As narrated by Lourivânia Soares Santos, Rede Pintadas

In Pintadas, a municipality in the dry and semi-arid caatinga (white forest) northeast region of Brazil, solidarity has always been a way of life to learn to live with drought. With little natural wealth and an unfavorable climate, the 10,000 inhabitants of the municipality have had to rely on each other, and on human resourcefulness, to survive. Now, they find that their capacity to cope is stretched further by increasingly persistent droughts, and that solidarity and self-organization is more critical than ever.

Pintadas historically had high rates of social inequality. Women, in particular, bore the brunt of water scarcity in their traditional household roles. They suffered human rights violations in the form of gender-based violence – and still do today. For decades, the women have led a process of struggle by rural communities for access to water, environmental resilience, and political participation.

They started by organizing to develop water reservoirs in the 1980s, with support from international organizations. Realizing that policy support is essential to improve the water infrastructure, community women led meetings, marches, and mobilizations to persuade the municipal administration to invest in water supply projects. From these beginnings, they sustained growing efforts over the following decades to improve rural people’s lives and advance adaptation actions.

Neusa Cadore is a leader who rose to prominence as a champion for rural communities and the women of Pintadas. Neusa was born in Santa Catarina in south Brazil, one of the most developed regions of the country where everything was plentiful and abundant. She went to Pintadas in 1984 to work for two years as a nurse and missionary of the Catholic Church. When she arrived, she found a place completely different from her home. Pintadas was in the throes of a severe drought and the population was starving. Neusa observed that formal government was largely absent, but local people were united in their determination to change their lives for the better.

Neusa Cadore

Neusa fell in love with Pintadas and the social movement. She learned to bathe with little water and endure the scorching sun, and became involved in community organizations to improve her circumstances. Local people convinced Neusa to run for mayor in 1998. She won the elections and became the first woman mayor of the Workers’ Party in Bahia. She governed for two consecutive terms. Her work transformed the small municipality into a benchmark in Brazil for its actions aimed at social and ecological sustainability.

Rural Communities Define How to Live with the Drought

After Neusa was elected mayor in 1996, she invited residents to determine, through public debates, what local development issues should take priority. Water was identified as the most pressing need, so people in the community focused their efforts on taking the fullest possible advantage of the scarce rainfall. They built rainwater harvesting tanks for every rural household and farm – making Pintadas the first municipality in the northeast to have 100% household water supply in rural areas.

The town built water harvesting tanks to provide an alternative to the salty piped water supply, particularly for cooking and drinking. They built small dams to create ponds for farmers to store water for crop irrigation. This pioneering work inspired similar government water supply programs at state and federal levels in Brazil, winning support from international partners, universities, and public leaders.

Neusa at the Delícias do Sertão restaurant, run by the women of Pintadas, which sells various products from the region’s family farms. She is holding a bag of licuri.

In 1999, Rede Pintadas (Pintadas Network) was formed, with the goal of the social and economic empowerment of women; social inclusion of youth; collaboration and solidarity for the economic, water, and food and nutritional security of vulnerable families; and the sustainability of family farming. Rede Pintadas is composed of 15 non-governmental organizations. Within the network, which was formalized in 2003, the women organized themselves as the Women’s Association. In 2019, a Platform of Grassroots Women Practitioners of Resilience was created to consolidate the work the women were already doing as part of the association, as well as to strengthen international partnerships with other women’s networks, such as the Huairou Commission. (See The Huairou Commission: A Women-Led Solidarity Movement).

In its early days, Rede Pintadas focused on initiating sustainable agroecological methods and environmentally conscious ways of living and working that would be compatible with the climate and ecology of the semi-arid region. Members formed a range of cooperatives, which have created job opportunities and have generated economic value from local raw materials. These include an agroindustry to process pulp from native fruits, as well as cooperatives for goat and sheep, honey, and egg production, among others. All of these activities suit the local climate better than cattle rearing, ensuring resilience in the face of increasingly prevalent droughts. These were augmented with a revolving loan fund.

The money that started the revolving loan fund was donated by the international Huairou Commission to the Platform of Grassroots Women, which in turn made a partnership with the Public Centre for Solidarity Economy. The capital available for lending was supplemented by the Bahia State Government’s Department of Labor, Employment and Income, which coordinates the State Solidarity Economy Policy. In Bahia, the government has established 15 solidarity economy centers – Pintadas has the oldest one, operating since 2013. Rede Pintadas manages the revolving loan fund that serves solidarity-based economic enterprises in Pintadas and 14 other municipalities of the region.

