Traditional Knowledge and the Babassu Breakers – Food Tank
In the northern region of Brazil, the quebradeiras of babaçu, or the babassu women breakers, have overcome many challenges. They face extreme poverty, violence and, more recently, the horrors brought by COVID-19. But these women are resilient, and they continue to reshape the cycle of babassu extraction and production.
The work is hard, but babassu is an integral part of the local diet and a valuable source of income for the communities living on the banks of the Tocantins. Babassu is a coconut-like fruit that can be used in its entirety. the quebradeiras can produce milk from babassu nuts and flour from the mesocarp of the fruit. The skin of the fruit can be used as charcoal for cooking. The most important yield for the babassu collection comes from the production of oil, made from babassu nuts.
To extract these nuts, the breakers must beat the fruits with a wooden handle, until the babassu breaks. This method was originally inherited from the indigenous populations and has been passed down from generation to generation, but only to women in the communities. Hence the name of women breakers. The thugs work in groups, singing their songs as they walk together towards the fields of the reserve, and when they sit around their straw baskets filled with babassu, knocking on their shells until they open.
In the 1990s the quebradeiras began to receive support and guidance from non-profit organizations interested in helping traditional rural communities in the region. This has facilitated the formation of “breakers associations” and the creation of canteen distribution centers which also function as a market for the quebradeiras. This is where the quebradeiras are able to receive fair value for their production.
Ten years ago, Guilhermina Cayres, principal researcher at Embrapa—Empresa Brasileira de Pesquisa Agropecuária—launched a program to support traditional culinary knowledge as a tool for social change. The program provides for continuous training of workers and institutional support. It also enabled them to obtain funding to open a small factory in a village in the state of Maranhão. This factory belongs to one of the associations of quebradeiras, the Quilombo Pedrinhas Clube de Mães.
Cayres worked closely with the quebradeiras. The women received vocational training and learned production techniques which enabled them to develop the business. They joined the PNAE—Programa Nacional de Alimentação Escolar—a program that connects local producers to public schools, and before classes were suspended, due to Covid-19, the factory provided bread and biscuits made from babassu flour for school meals.
Last year the women of Quilombo Pedrinhas Clube de Mães started a new business. Building on the growing trend of chefs and cooking enthusiasts to support sustainable farming practices, they decided to launch a line of products made from babassu by-products to cater to a more sophisticated market. The association started to work with a consultant and a chef. Their goal is to set better standards in production practices and develop products that would meet the demands of this niche.
Although the quarantine has slowed their activities, they are ready to resume the testing phase for cookies and ice cream. the Quebradeiras’ dream is to bring their delicacies far beyond the limits of the Tocantins-Araguaia basin, where the native fields of babassu are found. When asked about their goals, they all agree: “First, we want to bring our products to Maranhão and São Paulo, then to the United States and Europe.
Initiatives like the Cayres one are not common in Brazil. Traditional rural communities are often unable to exploit the natural resources of the land. These communities are deprived not only of the nutritional value of their food, but also of a source of income. In addition, the exclusion of these foods from the production chain depletes the ecosystem, impoverishes the diet of local communities, and often pushes them into a situation of vulnerability.
The babassu breakers are an example of workers coming together to transform the standard of living of a group that still holds valuable traditional culinary practices. Today, these women have a sense of pride and empowerment because they are appreciated for their work. Their loss would be everyone’s loss. Making their dream come true will make it easier to access something delicious in return.
Today, associations of quebradeiras of babassu enjoy legal protection as an intangible cultural good. “They hold traditional and practical knowledge and access to properties and uses… associated with the genetic heritage of Brazil.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons