May 4, 2021
by Isabelle Hillenkamp, socioeconomist, research fellow at IRD-CESSMA.
by Liliam Telles, forest engineer, Master in rural expansion at the Federal University of Viçosa/MG, collaborator for the Brazilian NGO CTA-ZM, Centro de Tecnologias Alternativas da Zona da Mata.
by Natália Lobo, agroecologist, member of the technical team of the Brazilian SOF NGO, Sempreviva Organização Feminista.
Since the start of 2021, the brutal increase in the number of victims and variants of the virus have put Brazil at the forefront of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite and because of it, civil society self-organizing initiatives have escalated since 2020, especially women's initiatives in the areas of food and agriculture. These initiatives show different ways of being resilient in the midst of the current crisis by bringing solutions to immediate needs. On a larger scale, this resilience also shows a creative capacity toward social transformation at the local level, in a profoundly altered Brazilian society. This situation cannot be distinguished from President Bolsonaro's position, who continues to state how unimportant Covid-19 is, the need to maintain the companies' interests, people being able to move about, and the political polarization that is wreaking havoc in the country. Therefore, the federal government's standard and that of local initiatives need to be looked at together.
Brazil's pioneering model on healthcare and welfare policies in the 1980s and 2000s is called into question today. In April 2020, emergency aid was dragged out of the government, benefitting a good 66 million people. It was then stopped in the first trimester of 2021 and only started up again with a reduced amount and coverage (between 150 and 375 BRL / month, against 600 to 1200 BRL in 2020, compared to the minimum legal salary of 1100 BRL / month). Furthermore, the emergency aid did not prevent the increase in inequalities with respect to access to healthcare and the additional workload of healthcare workers, mainly done by women. A study showed that, because of the social isolation, this work increased for 50% of the women and 62% for women living in rural settings (Bianconi et al., 2020). In the main sector of family farming, the legislative proposal 735/2020, brought forward by a coalition of civil society and supported by a majority in Congress, recommends combining aid to agricultural production to food security. Unfortunately, it has been blocked by President Bolsonaro since August 2020.
In this situation, the research project "Vulnerability and resilience of agroecological women farmers in the midst of the Covid pandemic" which was done between June and December 2020 focused on documenting and observing the women farmers' responses to the pandemic, who participate in local agroecological communities in the Vele do Ribeira (State of São Paulo) and Zona da Mata (State of Minas Gerais) regions. These communities are groups, networks, associations and agroecological cooperatives, women's or mixed, in general prior to the pandemic. They are part of the civil society's set of initiatives, often not very visible, but that are playing a key role in reorganizing daily life and survival in the current situation.
This research has been coordinated by the IRD - Institut de Recherche pour le Développement (France), in partnership with the SOF – Sempreviva Organização Feminista dans le Vale do Ribeira and the CTA-ZM – Centre de Technologie Alternativa de la Zona da Mata and the Federal University of Viçosa. The research group thus combines academia people and feminist activists engaged in NGOs that have been helping local agroecological communities for many years. This structure has made it possible to closely follow their actions and carry out much broader interviews, most of them by phone, with 52 women farmers in these two regions. The interviews centered on how the pandemic had transformed the women farmers and their family's life in health, economics and agriculture, with a particular focus on the role of women. The knowledge gleaned will provide food for thought and sustenance for local actions, and increase the visibility of these initiatives in civil society, in Academia and with public authorities.
Our results, published in Portuguese in the open sourced collaborative work Um meio tempo preparando outro tempo: cuidados, produção de alimentos e organização de mulheres agroecológicas na pandemia, and highlighted in a video translated into French (Les cultures des femmes. L’agroécologie face à la pandémie au Brésil, see above), bring out three main points.
AN INCREASED WORKLOAD
First, the caring jobs of women farmers has considerably increased during the pandemic, because of a triple effect in the reoganization of the healthcare system, school closures and the loss of jobs and income-based activities of family members. In the first semester of 2020, medical team visits were terminated in many rural communities. Although the number of Covid-19 cases were initially very low in the two studied regions, chronic diseases (diabetes, hypertension, depression, exacerbated by the pandemic), infections and accidents remained. They were dealt with thanks to local competent people, traditional remedies and women's mutual assistance networks, showing the importance of care in a broader approach to public health.
