Rural women play a fundamental role in the conservation of nature and the socio-economic development of communities and nations. However, the challenges are broad and deep-seated. Women throughout the world have to face major violations of their rights daily: Poverty, violence, wage gaps, limits to their participation in decision-making processes, and access to financing, to name just a few, are still the reality for many girls, youth, and adult women.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), the rural population in Latin America and the Caribbean corresponded to about 21% of the population in 2015 and represented just over 129 million people distributed in 33 countries. Of this total, almost half are women; and of these, about 20% belong to indigenous peoples. In Costa Rica, according to the 2014 Agricultural Census, the country has 80,987 agricultural producers, of which 84.4% are men and 15.6% women and of the total registered producers, only 13.5% expressed have received funding. Of this total, 12.1% are men and 1.4% are women.
Therefore, the efforts for gender equality are a fundamental priority to enable fair, inclusive, and resilient societies. In Río Jesús de Santiago, San Ramón -Costa Rica-, 23 women took a leap of faith and started working with organic agriculture and native stingless bee honey production (meliponas). Here we tell you one of their stories.
“Why only men?”
When Heimy Arguedas Madrigal, her mother Lidia María Madrigal Loria, and 21 other women from San Ramón asked themselves this question, they were still a long way off from knowing that they were opening a door to a new world of organic vegetable production and stingless – bee honey production (meliponiculture).
It was 2016. The men of the community of Río Jesús de San Ramón worked in various sustainable production projects aimed at the ecological restoration of their community and neighboring farms with the support of the Global Environment Facility’s (GEF) Small Grants Programme (SGP) – implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP). The initiative was vital to recover the most degraded watersheds in Costa Rica, the Jesús María’s river basin, and thanks to SGP ‘s partnership with the Advisory Commission on Land Degradation (known as CADETI), different practices have been implemented: reforestation, recycling, organic fertilizer production, soil conservation techniques, reduction of agrochemicals and improvement in pollination processes.
It was then that the women of the community decided to take up the challenge:
The decision led to an invitation for Heimy, and 22 other women, to receive training in a more ambitious project of organic production and stingless-bee honey production. The demand was such that the offer made to the original group of 15 women had to be expanded, as there were more than 20 women “knocking on the door” to participate in this important initiative.
Mrs. Lidia at first thought that the help was limited to receiving a theoretical course on how to make organic compost. However, she was greatly surprised, instead, she found herself part of a process that led to the construction of a small greenhouse and training on how to make it, as well as, how to raise stingless bees and make the most of their honey.
Thanks to the support of the GEF-UNDP programme, the women of Río Jesús de Santiago de San Ramón formed an association, each one had a greenhouse installed in their property for the production of agrochemical-free vegetables, and received training with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture and Livestock (known as MAG Spanish), the National Institute of Learning (known as INA in Spanish) and the National University of Costa Rica (known as UNA in Spanish). All this with the boost of $25,000 from GEF funds, that were facilitated by the SGP to make this initiative a reality, a very important one for the political and economic autonomy of these women as well as the development of the community.
Health for development and the soul of a community
Today, the initiative has reached a new generation of women. Sarah Morales Arguedas, Heymi’s 6-year-old girl, and granddaughter of Mrs. Lidia helps her grandmother select seeds, can recognize basil leaves, helps prepare the land for planting lettuces, and helps her grandmother to harvest spinach. Also, along with Heymi, her mother, she scatters flower seeds near streams, to help the bees’ habitat, thrive, favoring pollinating species and general care for the natural world
“When I found out how long it took for a plastic diaper to recycle, I stopped using them. Now Sarah’s sister’s diapers are made of cloth,” says Heimy, for whom awareness of caring for the planet is a lifestyle that is becoming more and more widespread in the community of Río Jesús de San Ramón. “Here we are aware of the use of agrochemicals because we know the damage they can do to bees,” says Heimy.
Every morning Mrs. Lidia opens the door of her house towards the greenhouse. There she spends hours growing rosemary, tomatoes, spinach, and other crops.
“It is such a pleasure to come home to make a fresh salad, knowing where it came from and tasting the flavor of a natural product. Every month we save up to 20,000 colones on buying vegetables. Also, we have products to send to the family and even to sell”.
With her hands in the soil and her gaze stimulated by the intense colors of her harvest, Mrs. Lidia whiles away the hours under the greenhouse and feels it as a therapy, an investment in mental health.
“This tense situation of confinement in the house, due to COVID-19, is not a cause for tension for me, quite the opposite. Having this greenhouse on our property is a privilege. I spend hours there taking care of the crops, watching them grow… it is a source of happiness for me”, says Mrs. Lidia.
Local businesses to move the national economy
Alongside agriculture, there is the work with bees. Heimy and Mrs. Lidia have two hives each. Unlike the honey bee (apis melifera), which is the bee that produces the honey that we usually buy in supermarkets, stingless bees produce less honey, but their properties are so highly valued that a one-liter bottle can cost up to 50,000 colones / 87 USD.
According to Ingrid Aguilar, from the Tropical Beekeeping Research Centre of the National University (know as CINAT in Spanish), the breeding and management of stingless bees is an ancestral activity.
“Since 2014, the development of more commercial activity has been observed, and family, business, and group projects have arisen, whose main objective is the production and purchase of honey, and the production of cosmetic by-products. In Costa Rica, there is little work in cosmetics based on stingless bee products”.
Heymi, however, remembers the time she was able to make soap from the product of her bees.
“It was a delight. I used it up very quickly”, he says with a smile.
The initiative was carried out between September 2017 and February 2019, although it still has challenges to face, for example, ensuring that all of the participating women achieve greater use of the greenhouse production, and promoting greater commercialization of the products, the truth is that for many of these women it has represented a change in their lives and that of their communities.
Heymi, for example, believes that many women now have a valuable income for their family economy, but are also empowered, as well as, having and greater awareness about caring for the environment. The project has resulted in economic and political autonomy for them.
“I think we showed that we weren’t going to waste time by doing this”, Heymi said with a big smile. The women of Río Jesús protect the land and the environment while promoting development and ensuring equal opportunities and empowerment.
“The recovery from COVID-19 and the safe path to Sustainable Development must have women and nature-based solutions at its center if we are to emerge stronger and better from the challenges we face as humanity. This involves transforming the social norms of gender imposed by culture, norms that make invisible the role of women as essential agents of conservation, and their leading role in reducing the loss of nature”, said José Vicente Troya Rodríguez, UNDP Resident Representative in Costa Rica and Regional Champion of Gender and Environment for the organization.
“Like Heimy, Lidia and Sarah, rural women have specific knowledge that enhances the sustainable use and management of wild fauna and flora species, and offers us a clear example for economic and social development to achieve a green economy with a gender perspective; the correct route for a better future for the planet, species, and humanity.” he pointed out.
Photography: Priscilla Mora Flores / UNDP Costa Rica // Writing: Rodolfo González Ulloa // Translate: Daniela Ramírez and Charles Dixon // General supervision: Charles Dixon and Ingrid Hernández Sánchez / UNDP