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21 March 2024

Seeding change: How women harness agroecology for empowerment and resilience in rural Brazil

Watering the vegetable garden at Milton Santos Settlement in 2019.

Photo by Karen Nobre Krull.

Although women play a critical role in food systems, they face striking inequalities which make them most at risk of climatic, economic, and social chocks. Making up 43% of the global agricultural labour force, they represent less than 15% of all landholders. Such structural power imbalances severely limit women’s access to resources and opportunities and yet, women persist as key agents of change, driving transformative shifts within food systems globally. In this interview with Karen Nobre Krull, we explore how agroecology was used as a tool for empowerment and resilience by women in rural settlements of São Paulo, Brazil.

Karen Nobre Krull is a Brazilian agroecologist who has worked on projects in federal environmental and research institutions in Brazil, such as EMBRAPA, ICMBio and in the last year the NGO Imaflora. She is currently a visiting researcher at the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI).


  • Can you tell us about your work on agroecological food production in rural settlements of São Paulo, Brazil? In what context did it take place and what inspired you to undertake this project?

After visiting various rural communities in Brazil and recognising the vital role of family farming in both food production and environmental conservation, I started a bachelor’s degree in Agroecology and got involved in rural development and agroecological transition projects. Through these projects, I met people in rural agrarian reform settlements who despite their lack of formal education, displayed remarkable wisdom and resilience, maintaining hope and joy even in the face of considerable challenges. This experience motivated me to carry out this photographic record as my final course assignment, seeking to reduce the social prejudices that exist in Brazil against land reform settlers. It was also a way to celebrate and honour the work of rural women who greatly inspired me.

Cauliflower. Vergel Settlement in 2019.

Photo by Karen Nobre Krull.

Agroforestry System at Sepé Tiaraju Settlement in 2019.

Photo by Karen Nobre Krull.

  • What are some key agroecological practices that can be identified on the pictures?

It is possible to identify soil coverage, non-use of herbicides, multi-cropping and agroforestry. These practices ensure greater resilience of production systems, considering for example better use of water, soil protection, strengthening the microbiota, and nutrient cycling.

  • Could you elaborate on the challenges faced by women in these settlements and how agroecology has served as a tool for empowerment and resilience? What role have women played in driving agroecological transitions within their communities?

In the wake of the industrial agricultural expansion in the 1980s, traditional practices and local seed varieties were lost, leading to a decline in the resilience and autonomy of rural families. However, it is still common to see cultivated areas near rural households dedicated to ensuring the family’s food security and providing herbal medicine, preserving species and varieties passed down through generations. Typically managed by women, these areas are intended for family care and do not rely on chemical inputs. Women’s engagement in the cultivation of these areas make them more receptive to agroecological transition projects than men.

As a result, agroecological production systems led by women set the standard within their communities, showcasing effective models for the adoption of agroecological practices. In addition, when projects prioritise women as direct beneficiaries, they contribute to enhancing women’s financial autonomy. This aspect is particularly important given the persisting patriarchal structures in rural contexts, where the management of the family’s resources traditionally rests solely with the husband. Thus, the promotion of agroecology is a catalyst for empowering women and challenging established gender dynamics.

  • Based on your interactions with women within this community, what key factors contributed to the success of this bottom-up approach to agroecological transitions?

A dialogical approach, as expressed in Paulo Freire’s phrase “There is no knowing more or knowing less: there is different knowledge”, is highly relevant. It is important to consider the complexities of production systems and the challenges that individuals encounter in their specific contexts to develop solutions that are not only comprehensive but also practical and applicable. As such, developing solutions collaboratively between extension/technical workers and farmers is a key factor in a successful approach to agroecology.

  • How was art utilised in your research to raise awareness about the realities of women in rural settlements? How are women in rural settlements perceived by urban populations?

The photographic exhibitions aimed to raise awareness and reduce prejudice by offering a glimpse into women’s lives within rural agrarian reform settlements. Findings from a survey we shared during the exhibition revealed that people recognised the importance of the work carried out by these women and believed that it deserved greater recognition and appreciation. Our initiative unfolded against the backdrop of far-right politicians labelling the country’s largest agrarian reform movement, Movimento dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST), as a terrorist organisation. This shift in perceptions following the exhibition was a very positive outcome of our work.

Sweet potato planting III. Horto Bela Vista Settlement in 2019.

Photo by Karen Nobre Krull.

  • Based on your findings, what specific actions or initiatives would you suggest to better support and empower women involved in agroecological food production within rural settlements?

To efficiently empower women within agroecological transitions, rural extension programmes should facilitate exchanges among women. By creating opportunities for women to share experiences and knowledge, these programmes can strengthen networks and foster collective learning. Given the persistence of patriarchal norms in many regions, women often lack support in instances of violence, face undervaluation of their intense labour, and experience financial dependence on their husbands. To address these challenges, access to dedicated public financing is key, as is institutional support such as psychological assistance. The creation of associations and cooperatives striving for equity and transparency within organisations can play an important role in reducing inequalities. Finally, infrastructure improvements such as access to electricity and rural schools benefit women as well as the entire family.

  • How do you envision the role of women in agroecological food production evolving in the future, particularly within the context of rural settlements in Latin America?

Agroecology effectively addresses numerous contemporary crises by tackling challenges in systemic and inclusive ways. As the global momentum behind agroecology grows, it also strengthens local initiatives. Women not only work in production but also enhance its value, such as by creating fruit pulp and artisanal candies. They are increasingly engaged in the management of cooperatives and associations, particularly among the youth. With the continued strengthening of agroecology programmes, we can expect these activities to become more firmly established within communities.

  • Drawing from your work in São Paulo’s rural settlements, what lessons and practices do you see as applicable to other Brazilian regions dealing with similar social and environmental challenges?

After that experience, I worked in the Amazon region, specifically in Pará State. While each place is unique, there are some commonalities. The first lesson learned is the crucial importance of natural resources such as clean water, fertile soil, and pollination for rural families. Protecting the environment equates to safeguarding their livelihoods. The second lesson learned is the absence of rural development plans that embrace agroecology as a core strategy. In other words, there is great potential to involve professional agroecologists in the development of strategies at both local and national levels. The third lesson consists of including agroecology in projects of global interest aimed at climate change mitigation and adaptation, as well as strengthening bioeconomy production chains, because these projects can have a major beneficial impact. Agroecology precisely connects environmental and social issues through its systemic and inclusive perspective of rural development. As a results, it can be a game-changer at both operational and strategic levels.

Karen Nobre Krull’s photography work will be presented at Focali’s event “Stories of hope from tropical forests and how to strengthen promising pathways” on March 25th. This will also be an opportunity to hear about her research work on regenerative agriculture and cocoa agroforestry in deforestation frontiers of the Amazon.


This interview is part of SIANI’s ‘Tune in to Food Systems’ interview series composed of monthly interview articles with experts across fields dedicated to sustainable food systems.