School closures, during all of 2020, and the job losses of family members meant there were more people at home all day and an increase in domestic chores, in particular meal preparation. Homeschooling was considered primarily the mother's job, mothers who often have a lower educational level than their children, weighing on their daily organization and mental workload.
A RESILIENT MODEL
Secondly, the agroecological model used by these women farmers, within women's networks and mixed cooperatives, has proven to be more resilient against the economic impact of the pandemic than the conventional model practiced in similar-sized agricultural operations. These operations had to deal with an increase in price of agricultural inputs and sale problems (markets closed, decrease if not a cessation of public markets such as school lunches) leading to income loss in more than half of the cases (Secretaria de Agricultura Familiar e Abastecimento do Estado de São Paulo, 2020).
The agroecological model protected the farmers thanks to a high level of autonomy in production (production and local exchange of seeds, fertilizers and treatments of plants integrated into the culture cycles) and in finances. Participating in purchasing networks of solidarity economy linked to social movements, that led to food solidarity campaigns in urban outskirts, compensated for the selling issues. Sales for these communities typically doubled or tripled, showing how solid the markets based in solidarity relationships are. Furthermore, political support between these communities, the NGOs and local public authorities enabled many initiatives in the purchase of agricultural products to be distributed with tickets or food baskets to vulnerable populations.
A REDEFINITION OF GENDER ROLES
Thirdly, the women played a leading role in these initiatives on account of their social engagement in a highly diversified food-producing agriculture. This engagement is the result of gender roles, that essentially assign women the social reproduction non-compensated work and to men the role of generating income by getting into a capitalist form of production, either an agricultural specialization turned toward the market or a non-agricultural job. Women's agricultural production, in vegetable gardens, orchards and fields, and raising small animals close to home, wound up being crucial to both insure food security at the family and community level and provided products needed by urban consumers.
For example, the Barra do Turvo Agroecological Network of Women Farmers, in the Vale do Ribeira, commercializes around 250 different products (food, processed food, medicinal plants, seeds, crafts, meat and milk products) that are purchased by consumers on the outskirts of São Paulo at "Fair Trade" prices, thanks to the logistics effort done by both parties voluntarily. Our interviews with 17 women farmers of this network showed that between March and November 2020, they increased their beds in the vegetable gardens and fields by an average of +150% and +160%, and they were leading the production and commercialization. Assigning women to the domestic realm and to diversified food production crops was reappraised by the women themselves and by the consumers for its essential role in the reproduction of life.
This result is remarkable not only in a pandemic situation, but also given the rather patriarchal relationships in rural areas where women's autonomy on decision making on their own work is extremely limited. The pandemic has acted as a catalyst of economic and personal autonomy for these women, insofar as it has shown the vital importance of their production, bolstered by the community organization. For sure, this enhanced autonomy comes at the cost of an increase in women's work because of a gender work division that shows, yet again, its significant inertia. It also does not overthrow the domination of the food industry, unfailingly supported by the current government. But it contributes, at the local level, to the women farmers' resilience, based on the power to act, along with their NGO and social movement allies. Practical considerations and social transformation at the local level are inextricably linked in the processes of community organization that defend life from essential production areas.
Isabelle Hillenkamp, socioeconomist, research fellow at IRD-CESSMA. With partnerships with Academia and civil society in Brazil and Bolivia, she gathers knowledge on solidary economy and agroecology from a gender perspective, in order to reinforce local initiatives and build a global critical theory.
Liliam Telles, forest engineer, Master in rural expansion at the Federal University of Viçosa/MG, collaborator for the Brazilian NGO CTA-ZM, Centro de Tecnologias Alternativas da Zona da Mata. She is doing research in the fields of agroecology, feminist economy and gender studies, and participates in the coodination of the Women's Work Group for the National Articulation of Agroecology in Brazil.
Natália Lobo, agroecologist, member of the technical team of the Brazilian SOF NGO, Sempreviva Organização Feminista. She supports a network of women farmers in the Vale do Ribeira, in the southeast of Brazil. She is doing research in the fields of agroecology, feminist economy and green economy.