Tapestry 2030

Episode 5: Nourishing Community in Guinea Bissau


Safa (intro): You are listening to the Ontario Council for International Cooperation’s ‘Tapestry 2030’ podcast series, focused on the future of international cooperation and global solidarity, and the partnerships needed for gender transformative, sustainable development.

My name is Safa, and I’m your host. 

In this series I’ll be in conversation with diverse development actors and leaders from across Ontario and around the world, learning how they are working together to address some of the most pressing sustainable development challenges of our time.

You’ll hear stories of partnership; approaches to ‘Just Recovery’ in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic; and insights on ways you can make a difference in our collective work to ‘leave no one behind’. 

Rugui: Resilience to me means hope, hope that people can come together and work for a better future. That’s what resilience means to me.

Eric: Resilience is important, but it’s not sufficient. We need to go further. We need to address the root causes that are putting people in vulnerable situations.

Safa: Today we are in conversation with Inter Pares, a Canadian NGO that works both domestically and internationally, and their partner Tiniguena  in Guinea Bissau. They have a 30 year long relationship and one of the many social issues they work on addressing is food sovereignty and women’s economic empowerment. 

Rugui: My name is Rugui Balde. I work as a Project Assistant in Tiniguena. And my main role is to assist in the identification and elaboration of projects in Tiniguena. I work very closely with the Managing Director as well as the different teams in the different projects. 

Eric: My name is Eric Chaurette. I work at Inter Pares, and Inter Pares is a Canadian social justice organization that’s based in Ottawa. I joined the organization in 2005 and I have had the pleasure of working with Tiniguena from the beginning.

Eric: Inter Pares is a feminist organization. It really works closely with women to create more agency and to address the root causes of inequality. We work both in Canada on social justice issues and link that work with international work. So Interpares began to work with Tiniguena back in 1991. Back in the 80s, there were a lot of structural adjustment programs that were happening in countries in the global south. And a lot of governments had taken on huge amounts of debt, and then all of a sudden those debts needed to be repaid – and the World Bank and the IMF started imposing some very strict conditions for debt repayment. And this led to really the dismantling of a lot of government social services to the populations. And it was quite devastating for a lot of countries in the global south, including in Guinea Bissau. And so a lot of programs that existed – for example, in terms of rural extension, where there was support to farmers, agricultural research was dismantled, a lot of the basic public health care services were very much reduced as well. And at the same time, some groups began to organize – so civil society began to organize, to try and fill in some of these gaps. And so this is the context where Tiniguena was created. At the time, there was a young intellectual, she was also working at the Ministry of Education in Guinea Bissau, her name is  Augusta Henriques. She had worked with Paulo Freire who is a very well known popular educator, and he is also the author of the Pedagogy of the Oppressed. And so she was very much influenced by his work and she worked alongside him when he came to Guinea Bissau. Paulo Freire is originally from Brazil, and a lot of his work was done in the favelas there working on literacy and critical pedagogy. And so Augusta carried that methodology of organizing and of popular education and of critical awareness – of questioning some of  the conditions under which people were living. Asking questions such as why – why is there so much poverty? Asking the whys, which is very important. And then she had a dream, she said, well, you know, I want to see the communities thrive in my country, but I also want to protect the beautiful biodiversity that exists here. And so she had a dream of creating her organization called Tiniguena, which means “this land is ours” in the local language. And so we were supporting some work around non formal education –  we got to know Augusta and we got to hear about this dream of hers and we helped her raise some funds and helped her and her colleagues found Tiniguena. So this happened back in 1991. And since then, we’ve continued to support and work with Tiniguena. And it’s been a beautiful relationship ever since. Augusta likes to say that Inter Pares was a midwife for Tiniguena – I really like the sound of that.

