Patrícia Santos: Turning challenges into opportunities for women mangaba collectors in Brazil


Patrícia Santos is a Brazilian mangaba collector originally from Barreira do Coqueiral, Sergipe. She is a Tourism Technologist and holds a Master in Development and Environment by Universidade Federal de Sergipe. She is currently the president of the Association of Collectors of Mangaba in the Municipality of Barra dos Coqueiros (ACMBC). Her work, supported by UN Women in Brazil and the European Union, through the projects "Connecting Women, Defending Rights," and "Territorial Defense and Strengthening of the Sociocultural Identity of Women Collectors of Mangaba in Sergipe" impacts the lives of 76 women in her community. 

How are the mangaba collectors organized? 

Being a mangaba collector consists of carrying out a variety of practices that include the conservation of restinga forests, fields, or native areas of mangaba trees. This is what we do as a movement and as an association. The practice of extracting mangaba has been around for a long time. However, it wasn't until the early 2000s, when the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation (Embrapa) started to research the tree, that we discovered that other women from other municipalities were already collecting the fruit. 

When Embrapa realized that the mangaba was the main source of livelihood for women from several municipalities, it organized the first meeting of women mangaba collectors. This meeting was crucial because it allowed us to recognize ourselves and our identity as mangaba collectors and we discovered the importance of our work. It's not just a group of starving women who collect fruit; there is work related to preserving the environment and there is also a relationship between the women and the trees. We spend a lot of time in silence, without opportunities to tell our stories. One of the women said something that stood out in that meeting: "we want to be heard." 

What does defending the right to territory mean for mangaba collectors and how has the project supported by UN Women and the European Union contributed in this regard? 

Our territory is not constituted and demarcated, as is the case of some quilombola communities. It is not guaranteed by law, so we look for other ways to ensure it. For us, our territories are the restinga forests,  which are full of the mangabeiras trees. Our territories are also the places where we have meetings and activities. However, we find ourselves in constant dispute, especially with large private initiatives and enterprises because they want us to pay to access certain territories with mangaba trees. In some cases, the private sector denies access altogether. There is a great contradiction in defining this territory as ours and somehow not being entitled to it. 

Through the project, we learned that creating an environmental preservation unit through a bill, not just a decree, gives us new possibilities and opportunities. The amazing thing is that we learned about the constitutional rights that we do not have access to and how to revert that. 

What are the main challenges for the movement of women mangaba collectors as human and environmental rights defenders with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic? 

Today we pay to collect mangaba, because the areas filled with trees were sold and traded. Mangaba had no value, we, the collectors, gave value to it as a product. The pandemic has been very difficult because it arrived here in the middle of the mangaba harvest. Everything was ready for us to sell our products, but our plans changed as soon as things began to shut down. Many women were unable to receive emergency aid and were threatened by hunger and COVID-19. That made us start looking for sources of funding that would allow us to face the problems we had prior to the pandemic and others that worsened as a result of it, such as the deforestation of mangabeiras and the prohibition of access to certain areas. 

How did the project "Territorial Defense and Strengthening the Sociocultural Identity of Women Collectors of Mangaba in Sergipe", supported by the project "Connecting Women, Defending Rights," UN Women and the European Union, contribute to overcoming the challenges posed by the pandemic? 

The project was designed and carried out by the mangaba collectors based on current demands. One major issue that we had to solve was finding a way to communicate. The access to the internet and learning from home with these new tools was a challenge we needed to address. The project brought value and recognition to the knowledge and work that we put into the Association. We were now being paid to carry out workshops and activities that we used to do for free. This allowed us to remain in the territory and became a way to carry out our traditional extractive practices, despite the difficulties of marketing our products. The workshops were facilitated by us, mangaba collectors, for other mangaba collectors. 

How do you see women's leadership in extractive movements to improve living conditions in territories and communities? 

When we strengthen the economy or guarantee that women from traditional communities can develop their practices, we know their families will benefit. We do this by involving families in conservation activities in mangaba areas, mangroves, rivers, beaches, and air ecosystems to guarantee that women mangaba collectors have access to the territory.