The simple scheme driving a quiet revolution for Brazil’s farmer families

Detailed logging of produce, and addressing gender bias in censuses, is helping to raise the profile of the women vital to production on the country’s farms. 

Originally published in UN Women’s flagship report Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020: Families in a Changing World

Janete Dantas, centre, with her mother, Maria Nilda, right, and her sister, Mayla, left, on their family farm. Photo: Lianne Milton

It is such a small, simple idea: a four-column logbook for Brazilian women working in family agriculture to record how much of their production is sold, given away, exchanged or consumed. And yet the logbooks have had far-reaching positive impacts on the lives of hundreds of rural women, changing the way they and their partners value their own production and even helping them benefit from government policies aimed at family farmers.

“Learning to look at our production was very helpful for us,” says Janete Dantas. She records the milk, eggs, chickens, fruit and vegetables produced on the smallholding she and her mother run near Itaóca, in São Paulo state, and how much it adds to their family’s income. “When we do the calculations at the end of the month, we see how big our contribution is.”

The logbooks are part of a quiet revolution being pushed through by feminist agricultural groups that has even influenced government census data. As a result of their pressure, Brazil’s 2017 Agricultural Census retained a question on the sex of agricultural producers and was able to provide data showing that the number of establishments run by women rose to 18.6 per cent, with almost a million women involved, compared with 12.7 per cent some 11 years earlier.

Agribusiness is a pillar of the Brazilian economy, worth nearly a quarter of its Gross Domestic Product (GDP), with crops such as soybeans and coffee from industrialized farms, mainly employing men, among the country’s most important exports. But Brazil also has millions of family farmers with a total annual turnover of 55.2 billion USD a year. Here, women play a fundamental role.

“We are learning a lot about women’s production capacity,” says Beth Cardoso, a coordinator at the Alternative Technology Centre of the Forest Zone in Minas Gerais state. “There is little visibility and value given to women’s work in rural areas.” With the Centre, Cardoso helped launch an earlier version of the logbooks scheme in 2011. Two years later, it developed into the ongoing Cadernetas Agroecológicas (agro-ecological notebooks) project. This has since spread across Brazil, with hundreds of women currently participating.

São Paulo-based group Sempreviva Organização Feminista (SOF – Evergreen Feminist Organization) also took part in the logbooks project and works to make women’s importance to Brazilian agriculture more visible.

In much of rural Brazil, women tend household gardens, selling or swapping produce and providing food for their families, says SOF’s Miriam Nobre, an agronomist. But the value of their production goes unnoticed, especially if their partner is not a farmer.

That changed for Janete Dantas and her mother after they spent 18 months filling in the logbooks and sharing the experience with other women. Janete works up to three hours a day on the smallholding she and her husband, a driver, share with her parents. Her mother, Maria, 68, works six hours a day. Before participating in the logbook project, they had never calculated the value of their work, and how much food it put on the family table. “We see how much we eat… and how much what we produce is worth,” Janete says. “We are able to give more value to it.”

Projects like these have obliged the Government to acknowledge the role of women in Brazilian agriculture, something Nobre places within the wider context of the struggle for rural women’s rights in Latin America. “I see this as part of the fight for recognition of the work of women,” she says, “and for the ways rural women are guaranteeing sustenance in their communities.”

A simple logbook like this one, in which women family farmers record their production, has raised awareness about their contribution to Brazil’s economy. Photo: Lianne Milton

Women have also been able to use the logbooks to get a document called DAP (Declaração de Aptidão ao Pronaf), which allows them to benefit from financing for family farming and to participate in a government scheme guaranteeing that 30 per cent of food for school meals is procured from such smallholdings. 

Janete Dantas, second right, with her mother, Maria Nilda, centre, and her sisters, Mayla, left, and Leni, right, shucks cassava skins. Photo: Lianne Milton

The logbooks have helped women in rural areas see themselves differently and forced men to value them more too. In a country where progress on women’s rights has been slow, this is an important change. “We can see more empowerment of the women, an increase in their autonomy from the moment they can see their own production,” Cardoso says. “It seems simple, but it is fundamental [in taking] them out of subjugation.”