Rugui: Tiniguena was an organization that was part of an emergency movement of civic organizations that bet on boosting a new dynamic, effective, population participation in the construction of a New Guinea Bissau. Tiniguena was part of the civil society organizations that marked the evolution of civil society itself. Tiniguena has its mission to promote a participatory and sustainable development, based on the conservation of natural resources, natural and cultural resources, and the exercise of civic action, envisioning a Guinea Bissau where local people can make their contributions to the well being of their country and benefit from the process. Tiniguena works on several different aspects and topics, including gender issues. Its support for issues related to female emancipation has existed since its very foundation. The main example we have is in Urok, which is a complex of three different islands located in the Bijagos islands, the famous Bijagos islands in Guinea Bissau – that constitutes the main intervention area of Tiniguena. Here, Tiniguena has been operating since the 90s, and where our work with women has brought considerable improvements to their lives. A curious story about our involvement Urok is that it was also through a woman that Tiniguena started its intervention in Urok. She was a very well known and respected community leader. It was them who approached Tiniguena, when they were giving a capacity building training in one of the islands in the Bijagos islands and invited Tiniguena to also provide some training to the woman in their community. The intervention then was so successful, that Urok eventually became Tiniguena’s main intervention area, creating a women led organization that promoted their rights there. So working with women and with initiatives that support female leaders was always in the fabric of Tiniguena. The work with women continues today. And a great example of that is with the rural woman project, where I had the opportunity to participate, which aims to contribute to the strengthening of the participatory democracy in Guinea Bissau by promoting the exercise of equal citizenship rights between men and women in the political sphere. Personally, I had the opportunity to work in the field more actively in the first phase of the project. Now we are in the second phase, in the east coast of the country. But the first phase happened in the north, and I had the opportunity to get to know and to work and to get to know the real challenges faced by these women. Difficult socio economic challenges that they face. Most of these women suffer and are deprived from what we would consider normal, they are deprived from that. In most cases, these women are not only responsible for domestic activities, but also for ensuring agricultural production and guaranteeing the sustenance of their families, for example, as well the education of their children. They are also the ones who suffer not only from having little access to places where the decisions are made, which are mostly safeguarded by men – men that often end up dictating and defining how they should manage the various aspects of their own lives.

Safa: To better understand the context in which Tiniguena operates, it is helpful to have an understanding of the geographical landscape that has shaped the knowledge systems of local communities. 

Rugui: So the landscape is typical Guinean landscape, wide open spaces where you have access to water and the land, you have lots of vegetation and you know, they live in island – so it’s just beautiful to be there in Urok, the islands of Formosa, Chediã and Nago, Chediã. The communities in Urok are very united. And they work together on many occasions, they are basically communities that through their beliefs, they work in protecting their natural resources. Tiniguena’s work with them just came to complement those beliefs – they are very resilient, and they are believers in preserving what’s theirs and promoting their values very strongly.

Eric: There’s a lot of biodiversity, also a lot of cultural diversity, from one region of the country to the next. There’s many different languages that are spoken. And then when you go into the archipelago, to the Bijagos archipelago –  it’s called the Bijagos archipelago because it’s inhabited by the indigenous Bijagos people, they have very strong values around protection of nature and the Bijagos people have an animist culture. Nature is sacred to them. And they have a lot of rules and rituals to protect the biodiversity, to protect the forest, to protect the animals that live there. And so when Tiniguena started working in the archipelago, there were efforts to create a protected area there. And quite differently from the experience that we’ve had in other parts of the world – when a natural protected area is created, often people who were living there are kicked out. In Guinea Bissau, it was quite different. There was a recognition that the indigenous peoples there cared for the land and the waters and the animals. So there was an effort to build a conservation plan based on the local ecological knowledge of the Bijagos. And so there were studies done in the Bijagos islands to look at were the most important productive biological areas were – so for example, fish spawning grounds, and these were mapped out and often what would happen is the areas that were most critical habitats for a variety of species were also identified as the most sacred areas by the Bijagos. So there was a perfect overlap of traditional ecological knowledge with traditions that controlled the access to those areas, and what people can do in those areas. So that’s just to give you a sense of the incredible knowledge that exists in terms of protecting biodiversity. So just to give you an idea of what the Bijagos islands looks like –  when you travel there, its surprising, because usually when you travel to islands that are inhabited, the villages are on the coastline, whereas once you get to the Bijagos islands, the villages are in the heart of the islands, like in the forests. And the islands are surrounded by dense mangrove forests, and as you walk into the islands, you will see a lot of palm trees and then there are a lot of palm savannah habitat and there is rice growing. And then further in, you have more dense forests. And so it’s quite a diverse environment. And surrounding the villages, you have these towering mango trees that provide so much fruit for the inhabitants. So it’s quite a beautiful, beautiful area. And the Bijagos have been very careful not to cut the mangrove forests because they understand how important and critical role that these forests play for the protection of the coastline, to prevent erosion. And of course today with climate change, we understand that ocean levels are rising. And so it is so important to protect those mangrove forests, to prevent the islands from eroding.

