These women are a reminder that buying fair trade can really change lives

 The Body Shop's Community Trade programme has allowed the women of Lago do Junco to establish a whole new way of life for themselves and their daughters, proving that where you shop really does matter 

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By Hannah Banks-Walker on

Standing proudly on the land she helped to reclaim, Giocina Lopes Dos Reis has tears in her eyes. “We are warriors,” she says. “Every one of us. Women can't just live in the kitchen. We have to cook and run a house but we also have to be in the streets, we have to occupy other spaces other than the kitchen. We have to fight.” 

At the age of 64, Giocina has been instrumental in the ongoing dispute occurring across the north eastern region of Brazil: the fight for the land. In the rural heart of the state of Maranhão, the verdant landscape is filled with palm trees heavy with fruits, their burden providing the life source for the surrounding communities. For Giocina and her fellow residents of Lago do Junco, that life source is the babaçu, a coconut-like fruit that not only provides sustenance, but also economic independence. Today, hundreds of families are reaping the benefits of this babaçu industry, built by women like Giocina and their tireless efforts. The hazy, sun-flooded terrain feels peaceful, removed as it is from any sense of industrialisation and urbanisation. But it belies hardship and struggle, and the reality of a society ultimately saved from the brink of destruction by the women who dared to fight for it. 

Giocina stands in the community's storeroom, used to house the babaçu nuts collcted by the women 

The government’s land seizures across the north east of Brazil, which began in the 1960s, left rural communities such as Giocina’s at the mercy of wealthy ranchers, who fenced off the groves where the babaçu grows, preventing the “coconut breakers”, as they’re known, from accessing their own land. Trees were destroyed to make way for cattle, and many farmers lost their livelihood. 

Seeing your children crying for food and not having enough to give them, nothing is worse than that. Not even death

For the people of Maranhão, this meant giving away 50 per cent of their babaçu supplies, leaving them with barely enough to trade for just a single bag of rice. Many families were forced to go hungry, unable to feed their children. “Seeing your children crying for food and not having enough to give them, nothing is worse than that, says Giocina. “Not even death.” People began to mobilise, to reclaim their land. “We started to stand up for our land but we were accused of being looters,” explains João Valdecir Viana da Silva, President of COPPALJ, the co-operative founded by the local community. "We men were persecuted by the government, threatened with arrest. We lost some of our brothers in the fight.”

The government responded with violence and, eventually, many of the men fled, hiding in the bush to avoid arrest, scared that the police might kill them if they caught them. “The women are stronger than us,” says da Silva,. “They were on the front line – we couldn’t appear in those days. Our sisters were the strong ones.” For the women, that’s when their story really began. A group of mothers in the village decided to establish their own organisation, now known as the AMTR (Association of Rural Women Workers from the Junco and Rodrigues Lakes) and they began to harvest the babaçu again, despite facing threats and intimidation from “cowboys” on the land, often being held up at gunpoint. 

Maria das Dores Vieira Lima (known affectionately as Dora) is the president of the AMTR and the owner of a small ranch in Lago do Junco. At just 44, she is a leader of her community, supporting and encouraging the women around her. “We started to organise out of need,” she says. “Since those lands were private for cultivating crops and breaking coconut we needed money to buy rice and we [the women] started a joint effort." Dora speaks with a grace and composure that makes it easy to see why her community clearly depends on her as one of their spokespeople. The other women have tears in their eyes as Dora  explains how, despite the lack of a formal education, she and hundreds of other women from the area managed to mobilise, eventually implementing a sense of order that has since caused this community to thrive. "We would organise and go in groups of 200 women- there was no leader and so all of us would respond to their threats together," says Dora. "After that, we were no longer breaking coconut to get half of the share- we got all of it. We deserved all of it. We then started to fight for the land. We've gradually been able to start these settlements.”