Rather than trying to combat the drought, economic activities increasingly focused on “living with the drought”. These include:

  • Processing fruit pulp from umbu (Spondias tuberosa, also known as the Brazilian plum) and acerola (Malpighia emarginata DC) – native fruits that grow well in the region (processing and packaging generate products that store well and can be sold in local markets and to schools, including for school lunches).

  • Production and marketing of lamb meat.

  • Honey production, using agroecological practices.

  • Vegetable production in kitchen gardens.

Activities developed by Rede Pintadas to use water more efficiently, and explicitly, to adapt to climate change include:

  • Using underground water tanks, where possible, to collect water and decrease evaporation.

  • Using canvases on the arid ground to collect rainwater for fish production and household-level agriculture.

Women’s conversation circle.

Rede Pintadas members sought to improve the legal and policy environment for their work by supporting the creation of a state law recognizing the legal status of cooperatives, permitting cooperatives to access government funds. This law is now in force.

Women producers also worked with state legislators to create special protected status for the umbu fruit. Known as the green gold of the sertão (the name for the dry rural northeast), the umbu grows in the caatinga. The state law now recognizes the umbu fruit as part of Bahia’s biocultural heritage, protecting the species from indiscriminate cutting and requiring the government to support the development of its processing chain.

The same law protects the licuri coconut palm, also a plant indigenous to the caatinga region. Women traditionally used the licuri coconut for various culinary delicacies, such as sweets and oils, and the fibers for making handicrafts and bags. Today this practice is almost extinct due to over-cutting of the plants, but there are groups of women in the region who still depend on it for their livelihoods. Rede Pintadas provides them with technical assistance, while the law protects the trees. The members of Rede Pintadas consider these “horizontal integrations” between policy and practice to be fundamental – they want to amplify their concerns to the national level in Brazil.

Neusa became known for the work she did in Pintadas to provide the municipality with water access and to mobilize women’s political engagement. She ran for and was subsequently elected to the Bahia state legislature, where she is one of ten women out of 63 parliamentarians. She is now serving a fifth consecutive term in office. Her position has opened a channel into political representation for local community concerns at the state government level.

Production of water tanks to conserve precious fresh water and reduce evaporation in a heavily drought-affected climate.

How Challenges Are Addressed

The more effective participation of young people in the movement remains a need that is slowly being addressed by Rede Pintadas and the community. Young people are being encouraged to participate in agricultural cooperatives and local associations that are involved in strengthening food security in communities, as well as in providing job and income opportunities.

There are no universities nearby and Rede Pintadas loses a lot of human capital when young people leave to join universities elsewhere. The network views empowering the community, especially young people, girls, and women, and valuing their contributions as fundamental steps towards achieving lasting change, as well as building a more just, equitable, and sustainable society.

Combating violence against women and structural machismo – strong or aggressive masculine pride that is manifested as discrimination against women – also requires ongoing work. The Platform for Grassroots Women of Rede Pintadas keeps tackling gender-based violence and aiming to shift social norms toward gender equality. The women find strength and solidarity in organizing training and dialogue to shift community mindsets – both around climate-resilient agroecology, and explicitly around gender-based discrimination and violence. The network trains women and youth leaders, highlighting their contribution to local development, as well as fair and sustainable value chains. It has mobilized young people to interview the women and tell their stories, triumphs, and innovations through diverse media (including through this publication).

Creating the Platform of Grassroots Women has enabled the women to focus and articulate their demands for women’s human rights in the context of adaptation action. Being a part of the Huairou Commission’s network also gives these women access to knowledge, moral support, and confidence via solidarity movements worldwide.

Resources for agroecological activities are always a challenge. At the moment, Rede Pintadas lacks sufficient agricultural inputs, such as seedlings, to meet its ambitions.

Structural power imbalances and historic forms of political, social, and economic marginalization of certain groups within Bahian society inform Rede Pintadas’ work and its aspirations for institutional legacy. The network continues to emphasize the need for historical reparations, involving the recognition of the rights of traditional communities, including Indigenous peoples and quilombolas (Afro-Brazilian peoples), documenting their specific experiences and needs (including those related to climate change), and enacting public policies that guarantee access to land, water, education, health, and other rights.