Safa: Over the past decades, Inter Pares and Tiniguena have worked together on various projects to promote food sovereignty and the economic empowerment of women farmers. 

Eric: So as mentioned before, Inter Pares is a feminist organization. We’ve seen the power that happens and the changes that can happen when women come together and organize to address root causes of inequalities in their communities, and even in their countries. And it’s no different in Guinea Bissau, where we’ve been working for 30 years now. To give you a sense of this –  and to talk about one initiative in particular, which is creol, a language that is spoken in Guinea Bissau, which means: what we have has value. And in this country, there’s a lot of problems with agricultural dumping. You have rice that’s produced more cheaply elsewhere, from Thailand for example, or from the US, and that’s dumped on to the markets in Guinea Bissau, which has a really devastating effect on farmers economies there. And so Tiniguena has worked really hard to support agricultural production that’s local, that’s ecological as well, and where you build more autonomy within the communities. What’s extremely important to understand is that there’s a lot of models that are being pushed or encouraged by large corporations that actually are very disempowering to farmers. So the introduction of seeds that only grow well if you introduce chemical fertilizers and pesticides, is one model that’s  being pushed by these multinational companies. Also, under these arrangements, the farmers that purchase these seeds can’t use them from one season to the next. So that’s quite a problem. These are agricultural methods that are quite vulnerable to shocks. And Tiniguena has really understood that what needs to be cultivated in Guinea Bissau is food sovereignty. So when we’re talking about food sovereignty for Guinea Bissau and for Tiniguena, it’s about farmers control and autonomy. They don’t want farmers to be dependent on foreign companies’ inputs, chemical inputs. And so they want to rely on the local knowledge, the local biodiversity, the local seed diversity, and practice agriculture in a way that’s sustainable, but also in a way that farmers maintain control over their lands, over their seed systems, how they grow the food and also how they sell it – and so exerting control in terms of markets. And so by doing so you ensure food security, and by working to develop a demand for these local foods you’re also ensuring markets for these foods, and you’re also maintaining the amazing diversity and all the delicious flavors that come with these foods that are grown locally. And so a beautiful example of this is what’s happening in the Bijagos islands, where there are a lot of local rice varieties that are grown and that are quite nutritious. And Tiniguena is working with a  network of seed savers , as they call them. And this network of seed savers is predominantly made up of women. And you know, seed saving in Guinea Bissau is women’s business. And there’s a lot of care in terms of preserving the seeds, the diversity, how to store them properly to prevent them from being eaten by rodents or other pests, and to care for those seeds and to prepare them for the next planting. And so the network of seed savers brings together seed savers from all the different villages through the archipelago, and it’s been quite effective in terms of building an important seed supply for the islands to ensure their food security. And as we know, with the pandemic, there has been a lot of interruptions in terms of supply chains, which has put into danger the agricultural season of many farmers. Whereas in the Bijagos islands, in those communities, because they have their seed stocks of their local varieties, and because they weren’t dependent on foreign inputs, they were able to plant and today they are food secure. So we see the resilience there. And so that is really important.

Rugui: Basically, in Guinea Bissau, and I think in most African countries, the production agriculture is really led by women, and they are the main personalities working to produce food, and they are at the forefront of the sustenance of the family. The food security really has women’s faces all over it. Therefore, they are the face of it, and they are the champions.

