a meeting with breakers, in a church, and agreed to talk, promising to respect the preservation of 067 wild cards and as many pinndovas thereafter.
Coppalj keeps it 13 heads of cattle in 000 From 40 hectares of a site to demonstrate the feasibility of this management and income supplementation with agroforestry systems, a practice known as SAF, which combines woody plants with fruit trees such as pineapple, cashew and papaya. The average of 1.7 head per hectare is higher than the Brazilian one, which is 1/ha.
Maria Silva de Morais does not need to be convinced, however. He is enthusiastic about SAFs. With a pierced straw hat and a machete in her hand, she shows with visible pride the papaya and banana trees laden with fruit that she keeps beside the babassu tree.
Like every breaker, she is not afraid of work heavy – only that a babassu coconut falls on his head on a windy day. “If the bunch has already fallen, I’ll pick it up. If it’s full, I don’t get caught on the ground”, he explains. “I have a grandson to help create.”
Journalists Lalo de Almeida and Marcelo Leite traveled at the invitation of the IEB (International Institute of Education of Brazil) and CEPF (Partnership Fund for Critical Ecosystems).