Elisabeth Cardoso
Ashoka Fellow since 2022   |   Brazil

Elisabeth Cardoso

CTA- Zona da Mata
Note: the following Fellow is on sabbatical from the Fellowship. Should you have any questions regarding this Fellow, please feel free to contact us here.
Beth is paving the way for rural women to access training opportunities, financing, and other public programs through a data gathering and educational tool that sheds light on the work undertaken by…
Read more
This description of Elisabeth Cardoso's work was prepared when Elisabeth Cardoso was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2022.


Beth is paving the way for rural women to access training opportunities, financing, and other public programs through a data gathering and educational tool that sheds light on the work undertaken by women in rural areas, recognizing their role in the economy and enabling them to access a series of benefits and gender equality.

The New Idea

Despite the strong family agriculture movement and women’s presence in it, gender disparity is blocking the development of food production, as women are not seen as part of the economic system. Women’s roles are often considered inferior, and their voices silenced, as their work is considered less important as it apparently does not generate relevant financial assets. This assumption in turn deprives them of training opportunities, access to credit, and public retirement that would contribute even more to food production and wellbeing.

Acknowledging this vicious cycle, Beth developed a simple and adaptable methodology to gather women’s economic value in family, traditional, and peasant agriculture and make it visible. The methodology materializes the social and economic participation of women in rural areas where they record what they sell, consume, exchange, and donate from their backyards’ production. This information, which has never been recorded before, triggers changes in the quality of life of women. Empowered and placed as part of the economic system, these women can reclaim their rights within family, communitarian, and public spheres. The data generated is also serving as evidence for women to access loans from the main federal program to access rural credit PRONAF (Programa Nacional de Fortalecimento da Agricultura Familiar) and to access proper retirement. Research that monitored Beth’s methodology used by agriculture networks in the Amazon, Northeast and Southeastern regions has proven that woman’s backyards: 1) exist and are productive; 2) preserve agrobiodiversity; and 3) that they are relevant in the income maintenance of familiar, peasant and traditional agriculture in Brazil.

Beth has used the systematized women’s production data to influence long term and systemic changes, with the creation of specific rural public policies for women. The political-pedagogical instrument developed was inserted, for example, in the technical assistance of the State Government of Bahia and the Municipality of Afogados da Ingazeira, in the state of Pernambuco. In Bahia, the state policy on Technical Assistance and Rural Extension for Women - implemented by the SDR (Rural Development Secretariat) through Bahiater (Bahia Superintendence for Technical Assistance and Rural Extension) - serves 5,400 women in communities rural areas of 60 municipalities in 11 Identity Territories in Bahia. Besides local governments, Beth has been disseminating the methodology in partnerships with citizen and multilateral institutions such as the UN's International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD).

The Problem

In Brazil, women make up 50% of the rural population (roughly 15 million people) and they lead 20% of the rural production units (Institute of Geography and Statistics – IBGE, 2017). Yet, only 12% of the agricultural units led by women receive some kind of technical assistance (Agricultural Census, 2017). Women-led families also suffered higher levels of food insecurity than those led by men, with 11% of women-led families reporting food security compared to 7.7% of those led by men (Rede Pennsan, 2020). When being part of a family unit led by men, women are considered less important because they apparently do not generate relevant financial values; their efforts including growing fruits and vegetables in family gardens, making sweets or handicrafts, and household utensils are not usually counted or respected.

Added to this, some of these women have no control over the income they earn, and they are deprived of training spaces and financing opportunities. When they are able to work as farmers, women are marked by inferiority, stigmatization, and silencing. The development of economic thought has adopted methods, themes and a pedagogy that attributes importance only to activities mediated by the market (Julie Nelson, 1995), making invisible the food production, the maintenance of the social fabric and the income obtained by women through self-consumption, exchange and donation relationships. It is necessary to seek references in other unorthodox economies, such as Feminist Economics, to place the sustainability of life at the center of economic analyzes (Amaia Orozco, 2019), and to give visibility to the work and contribution of women to the income of family farming, traditional and peasant.

The data generated by the Federal Government does not help to change the stigma, as the family income does not break out into each member’s contribution. Several data surveys and demographic censuses are unable to capture the participation and contribution of women in the family and rural economy, preventing them to access benefits and impeding policy makers to create specific support to them. Women's real production and economic contribution to family income is invisible, perpetuating inequalities and blocking women’s full potential to provide for their families and communities.