With regards to the promotion of those products, that Tiniguena really puts the efforts into bringing those products into the public and sells them in Tiniguena’s shop in our headquarters, and also promoting those products within local schools and local farmers markets and spaces like that. We really try to, you know, bring awareness to people in that aspect, that people should really consume what is local and what is naturally produced.

Safa: As an archipelago, Guinea Bissau faced unique challenges brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.  

Rugui: This pandemic obviously caught everybody by surprise. And in Guinea Bissau, where there is already huge limitations and difficulties in many different aspects of these women’s lives – this pandemic just came to make things even more difficult. For example, food production, basically, with the lockdown and the lockdown measures, it was really difficult in many of these communities, particularly in the islands for them to have access to the markets, to the main market, which is in the mainland in Bissau. So it was really hard to basically get their products out there to be sold. So that was a great economic restraint. And the way that some women found a way out and a way to survive this was – I was speaking to my colleague who works there, and he was explaining to me that what they did was to try to trade the products amongst them, since they couldn’t have access to the markets, because of the problems with transportation and the limited access to the roads. So they were trading products amongst them and exchanging products amongst them, and really surviving in that way. So that is one of the things that they did in Urok, also in ____ where the rural woman project is working now. There was huge, huge challenges with regards to road access, not only imposed by the lockdown, but also because of the weather. During that time, it was the rainy season in Guinea Bissau. So the access to the main markets was almost inexistant. The majority of these women’s products really got rotten and they didn’t manage to sell them out. So those were the biggest challenges during this pandemic. 

Safa: One woman who was impacted by these challenges is Sali Camará – who has 7 children, lives in Cabidu, and produces and sells palm oil. 

Sali in Portuguese: Cresci e aprendi naturalmente o trabalho de óleo de Palma, que para começar o negócio vai precisar de pelo menos 1000 francos CFA que compra 10 cachos de chabéu ( Elaeis guineenses), ferve e depois tritura manualmente num pilão, mas, com existência de máquina na redondeza, eu levo o meu produto depois de triturado para fazer a extração e separação devida do produto desejado, mas, quando não se tem a máquina para essa separação do produto desejado que depois se fará o óleo de palma dos seus rezíduos, faço manualmente. O caroço que se torna rezíduo serve pode se extrair o seu óleo para o fabrico de sabão preto, e que vendido ainda se tem uns trocados. Para se obter um óleo mais limpo, é necessário quebrar o caroço e assar a amêndoa deste para se extrair o seu óleo que as vezes eu forneçopara as mulheres que trabalham com frituras. Contudo,com esta doença houve muita perda, pois não se conseguiu ir para Bissau para vender nem chabéu nem sabão e nem o óleo. Por isso digo para qualquer pessoa que não conhece Cabidu, que se trabalhar muito consegues viver da lavoura de batata, mandioca, feijão e de hortaliças também.

SALI ENGLISH TRANSLATION: I grew up and naturally learned the work of palm oil. 

To start the business it needs at least 1000 CFA francs; that buys 10 measures of palm kernels.

 We boil it and then grind it manually in a pestle. 

But with the existence of a machine in the area, I take my product after crushing to do the extraction and proper separation for the desired product. 

But, when you do not have the machine for separation, then the palm oil will be made from the residue. I do it manually. The seed that becomes residual can be extracted from its oil for the manufacture of black soap, which is sold after having some left over. To obtain a cleaner oil, it is necessary to break the core and bake the kernel almond to extract its oil, which I sometimes provide for women who work with fried foods. 

However, with this disease (COVID-19) there was a lot of loss, as it was not possible to go to Bissau to sell either soap or oil. That’s why I tell anyone who doesn’t know Cabidu, that if you work hard you can make a living from potato, cassava, beans and vegetables too.

Safa: During this time, Inter Pares provided Tiniguena with extra funds to support various pandemic related projects. 

