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Dona Nane

Fishing Bureaucracy

“Nowadays, children are raised on milk, right? But when I was born, my first food was puã de siri broth. Mommy, after she gave birth to me, went to Barra, caught the crab, cooked it, made the broth and gave it to me…that's why I like fish so much.”


Dona Nane is 78 years old. She is proud of her history. She says that she has been fishing in Barra do Tijuípe since she was only ten years old. Daughter of Serra Grande, Dona Nane is part of the first generation of people born in the small village. She has always lived there, sustaining herself and her family with small-scale agriculture and the artisanal fishing she was taught by her own parents. Fishing, she says, is at the core of her life - who she is as a person. When I met Dona Nane, I had already heard many stories about her role as president of the Association of Fishermen and Shellfish Gatherers of Serra Grande. For 12 years she led the association. Many fishermen highlight her contribution in fighting for the protection of the fishing way of life in the village.

Dona Nane is often mentioned by the other fisherwomen when the subject of the guardhouse comes up. The guardhouse was constructed by the new landowners on the banks of the estuary of the Tijuípe River, and staffed with guards to prevent the passage of fishermen through the area. Dona Nane is cited as responsible for a successful negotiation that allowed fishermen to pass through the gate even after the property became private. As Dona Paula says:

“Dona Nane didn't let it be, she went there, she fought with everyone, until they let us in.”

Dona Nane

Lia - Fisherwoman / First families of Barra Grande

As Dona Nane told me that when she was already of retirement age, Seu Badu, the former president of the Association of Fishermen and Shellfish Gatherers in Vila de Serra Grande, informed her that she had the right to retire as a fisherwoman, since she had lived her whole life from fishing. In this role as president of the association at the time, he helped her to do the documentation to get her RGP (General Fishing Registration), be recognized, retire, and draw a small pension. The RGP is the Brazilian government's registry for the regulation of fishing as an economic activity. It regulates fishing, guarantees labor rights such as unemployment insurance (paid periods during periods of prohibition of fishing of certain species to guarantee their reproduction and preservation) and retirement. However, the bureaucratic processes for acquiring the registration, which requires that fishers be exclusively employed in fishing and pay monthly dues, makes the practice unfeasible for many. This is especially true for women, who often fish as a way to supplement their income and obtain food, but who also simultaneously perform other economic activities to support the family.

Dona Nane on the balcony

Throughout her life, as she told me, Dona Nane did many things to raise her children. Born and raised in Serra Grande, Dona Nane accompanied all the changes in the small fishing village, experienced the sale of the land where she lived, and moved away from the coast, where she had to adapt to the new lifestyle. She raised children and grandchildren, took care of her husband and relatives, worked as a cleaner and cook, but she always fished when she could.

Fisherwoman / Fishing at sea

With her retirement, she had more time to dedicate to the Association of Fishermen and Shellfish Gatherers of Serra Grande, and she started to work for the association because she wanted to defend the fishermen. She started out as treasurer. As she proudly says, the association liked her work so much that they elected her as the president for four consecutive terms. She became known as the “mother of the fisherman.” She was in office for 13 years, during which time she supported many people in joining the colony. During her terms, Dona Nane held Christmas parties for fishermen, where she collected and distributed basic food baskets to the most needy families. This was a moment of great joy and connection for the community. She recounted how she even held a fishing competition in Barra do Tijuípe and that it was a great moment for the fishermen to be together and celebrate:

“There were tables full of fruit and a lot of fish.”

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However, as Dona Nane described, she was already old and tired, and she eventually decided to leave the position. But it is clear in how she talks about this time in her life that she misses her work fighting for the rights of her peers. The importance of community, the feeling of belonging to a group, and of fighting for collective rights were high points. However, things were much more challenging in the bureaucratic realm, where the colony was subject to state processes largely outside of the sphere of leaders’ knowledge and experience. When she left office, Dona Nane was completely in debt. She did not receive adequate information about tax obligations relevant to her mandate as president. As she explains it, she took on the job to help fishermen and shellfish gatherers, but she didn't know about the documents and taxes she had to pay.


“When I went to look, there was a lot of debt in my name, because I was president of the association. The same thing happened with Badu.”

Barra do Tijuípe

Dona Nane's challenges in this area are unfortunately quite common among the association presidents. Fishermen and shellfish gatherers, many of whom have limited schooling, take on leadership roles on the basis of their fighting spirit, but often without full understanding of the legislation. They do not receive any kind of training that would help them to grasp the complexities of the bureaucratic issues. Misinformation with regard to bureaucratic processes and taxes is frequent among fishermen. As a result, they often feel suspicious, deceived, and even exploited in their interface with state entities and end up moving away from official records and processes so as not to run the risk of making inadvertent mistakes. Fisherwomen also complain that the state does not have categories that “see” them. When I asked her about the difference between a fisherwoman and a shellfish gatherer, Dona Nane explained to me that a woman, in order to get her license (RGP), has to say that she is a shellfish gatherer, because for them (the State) a man is a fisherman and a woman is a shellfish gatherer. Women can not be fisherwomen.

Dona Nane's observation suggests how the mixture of misinformation about rights combined with the state's lack of knowledge of the specificities of fishing, especially for women in Brazil, create situations that end up making the women’s participation in the sector invisible. Dona Nane continued that while she certainly has collected a lot of shellfish in her life, what she liked most was fishing on the rocks with caniço. She fed all her children and grandchildren with the fish caught on the rocks. She is a fisherwoman and she wants to be recognized as such. Nonetheless, with the state’s administrative impositions, it is simply easier to label herself as a shellfish gatherer.

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Fishing in the rocks

The diversity of fishing techniques, as well as the different seasons for each type of fishing, reflect a broad and complex knowledge about the cycles of nature, all of which are transmitted orally from one fisherwoman to another. The richness of this knowledge should be valued, not reduced to a singular institutional category determined only by gender. Being a shellfish gatherer is not just about being a woman in fishing, and not just catching shellfish. It also means eating a variety of fish for a lifetime, as well as feeding children, grandchildren and neighbors from your catch, sharing food, knowledge, and relationships in solidarity and community. As Dona Nane told us, being a fisherwoman also means fishing for the love of doing it, and not for strictly economic purposes. It is to fight for the rights of your community, even while facing unfair limitations, such as a bureaucratic framework which is impossible for those who might not be fully literate. It is living close to nature. It is knowing the cycles of nature and respecting them. For this reason, the ocean and the mangroves are not merely precious environments but are also key to the social and cultural lives of the people who fish in them.

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O Barraco no Tijuípe

Dona Paula
Dona Maria
Dona Nane
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