Given this situation, changes in the individual, family, and collective spheres are extremely necessary. For this to happen, one of the central points is to enable the identification and visibility of the real contribution of women in the micro and macro economy. By shedding light on the work undertaken by women and recognizing their central role in family farming, the path to access training opportunities, financing, and other public policies will be paved.

The Strategy

Beth has always dealt with gender disparities when working with family farming and agroecology. By coordinating capacity building strategies, political advocacy, and self-organization of women in agricultural networks with the Center for Alternative Technologies (CTA, a reference organization in this field), Beth realized that to foster women’s production and rights, it would be necessary to prove their economic contribution.

Beth knew, throughout her trajectory as a feminist and as an agronomist, that women’s backyard production had never been accurately captured by research, diagnoses, and census surveys, and that this invisibility contributed to the perpetuation of inequalities. In response, she led the creation of a political pedagogical tool to collect and measure women’s economic contribution, which she called Cardeneta Agroecológica. Since the initial implementation, the tool has been part of a broader training to develop women’s capacities, self-esteem, and empowerment. Beth wanted to guarantee that these women would be able participate actively to access proper support and benefits. The tool was designed to be accessible to women of all education levels; they record information about their daily production (what is sold, what is donated, what is exchanged, and what is consumed in the family) and organize them monthly. Its monitoring efficiency, guaranteed by its simplicity and training process, expands the definition of “contribution”, economically valuing social relationships of reciprocity, collaboration, care, subsistence and sustainability of life.

Aware of Brazil's social and cultural diversity, Beth initially disseminated the methodology and tool via several national and regional agroecological networks, articulated by the Working Group of Women of the Agroecology National Articulation (Working Group Women from ANA). With the support from several partner organizations, she brought together women farmers, peasants, quilombolas, indigenous peoples, extractivists, urban agriculture, researchers, and NGO technicians from different regions and biomes in Brazil to improve and adapt the methodology to other regions. Compiling all the knowledge generated by this implementation, the current methodology is composed by 1) a socioeconomic diagnosis: from which socioeconomic information is collected to build the profile of the women involved; 2 a map of the sociobiodiversity of the family backyard/production space, made to identify the biodiversity of women's production in backyards, crops, animal husbandry, valuing their agroecosystems; and 3) training to use the data gathering tool to enable the women to properly use the tool combined with a critical reflection of reality.

Beth explored this national implementation through civil society movements as an opportunity to monitor and fill data gaps about women’s economic and environmental contribution. Although the latest Brazilian census from 2017 produced separate information about units led by men and women, it did not provide detailed information about women’s economic contribution (especially when it’s not a women led unit). In partnership with the Federal University of Viçosa, she coordinated a 12 months research in 16 states from 4 different geographic regions of Brazil that reported an economic value of USD 312,000 (from 2017 to 2018) from women’s backyards, and most of this production would not have been accounted if it had not been noted in Beth’s new tool (the Caderneta Agroecológica). Beth and her team also proved the great contribution of women's backyards to the preservation of biodiversity, since women choose which species of vegetables and fruits will be cultivated based not only on an economic analysis but also cultural and affective values. A variety of 245 species were registered in women’s backyard gardens – one of the great assets of the agroecological system.

As a result of the methodology and data collection, women feel more empowered and recognize their self-worth; they are becoming more confident and actively making decisions regarding their production and the use of their land. Women have discovered that they were, in many cases, the main food provider of their family; others were able to identify that they earn more with fruit jelly, for example, than the coffee harvest (a historical and cultural practice) and switched crops. The average amount per family generated by women’s production varied from USD 188 to USD 155 - an income near the minimum wage salary that was not accounted by the family before. This also reflected in healthier and more balanced relationships inside their families, from the empowerment process generated, with women reporting a reduction of cases of domestic violence. Outside of the family dynamic, the registered data also serves as proof of their work as rural farmers, enabling women to gain access to rights such as public rural retirement (which requires proof of work in the industry to qualify).