Rugui: During this pandemic we manage, Inter Pares provided some extra funds to Tiniguena, which enabled us to go out and work with the communities in our intervention areas. In Urok, which is in the south. We managed to conduct activities, such as conduct some campaigns regarding to COVID, and how people should deal with COVID and how to avoid COVID. Also, with that fund, we also managed to basically in Urok, reestablish the local radio, which wasn’t working at the time. So we managed to get some new equipment and reestablish the local radio. And through that radio, we launched many different campaigns to bring awareness to people with regards to the dangers of COVID and how they should behave around COVID. And also, with that funding, we managed to provide people with some food and hygiene assistance, and to train local nurses on how to deal with COVID measures. We were able to do those things with the funding provided by Inter Pares.

Safa: The partnership between Inter Pares and Tiniguena is shaped by shared values and a common cause.  

Eric: Inter Pares means “among equals” in Latin, and that really reflects the values that we espouse as an organization. Among equals internally means that for example, Inter Pares is not a hierarchy. We are organized horizontally and so we are all co-managers. Of course, feminist thought and practices have been extremely important in terms of influencing how we’re organized internally. We also are quite critical of the charity model, we believe in social justice. We identify organizations who share those values of seeing the world as a place of inequality and understanding that we need to address those inequalities to transform that world. And so of course, Tiniguena is a perfect example of an organization that’s locally rooted, that has a strong women leadership within the organization. And also that shares these values. I think a lot of international development organizations will open offices overseas, whereas Inter Pares we only have the single office here in Ottawa. And we prefer to partner with local organizations so that we don’t occupy that political or civic space that belongs to those organizations in those countries. We are also activists here in Canada, we try to change things here, to push for more progressive stances, more progressive policies to advance social change. And we support organizations in the global south so that they can also do that in their own countries, but we’re not the ones dictating what they should say or do. It really is this common cause relationship. Common cause to us also means that we share knowledge and help each other. And so it’s extremely important for us, when we’re doing policy work here in Canada for example, and we’re trying to influence the government’s positions on climate change or on biodiversity or the destructive role that certain mining companies are playing internationally, we try to make sure our policy positions are informed by the reality on the ground. And so it’s so important to have partnerships such as Tiniguena, who can give us that advice, that expertise, and that knowledge, and that can really help us bolster the case for policy positions to try to influence the Canadian government. So it really is a common cause relationship that we seek to develop with partners in the global south.

Rugui: Most of the times, we find that the international development organizations try to impose their own line of work to the local organizations that they work with, which is often very challenging, because the local NGOs or the local organization work in different environments that are usually very challenging, and that those imposed work structures do not always work well in those environments. And so the work that Inter Pares does, or their approach, it’s really, I think the way forward. This collaborative way of working and cooperating, it just helps complement each other’s goals, you know?

Safa: Furthermore, the work of Tiniguena is always community led. 

Rugui: We empower the communities in different aspects and lines of work. But at the end of the day, the communities are the ones who design the way they want to work. They are the ones who lead the way to change. For example, in Urok, we have the marine protected area, which is led by the community. The community organized themselves and really manage that area, the way they want to basically – Tiniguena just helps them in a way of structuring maybe the administrative work of it, but it’s really led by the community, it’s enforced by the community and this is for the community. So they are the ones responsible for building change, because that’s the way also of guaranteeing the sustainability of the actions. You know, if you involve the communities, and they really engage in it, then there is a higher chance that things will go on and be sustainable. That’s one of the main, Tiniguena’s main methodology, to really empower communities so that they are independent, independent in their action, and that they can take those actions forward.

