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A Year In Three Stories

Story by ActionAid July 19th, 2016

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?

1. Anna's Story - Lesvos and the refugee crisis © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
The Babassu Nutbreakers Movement, Brazil   © Luca Zanetti/ActionAid
Heung's Story, Cambodia.     ©Panhavion Chin/ActionAid

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.

1. The Refugee Crisis, Lesvos

ActionAid worker Anna at the ActionAid Women's Space with Alam, 17, and her 3 month old baby. © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
“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.

“I am Syrian myself. I came to Greece from Syria in ’93, my brothers were already here and I came to stay with them. I am a mathematician, but when I came here I did different jobs: I used to wash dishes at night and I worked as a babysitter.

“I also gave private maths lessons to some children from Syria; I wasn’t doing it for the money, I just did it because I love maths. At first it was really difficult in Greece, I didn’t speak the language back then, now it feels like home.”
Aid workers meet refugees arriving on the beach and carry them to safety after a tiring and perilous journey. © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
ActionAid staff carry new arrivals from their boats. © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
Many families arrive in different boats. A man hugs his wife and child as they are reunited on the beach. © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
More families are reunited on shore thankful to have arrived safely. © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid

“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.”

ActionAid staff are there to meet refugees as they arriveo and wait with them for the bus to Moria Camp © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
The dangerous journey complete, lifejackets lie discarded on the beach at Skala Sykamias. © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
Refugee Bashir, 29, holding his 7 months old girl Hamid at Moria Camp, Lesvos © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid

“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.”

Refugees and migrants waiting in a muddy field to be registered by the Greek authorities.   © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
ActionAid staff wait with refugees at Moira Camp, Lesvos  © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
Mothers and children find a safe place to relax and play at the ActionAid Women's Space, Lesvos. © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
Mothers and their children find a place of welcome and safety in the ActionAid Women's Space.  © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
After a frought journey a mother and her child are able to relax in the ActionAid Women's Space.  © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid

“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?”

Anna working with mothers and children at the ActionAid Women's Space.  © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
Anna listening to individual srefugee stories at the ActionAid Women's Space.  © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
Anna with one of the youngest to have made the journey at the ActionAid Women's Space.  © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid
“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.
Anna preparing the ActionAid Women's Space for another busy day ahead.   © Anna Pantelia/ActionAid

2. Houng's Story, Cambodia

Harvesting clams by rake. 338 households in two villages depend upon fishing for their livilihoods © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
“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.

Houng Meoung, one of many who depend upon the sea for a living and now plays an active role in Community Fishery  © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid

“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.

The rice field in Chroy commune in rainy season is an additional source of income for community besides fishing. © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
The canal in Chroysvay Lech village is a vital link to the sea & the protected area. © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
Villagers must maximise use of both the sea & the land to make a living © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
Yek Ry with freshly sharpened fishing hooks. Good maintenance of fishing equipment is time consuming but vital. © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
Everything must be kept in good order like this line of hooks used specifically for catching rays. © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
“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.

Finally the ruling Royal Government of Cambodia withdrew the concession from this and several other companies across three provinces. In September 2015 the zone was officially established as a protected community fishing area.
Boats at low tide in the Chroy Svay commune. © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
Sin Haet with fishing hooks. A protected area means that he & his family are able to make a sustainable living.© Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
The whole family is involved in the work. Here a fisherman's wife works on repairing the nets.   © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
Those without a boat still make use of the sea and rake the beach for clams.  © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
Mending nets and keeping the rest of the fishing equipment maintaned and functional is constant work.  © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
Gathered at the purpose built Commune & Children Club to discuss issues facing the local community. © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
Seafood from the communities ends up at the Sraem Ambel market, Koh Kong © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
Raking for clams © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
A fruitful clam harvest from the beach.  © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid
A community able to make a sustainable livlihood from it's local natural resources.  © Panhavion Chin/ActionAid

3. Babassu, Brazil

Babassu palm trees near the Babaçu processing plant in Vila Diamante, Maranhão State, Brazil. © Eduardo Martino/Documentography/ActionAid
“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.

The babassu palm tree plays a key role to the livelihoods of the 250,000 rural families living across the region. © Luca Zanetti/ActionAid
68 products can be extracted from the coconut.  © Eduardo Martino/Documentography/ActionAid
The most important being oil, soap & flour.  © Luca Zanetti/ActionAid
Maria Ecicleude do Nascimento Almeida at the Babaçu processing plant in Vila Diamante. © Eduardo Martino/Documentography/ActionAid
As well as work, the stalk and leaves provide material used for building houses and roofs. © Luca Zanetti/ActionAid
Women and girls are traditionally the ones responsible for collecting and breaking the coconut hard shell. © Luca Zanetti/ActionAid
Cattle ranchers encroached on land traditionally used by African-Brazilian communities and threatened their way of life. Despite gaining court decisions in their favour, the vulnerable communities were confronted with violence and had their houses burned. Dona Dijé spent three days in the forest with her newborn child before being offered sanctuary by a church.

“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.

Known to her community as Dona Dijé, Maria de Jesus Bringelo is a key figure in the women's Babassu nutbreakers movement. © ActionAid
Often walking miles to collect the coconuts, the breaking is done with axes or big stones. © Luca Zanetti/ActionAid
Ananilce Gaspar Silva at home in Vila Diamante.  © Martino/Documentography/ActionAid
Maria de Nazaré Fernandes at the Babaçu processing plant in Vila Diamante. © Eduardo Martino/Documentography/ActionAid
Babassu coconut collection & processing can be done all year round, which makes for stable livelihoods.  © Luca Zanetti/ActionAid
As well as oil the palms & shells can be used for hammocks, carpets, baskets & bijouterie. © Luca Zanetti/ActionAid
Harvesting Babassu palm tree.  © Luca Zanetti/ActionAid

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.

The babassu palm tree can be found in the states of Piau, Maranh, Tocantins and Para. © Luca Zanetti/ActionAid
Repetitious and relying upon rocks or axes to crack open the nuts, the work can prove to be dangerous.  © Luca Zanetti/ActionAid
Thais (9) at the Babaçu processing plant in Vila Diamante. © Eduardo Martino/Documentography/ActionAid
Maria de Nazaré Fernandes at home in Vila Diamante.  © Eduardo Martino/Documentography/ActionAid

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.

A handfull of Babassu palm tree nuts on which the livelihoods of so many depend. © Luca Zanetti/ActionAid

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.

Footnote: Photos: Lesvos - Anna Pantelia, Cambodia - Panhavion Chin, Brazil - Luca Zanetti & Eduardo Martino. Story by Peter Murphy