Dora, the president of the AMTR. Photo: Alex King 

After the birth of the AMTR in 1989, the women went on to found the co-operative, known as COPPALJ in 1991. It is this co-operative that forms the basis of commerce here, selling the products of the babaçu to several different organisations. One of them is The Body Shop, which established a relationship with the community in Maranhão 22 years ago, when the company’s founder, Dame Anita Roddick, heard of the AMTR’s struggle against land reform. Since then, The Body Shop has worked closely with Giocina, Dora and their fellow coconut breakers to help implement the infrastructure that exists today. When the women harvest the babaçu, they sit for hours, breaking off each individual nut. The oil from these nuts is then extracted and sold to The Body Shop, among other organisations, mostly to be used in skincare. Like coconut oil, it acts as a powerful, non-greasy moisturiser and can actually be found in 144 of The Body Shop’s products. Dora told me that without the investment and support her community has received from The Body Shop, they would not have a business; a livelihood. In fact, she says, they may not exist at all: “Someone from the body shop came to help. They appreciated our work, the history of this region and the labour we have. The oil we sell through our cooperative, COPPALJ, has allowed entire families to remain here. We can finally say we’re not poor. Everyone has the minimum amount – a house, a place of work and recognition. It doesn’t reach everyone but it does reach the majority. We believe it’s the peak of everything we’ve fought for."

The women of Lago do Junco. Photo: Kiko Costato and EstudioDeadPixel

This project is part of The Body Shop’s Community Trade Programme, which works with 28 different communities across 22 countries worldwide to source its products in a sustainable and fair way. There are currently over 20,000 people employed through the programme, which works to give the local and indigenous people the resources to be able to protect their own environments. And, speaking to the women of Maranhão, it’s clear that initiatives like this are more important now than ever before. Just two months ago, the Brazilian president Michel Temer abolished an Amazonian reserve the size of Denmark, described by one opposition senator as the “biggest attack on the Amazon of the last 50 years”. Conservationists fear that this leaves the door open for mining companies to enter the area; more than 20 companies have expressed an interest in the region, thought to contain deposits of gold as well as other minerals. More recently, the Brazilian environment minister Jose Sarney Filho said that Amazon deforestation is down by 16 per cent in the year July 2017 compared to the previous 12 months, but the figure is still above the country’s climate change target.

Giocina feels this act of violence against the environment as  sharply as if it were being enacted on her person; she, and indeed everybody who belongs to this community, are inextricably connected to the land

In fact, the size of the deforested area during 2016-17 was four times that of Sao Paolo, Brazil’s largest city. Giocina has seen such destruction firsthand: “We would stand in the way of the bulldozers, keeping them from destroying the trees. They would point guns at us. In the beginning they shot at us but we just fought back. We've been fighting for our rights, we fight hard for preservation. Preservation of nature and life.” As she speaks, Giocina sobs loudly. She feels this act of violence against the environment as  sharply as if it were being enacted on her person; she, and indeed everybody who belongs to this community, are inextricably connected to the land. They feel this loss very deeply. As Dora comforts Giocina, she gestures all around her: “Her pain is pain we all experience.” 

As climate change reaches a critical point – only this week, new research presented to the UN suggested that CO2 levels had not peaked, as scientists previously thought, but are actually still rising – it’s imperative that we listen to the stories of communities around the world and work to find a solution. Organisations like The Body Shop are a crucial part of this – the company plans to acquire more land in order to encourage cultivation of the babaçu, which can only grow in a bio-diverse environment. It’s doing this for every one of its 28 communities around the world; something which should be commended, yes, but also adopted by other global businesses who source ingredients or materials from nature. 

While there’s a long way to go, the community of Lago do Junco at least are hopeful for the future, as long as they can keep selling the babaçu: “I think the message I want to leave if I can is that people buying [our products] are helping us to remain in the countryside,” says Dora. “They are preserving a way of life – our way of life. They are helping us to remain in nature – they are ultimately helping to save us.”

@hlbw ​

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