Eric: So a major takeaway for me working with Tiniguena over all these years is that there’s a lot of hope. You know, we hear about wars, disease, droughts – there’s sort of this image of like helplessness that’s projected, and it really is a disservice And it’s not a full reflection of the reality on the ground. There’s a lot of hope and resilience. The communities where Tiniguena works are food secure, because they’ve been able to protect the forests or the waters, the ecosystems where they can draw their sustenance. The communities are extremely vibrant,  the cultures are live, food traditions are extremely rich. And in a lot of these communities, social structures have been developed to enable people to help each other to face adversity. And so one really inspiring example for me is Tiniguena’s work on school meals programs. So Tiniguena is working with a network of 2,000 rural women across the country to grow local, ecological vegetables and these vegetables then go to schools to nourish children across schools in Guinea Bissau. And not only is this school meals program providing nutrition for the children, but it’s also providing an incentive for parents to send their children to school to at least get one square meal a day. And it is also an incentive for families to send their girls to school, because often, because of patriarchy, because of certain attitudes, girls might be kept at home, and it’s the boys that will be sent to school. But now because there’s the school meals programme, it is an incentive for families to send their girls to schools. So you’ve created an initiative, a social safety net that improves nutrition for children, but that also establishes a secure market for women to sell their products. 

Safa: One of those women is Mónica Nbundé who has 3 children and lives in Cafine.  She has been selling rice to the school meals program for about 1 year. 

Monica in Portuguese: Este ano a minha família vendeu cerca de 20 toneladas, por ser o primeiro ano que vendemos para o projeto, e comisso percebi que a minha vida melhorou porque com a venda ao projeto consigui levar os meus filhos para o hospital, e estou pagando a mensalidade escolar com mais tranquilidade e ainda sobra. 

Eu gostaria na medida do possível, que o projeto ajudasse com utensílios e ferramentas para fortificar a horticultura da tabanka. Uma máquina de descasque de arroz, seria de grande valia, pois, melhoraria as condições de trabalho, isso porque, a máquina facilita o descasque e então agiliza em se ter condições para se contratar os lavradores. E sobre o arroz deparamos com problemas de pragas nas bolanhas, então usamos o método alternativo de combate a pragas que é o de folhas de tambacumba deixado no molho por diaque se depois se aplica diretamente nas folhas.

ENGLISH TRANSLATION: This year my family sold about 20 tons to the school canteen project. 

As it was the first year we sold for the project,  I realized that my life has improved because with the sale to the project I managed to take my children to the hospital, and I’m paying the monthly fee with more peace of mind.

I would like, as far as possible, that the project help with utensils and tools to strengthen the horticulture of the village. A rice hulling machine would be of great value because it would improve working conditions, because the machine facilitates hulling and then speeds up the ability to hire farmers. We also face pest problems with rice polders, so we use the alternative method of pest control which is that of leaving tambacumba leaves in the sauce daily.

Safa: Eric further added that Guinea Bissau’s school meals program should be an inspiration and call to action for Canada. 

Eric: We’re one of the richest countries in the world. Yet we’re the only country, member of the G7, without a national school food program. It’s ridiculous. Guinea Bissau is doing it. And the food that they’re providing their students is locally grown, there’s no pesticides, it’s healthy. And it’s a great market for local farmers. Why can’t we do this here? So we have a lot to learn from Tiniguena, and I feel really privileged to have worked with them these past 15 years. And I hope to continue to work with them for the next 15. 

Rugui: Just to add to what Eric was saying, I think the way to move forward and to have meaningful impact at the local level is really by working together, just the way Tiniguena and Inter Pares do, you know, in a collaborative way. It’s really impactful to work in a collaborative way, just the way the communities do. Those communities, the people and these women that work in those communities often work together and work in a collaborative way. And that is a way forward to me  – that line of work is the way forward and should be the way of the future, in my opinion, because that’s the way of developing communities and developing a country.

Safa (outro): To learn more about their common cause partnership and the work of Inter Pares and Tiniguena – you can visit the website: www.interpares.ca, follow them on social media and feel free to send them a message of support. 

Thank you to all our wonderful guests for sharing their story with us today. Make sure to tune in to the next episode of the Tapestry 2030 podcast as we continue to share other stories from our OCIC membership community.

The Ontario Council for International Cooperation  is an expanding community of members working for global social justice, human dignity and participation for all.  Join us! Visit https://ocic.on.ca/ to learn more.