What links the response to the refugee crisis on the Greek island of Lesvos with a fishing community on the Cambodian coast and a group of women in Brazil who depend on harvesting a certain type of coconut?
While the context is very different each of these situations has involved responding to human rights violations and supporting people to make changes to their lives.
“When I tell them that I am from Syria, I see their faces light up with joy.”Anna volunteered to work at ActionAid’s women-friendly centre in Kara Tepe in November 2015, a space for all women refugees arriving in Lesvos.
“When the refugee crisis first hit Lesvos, I was watching the refugees on TV as they arrived on the islands and I was looking for a way to go there, too. Shortly afterwards I heard ActionAid was looking for Arabic-speaking women for the Women’s Friendly Space in Lesvos to help with the Syrian refugees.
“I called immediately. Here, I forget about everyone: my family, my friends… My mind is 100% at Kara Tepe.”
“Here on Lesvos it’s the first time since I came to Greece that I actually feel I’m doing something meaningful. This time, I’m the same person I was in Syria.
“The hardest moment? I saw a woman approach in tears. She had lost her husband and her 7-month-old baby. They drowned. They found the baby, but not her husband. Her husband was holding the baby in his arms while on the boat, and they were both gone. She was crying all day. There is no comfort in such cases. I met another family who had lost a son at sea, he was 25.
“Where do I find the strength? I don’t have a choice, it’s a moral issue. When these people go through all these things, I have to be strong, I can’t be the one who’s vulnerable. I need to be there for them.”
“Bit by bit, we start to talk: about their journey at sea, about their life back home, what happened to their city, about the relatives they left behind. They want to talk about their life in Syria. And then I start telling them about their rights.
“Sometimes I see they have trouble leaving our space although they want to get registered as quickly as possible and get on with their journey. They get here and they are really tired, they have suffered a lot; but I think they leave from ActionAid stronger and more serene.
“They leave knowing what lies ahead in terms of their journey, they know their rights as refugees and as women.
“It’s a good thing ActionAid set up this space which lays emphasis on women, they were right in doing so. The whole family relies on women. When you do something for the women, the entire family will benefit. How will these women be able to support their children if they are not strong themselves?”
“To me, this is not a job.”The situation on the Greek islands has changed considerably since with many measures intended to prevent new arrivals to the EU and restrict movement of migrants. This includes the EU/Turkey deal aiming to return up to 72,000 migrants. ActionAid is still working in Greece and has adapted its work to reflect the needs of the 50,000 migrants now stranded in Greece.
“I can’t afford to go far and I don’t have a boat.”
Houng Meoung is a widow who survives by gathering seafood from the shoreline of Chroy Svay in southwest Cambodia.
“I think I am so lucky for living near the sea which allows me to have access to these resources. The sea is just 500 metres away and I just spend about an hour or two getting food for a day. I don’t need to spend money to buy food at the market.”
This may sound like an idyllic existence, but it is precarious. In 2011 a company was granted sixty-three hectares of fishing grounds that two villages have depended on for generations. The company cordoned off the area with poles.
“Since my parents’ time, we have been living on resources from the sea. Other villagers can go further out to sea as they have boats. For me, as a widow, I can’t afford to go far and I don’t have a boat either. I can only collect shrimp, crab and snails nearby.”The Mlup Promvihearthor Centre (MPC) and other local organisations supported the community in a steep learning curve to understand government laws and policies. Other fishing communities shared their experiences of protecting community fishing areas. Despite local authorities initial indifference the communities persisted in raising petitions and taking their case to provincial and national authorities.
“I don’t know how I became a leader…but it all started because we needed to survive.”
Babassu oil is in great demand – for skin, hair and other cosmetics as well as for use in food and cleaning products. However, being able to produce high quality organic oil for a growing international market has been a long struggle for the women ‘babassu nut breakers’ of Brazil.
Dona Dijé is a veteran; at 68 she has been leading the struggle since the 1970s.
“It was not just oppression, it was humiliation.
“We even heard a rancher saying that a hundred black people aren’t worth a single cow. We were there resisting because the worst thing that would happen to us is to be sent to the outskirts of the city. We would be nowhere. So we faced a lot of oppression, we faced a lot of humiliation but we stayed there because we knew, that if not, it would be even worse.”
Threats to the women’s livelihoods come from multiple sources: ranchers enclosing land and denying access, deforestation for monoculture plantations and trees being destroyed for charcoal.
Over the years the women have become more organised; first to defend their right to free access to gather the babassu nuts from the palm trees that grow wild over extensive areas of northeastern Brazil, and then to improve their trading position.
Dona Dijé is now a coordinator of MIQCB (Interstate Movement of Babassu Nut Breakers) which exists to “organise the breakers to know their rights, defend sustainability in babassu forests and improve living conditions in the four regions of babassu extraction”. This includes processing and marketing to escape the exploitation of middle men who were failing to pay a fair share of the value of the nuts to the women. In recent years some co-operatives that had been formed to support the women were beginning to fail.
The COPPALJ co-operative belonging to the ASSEMA nut breakers association in Maranhão has a babassu nut processing plant which produces organic babassu oil for export and babassu ‘pie’, the residue, sold locally as an animal feed. However production and income had dropped – explanations varied from the ageing group of women gathering the nuts to the ageing and less productive trees they were harvesting.
However, research by the co-operative showed that the real problem was middle-men bypassing the co-op and driving prices down. The co-op took action, realising that women were losing out on a government minimum price guarantee for recognised biodiversity products. Once this was secured through the co-op average household incomes tripled or quadrupled and production massively increased.
But not everywhere in the north and northeast of Brazil has enacted or implemented the laws that guarantee free access to the trees by women. After more than a decade ActionAid continues to support organisations like ASSEMA and MIQCB and the local co-operatives to secure their rights and improve their ability to maximise the value of the nuts’ products to provide families with a decent life.
These three stories from inspiring people and communities are drawn from among the many that ActionAid works with in 45 countries around the world.
If you would like to find out more abaout the amazing people we’ve worked with and the impact we’ve seen, please read our Annual Report for 2015.