Photo courtesy Ernesto Ricciardi, Coffee Museum, Santos, Brazil.
'Voiceless' Women in Brazil Raise a Shout
By Kelly Stein
Two important international coffee reports on the contributions of women in coffee largely dismiss women’s role in Brazil, prompting outcry and a national survey to quantify their participation. Results will be published later this year.
SÃO PAULO, Brazil
Thousands of Marias, Carmens, Lucianas, Amandas, Wilmas, Veras, and Helenas – these are the names of unsung women essential to the success of Brazilian coffee production since the first tree was planted in Brazilian soil. They can be seen working the land in old photos and paintings but their voices are unrecorded and documents such as receipts, deeds to property, books, and commercial operations never mention their names.
The omission continues according to several women who have devoted their lives to coffee. They say they are puzzled that two important international reports on women in coffee dismissed the important role women play in Brazil’s coffee industry.
In response, they are conducting Brazil’s first comprehensive study to document the work done by women along the entire coffee supply chain.
In 2012 the International Trade Center described the results of a 2008 survey of 25 persons, mainly women, living in 15 coffee producing countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Here is an excerpt:
“The survey showed considerable differences between individual countries with, for example, women doing little of the field and harvest work in Brazil (highly mechanized and often alternative jobs for women), but as much as 90% in some African countries (nearly all manual). Women play only a small role in in-country trading in most countries, whereas in Vietnam this is around 50%. The data gathering was limited to 15 very different countries only, but at least made it possible to indicate a kind of ‘typical’ role of women in the sector.” – The Coffee Exporter’s Guide, Third Edition, pg. 61.
Two years later, in 2014, the Sustainable Coffee Program reported that “In Brazil, where a third of the world’s coffee is produced, you find a very low percentage of women in field work and harvest, due to the high level of mechanized farming.” Considering that 80% of coffee producers in Brazil are small and based on family agriculture, these reports caused outrage.
“I was pretty mad when I heard about this for the first time. How is it possible?! Exactly 50% of my staff are women in all professional positions except the tractor drivers,” says Fabiola Filinto, who co-owns Martins Café brand and runs the Santa Margarida farm near São Paulo with her husband Mariano Martins.
The reports led several Brazilian women to question how others perceive their role. “We need to identify these women. Who are they? What kind of influence do they have in the coffee business? Where do they live and what is their age?” said Brígida Salgado, president of International Women’s Coffee Alliance (IWCA) in Brazil. She discovered that no study to collect demographic data and socioeconomic information by gender had been done in Brazil.
Filinto said the main reason that women in coffee are not visible is due to the fact that men largely conduct the transactions. They negotiate coffee prices; they travel to the cities to buy supplies while women work hard in the backstage.
“There are lots of women in coffee here in Brazil, but they are not in the spotlight,” said Filinto, who was awarded an MBA at Harvard University. “They are too busy doing the work that nobody wants to do,” she said.
“The main goal is bringing the topic to a very serious discussion in the coffee production chain. Our hope is that this first step will inspire the academy to look over gender studies, for example. We also hope that public policies will consider more often the gender theme in their strategic planning,” explains Helga Andrade IWCA counselor and the coffee coordinator at Inova Café, at Federal University of Lavras.
Women across Brazil in different specialties are collaborating in this research project to map all the positions held by female workers along the coffee chain. Andrade’s task is to coordinate communications among research entities, NGOs, cooperatives, and associations that are partnering with IWCA Brasil.
EMBRAPA Café (Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation) scientists are organizing and managing the methodology to insure results are valid. The research is aligned with United Nations recommendations for the ongoing survey. Responses will be gathered in phases. The work began last year with a multidisciplinary quiz given to women attending international coffee week activities in Belo Horizonte.
In the second phase, a digital version of this quiz was sent to community leaders, producers association and cooperatives. Women in coffee are forwarding the same link to their contacts during the first semester of 2017.
A team of researchers will compile the information and write an initial report with preliminary results, which will be published in Portuguese. A digital version of the book in planned for October in time for international coffee week in Belo Horizonte. An English language edition, refined with complementary information, will be added in time.
Recording the Voices of Women
Several years ago historians at the Coffee Museum of Santos began recording interviews with elderly people who worked in coffee production.
These oral testimonies describe their daily routine and the problems they confronted large and small. Fortunately, women were part of this project and their oral history can be heard in a special exposition in Santos city.
A double shift for women who worked in the fields was mandatory, according to researchers. Women worked on the plantation to add to the family´s income. On returning home they had to take care of the house, the children, and prepare the family meals. Any extra money earned had a destiny: her husband’s pockets.
In the last 100 years, women were emancipated, won the right to vote and to choose their own destiny in some parts of the world. In Brazil, women hold all sorts of important positions in the coffee industry including research in coffee science, concluding important business transactions or playing an important role in marketing. Women are just as responsible as men for Brazil’s standing as the world’s most important coffee producing country.