Ana Claudia Alves da Silva had a happy childhood with her siblings in the Brazilian capital of Brasilia. She started a family when she was quite young and lost her husband at just 21 years of age. With four children to raise, she decided to find a more peaceful place to live, where her children could grow up safe and happy. She packed their bags and said farewell to the big city, heading off to Novo Zabelê Settlement, a small rural community located in the interior of the State of Piaui, in north-eastern Brazil.
There, Ana Claudia resumed her studies and graduated with a Level 4 diploma in Business Administration. It was then that she became involved with the organic producers’ organisation in the municipality, helping to improve the group's marketing, accounting and putting into practice knowledge that she acquired from her course of studies.
Today, in addition to being a farmer, Ana Claudia is also a secretary who sits on the executive committee of the regional farmers’ association. In Brazil, these associations are known as Participatory Organic Assessment and Compliance Organisations (OPAC, by their Portuguese acronym). Today, the OPAC where she works has the mission of certifying locally produced organic cotton. It serves approximately 30 farming families.
When cotton is certified as organic, it increases in price as a value-added product, benefiting the farmer. In communities where OPACs are present, this certification depends on the collective assessment of the farmers in the association; that is, the community assesses itself, and its members work together to ensure that they are all meeting the requirements for becoming organic producers.
“From the moment a product is certified as organic, it not only gains more credibility, but we also get an added value for it. This certification values our work as farmers as much as it values the product itself", Ana Claudia explained.
"Growing Cotton in Organic Intercropping Systems” is a project that is being implemented by the NGO Diaconia, with support from C&A Foundation. This project is bolstering organic production in six states in Brazil's semiarid region by providing technical consulting and by incentivising collective organizing in organic farming communities through OPACs.
Ana Claudia says that the work done in her community is very important, because Diaconia and the local NGOs that are project partners, do not dictate what is to be done but instead demonstrate the strength and potential of the women workers and their male colleagues, showing them that they canbecome stronger by acting collectively.
“The NGOs that partner with Diaconia in the communities where the project is being implemented play a key role in getting people to appreciate the diversity within each region and in helping people to organise themselves”, Ana Claudia said.
This kind of teamwork has already led to a lot of progress. One area of advancement is a new website for marketing their organic produce, selling the fruits and vegetables grown by the farmers in the region. Even though the site was only recently launched, a lot of purchasing is already happening there. Currently, the site is aimed only at consumers in the city, but there is already a plan under consideration to expand it to other regions in Brazil.
In addition to boosting technical consulting and marketing in the countryside, there is also an incentive to make the sales process increasingly transparent.
“For us, producing cotton with the knowledge of who the end consumer will be is a more secure approach. It's no longer acceptable for farmers to produce a large harvest and then not know who to sell it to. Today, the OPAC helps to sort that out", Ana Claudia explained.
In recounting the history of her organisation, Ana Claudia described the struggles the community had and the obstacles it faced, and she is satisfied with the work that they have been doing.
“Today, we're very proud of our history, because everything we built back then has kept us going the distance and now we're reaping the good fruits of our labour", she noted.
Women leading the way for financial freedom
According to Ana Claudia, there was a sense previously that the women farmers were not fairly compensated compared to the men—but that situation changed once the association came into the region. Today, she sees women providing for themselves and, moreover, joining in the decision-making processes by serving in various roles within the OPAC.
“The OPAC's greatest strength is its women", Ana Claudia said. “We’re the ones who’ve kept this association going in every respect. From organising the meetings to managing the finances, it's us women who are leading it. And we do so with tremendous pride!" she added.
The gains made through their collective efforts not only have raised their incomes but have also improved the way their community is organised. It has given voice to the women farmers and opened up space for them so that today they feel much more independent and empowered.
“Everything we’ve built in recent years just can't be for nought. The woman farmer has come of age. She’s no longer that woman carrying a bucket of water on her head, with a bunch of kids running beside her. She’s no longer that woman. She's a beautiful woman—she's the woman who plants cotton", Ana Claudia said.
Diaconia is a C&A Foundation partner that helps to empower female organic farmers, as well as male farmers, and that works with regional organisations to promote sustainable cotton production in Brazil.