Beth is actively engaging more actors across all regions of the country to implement the methodology and leverage this data to improve the lives of women and food production, influencing the creation of specific public policies. One dissemination strategy is through national and regional networks of family agriculture, agroecology, and rural movements, such as the Agriculture National Articulation (ANA) that consists of 23 state and regional networks. When training professionals that are going to implement the methodology, Beth follows the same process where the participants experience the activities and learn about technical aspects and women’s rights. While this continues to be an important scale up strategy, the results and recognition has enabled Beth to spread the initiative through international institutions such as IFAD (the International Fund for Agricultural Development), in 6 projects involving 909 women family farmers from 7 states in northeastern Brazil, 112 municipalities, with a total produced by all the farmers involved, over 13 months, of USD 578,007.85 (from 2019 to 2020), benefiting 71,00 families in Brazil, that would not have been accounted for without the application of Beth’s tool.

More recently, Beth succeeded in including the methodology as part of municipal and state public policies such as the Technical Assistance and Rural Extension of the Government of Bahia, Pernambuco, Minas Gerais, Sergipe, and Acre; in research and extension actions by INCAPER – State Institute for Research, Technical Assistance and Rural Extension of Espírito Santo; in 3 action research projects at UFV; in the Ginger project, an action research carried out through a partnership between the Research Institute for Development (IRD) of the University of Toulouse - France, SOF (Always Alive Feminist Organization), CTA/ZM and UFV; and at the Continental Political School of Agroecology at MAELA (Agroecological Movement of Latin America and the Caribbean). To ensure that the methodology and its tools are used for the intended purpose, the CTA registered the copyright and makes the methodology available free of charge with the commitment that the user institutions promote women's rights and report and protect the registered data. With the enrichment of the database that will come from bigger application of the methodology, Beth expects to place women as part of the rural economic system guaranteeing an even greater impact on public policies and systemic changes.

The Person

Beth's engagement with feminist and agroecological issues is related to a defining moment in her childhood. Born in Rio de Janeiro, the daughter of bank's employee from Rio and a nursing assistant from Paraíba, Beth had to deal with her parents' gross separation in her early years of life. Her father took her away, along with her brothers, and forbade their contact with her mother due to sexist and xenophobic biases: her father was afraid that his ex-wife would take his children to be cared for by their grandmother in rural Paraíba. This event motivated Beth to support and work for the rights of simple women and farmers, like her grandmother.

During her degree in Agronomy, she came into contact with the student movement and the Ecological Agronomy Group, which made Beth's desire for social change even stronger, a goal she never abandoned. She became director of the Academic Center of Agronomy and the Central Directory of Students, and represented the students on the Council for Teaching, the Council on Research and Extension, and the Collegiate of the Department of Soils. She was often the only woman among many men.

When she graduated in agronomy, she started working at FASE (one of the main community-based organizations in Brazil) and actively participated in the National Seminar on Gender and Family Farming, organized by the Semperviva Feminist Organization. This period is marked by the beginning of the debate on gender and family farming in Brazil. At the turn of the century, Beth began her journey at CTA, becoming coordinator in 2003. The following year, Beth co-created the Gender and Agroecology Seminar, leading to the foundation of the Women's Working Group of ANA. Her entire trajectory is marked by her commitment to gender and agroecological issues, themes that she also worked on in her master's degree in Spain. With the expansion of Agroecological Handbooks, Beth has used her doctorate to systematize more evidence on the methodology and articulate strategies for even broader and more grounded contributions.

What she learned from the agricultural women and from the feminism made Beth recognizes the prejudices and the discrimination that her mother lived, and she decided to look for her, promoting a reencounter with her mother and her brothers in 2005, finally making reconciliation with the maternal part of the family. Beth lived with her mother until her passing in 2011, and in this moment she received precious learning from her mother’s exclusion and resilience story. She shared these learnings with the agricultural women, who as Beth’s mother, also live in process of exclusion, giving continuity to the knowledge collective construction dynamic among women, through their experiences.

With the expansion of the use of Agroecological Handbooks, Beth has taken advantage of her doctorate in Natural Resources and Sustainable Management (in the line of research in Agroecology, Food Sovereignty and Common Goods), which she is currently studying, to systematize more evidence on the importance of production and the work of women farmers in generating income, maintaining socio-biodiversity, producing food and promoting food sovereignty and security for families; in addition to articulating strategies for even broader and more well-founded contributions to confront the inequalities to which women in family farming are subjected and in the construction, through feminism and agroecology, of a fair, egalitarian, healthy world in which work and economy are directed towards the sustainability of life.

Are you a Fellow? Use the Fellow Directory!

This will help you quickly discover and know how best to connect with the other Ashoka Fellows.