Thirty years ago, the enemy was much easier to recognize and much easier to fight, says Dona Beliza Costa Souza, member of a union representing 350,000 rural women in northern and northeastern Brazil, who battle to protect the ubiquitous babassu palm trees that grow wild throughout the region.

In the early days, Dona Beliza and her fellow quebradeiras de coco babassu, or babassu nutbreakers, had only their courage and their stories as arms in battling for the right to harvest nuts from the babassu palm. In the early 1990s, they began to stand up to the landowners who were buying up the forestlands and destroying the babassu to expand their cattle ranches.

But 30 years of combat had not prepared Dona Beliza, or her colleagues, for the newest threats to the babassu—a government plan for a massive agro-industrial expansion in Tocantins and parts of three other states in the north and northeast of the country.

The quebradeiras hope to push back against the government’s portrayal of their world as degraded and deforested. In effect, government planners seem to be saying, if the babassu palm tree is not a primary rainforest (rainforest that is untouched by humans and therefore pristine), it is not worth saving.

To strengthen their claims to the land and protect the babassu from destruction, the quebradeiras have created a map with a group of researchers that records in detail where there are babassu forests, as well as threats to the babassu palms and the quebradeiras in particular. These threats include monocultures of eucalyptus and teak, as well as pig iron factories that use the whole babassu nut for charcoal, depriving the quebradeiras of a source of oil, flour and the charcoal they make from the husks after removing the kernels.

The Interstate Movement of the Babassu Coconut Breakers (Movimento Interestadual das Quebradeiras de Coco Babaçu) and the researchers from the New Social Cartography Project, launched their map in July in São Luis, the state capital of Maranhão.

“The map draws our attention to the predominance of social conflicts and the destruction of natural resources at a scale that is difficult to assess,” said anthropologist Alfredo Wagner, who led the mapping project with economist Jurandir Santos de Novaes.

With their fronds pointing upward to the sky, the babassu trees are hard to miss all along the Eastern edge of the Amazon and extending out to the Atlantic coast. They are native to the region and cover 26 million hectares of land, much of it in areas inhabited by the quebradeiras and their families.

The researchers and MIQCB leaders hope that by giving visibility to the reality of the everyday life of the coconut breakers and other traditional peoples who depend on the babassu, the map will serve not only to support women in ensuring the preservation of their way of life and their territorial rights, but also as a tool in future battles they will face against the agribusiness expansion plan they fear will destroy their renowned babassu forests.

The state of Tocantins now has a law that prohibits the felling of the babassu, and it requires any landowner to allow the quebradeiras on to their property to harvest the nuts. And the neighboring states of Piaui and Maranhão have municipalities with similar laws on the books. Legislators in both states are considering passing laws that would expand the rights of the quebradeiras, though these efforts face powerful opposition from political and agro-industrial interests.

“If governments are serious about promoting sustainable development and reducing deforestation, they should value the model developed by the quebradeiras,” says Dona Eunice da Conceicao Costa, Coordinator of MIQCB  in Imperatriz, MA. “We use all of the fruit collected from the babassu palms that we protect, and we do this without destroying the palm forests that are critical to the economic and social well-being of the region.”

To learn more about the fight of the quebradeiras to protect their lands, see the articles below:

Brazilian communities resist monoculture expansion – Deutsche Welle (Germany)

Future of Brazil’s babassu fruit breakers threatened by deforestation – Guardian (UK)

New map shows Brazil soybean expansion threat to community nut oil – Thomson Reuters Foundation (UK)

The Nutcrackers and ‘the Chainsaw Queen’: The Fight for Control Over Brazil’s Amazon – Vice (USA)