Natagaima, Colombia – Indigenous and rural women from southern Tolima, a province located in the heart of Colombia, are lending a hand to the bleak land around them, with the aim of simultaneously recovering the ecosystem and regaining their own dignity, in a community effort that is changing their environment and their lives.
Manos de Mujer (Women’s Hands) is the name of the non-governmental organisation working since 2001 in Natagaima, a town some 100 kilometres south of the provincial capital, Ibagué. Nine hundred women of the Pijao native community plant ecosystem-friendly seeds to grow natural crops without the use of agrochemicals.
“Nine years ago, the land all around my plot was a yellowish colour. There were only one or two lonely trees,” Claudina Loaiza, who has been part of the projects since its onset, told IPS.
The project extends over 56 rural villages, townships and Pijao reservations, which make up six municipalities, and has its central office in Natagaima, 225 kilometres from Bogotá.
The area known as the Pijao region is home to this native group, who used to be spread out in different parts of the country but whose numbers have dwindled. The population is not purely indigenous, though, as there are also many white and mestizo (mixed-race) people. In fact, only a portion of the rural women in the project are Amerindian.
The territory borders with the Tatacoa, a desert that is encroaching on the region, having already swallowed up a once huge tropical forest. It is this forest ecosystem that Manos de Mujer is working hard to regenerate through a number of actions, with the aim of pushing back the advancing desertification.
“When I left the father of my children, because of his drinking and cheating, I began planting my own fruit and vegetable garden in my yard; this was something I really wanted,” Loaiza said, her eyes shining as she introduced her daughter and niece, who work the land with her.
“I’m the kind of woman who’d rather be alone than have a bad man by her side,” she said, before going on to describe how she fenced off her one-hectare garden with 144 metres of wire netting.
“I felt, and I still feel, so proud, because we were planting beans, watermelon, plantain, cassava, corn, green vegetables and all sorts of things, without using any weed killers or chemicals, just what we prepared for fertilising and replenishing the soil,” she explained.
“In the summer (the tropical dry season), water was rationed, so I’d water each plant a little bit at a time, and that’s how I grew these beautiful melons,” she said, before specifying to this IPS reporter that she wanted to be described as an indigenous peasant woman.
Enthusiastically she explained how she worked the land using natural techniques, learning, for example, to use cattle dung as fertiliser and cassava and plantain leaves to maintain moisture.
“We used the hoe to check that the soil was humid before spreading the organic fertiliser…We also found that if there was garbage on the ground, the soil would stay dry even if it rained,” recalled Loaiza, just one of the 1,100 peasant women involved in the changes in the land and agricultural production brought about by Manos de Mujer.
The Man Behind the Women
Natagaima is also home to Javier Múnera, an economist who manages and organises activities in Manos de Mujer. Despite his profession he prefers to be known simply as an activist.
Múnera originally came to the area in 1998, for an aqueduct project in Coyaima, during a period of drought caused by the El Niño climate phenomenon.
The project was financed by the Americas-Spain Solidarity and Cooperation Organisation (AESCO), an NGO headed by Yolanda Villavicencio, a Colombian-Ecuadorian woman with relatives who came from the area.
Aware of the potable water shortage in the area, Villavicencio used her Spanish citizenship, which she obtained in 1994, to raise funds to build an aqueduct. As of 2008, she also holds a seat in the Spanish parliament, representing Madrid.
Through Villavicencio’s and Múnera’s efforts the aqueduct was built without using up all the resources. Some 10,500 dollars were left over, which were “turned into wages for 400 families,” the activist said in an interview with IPS.
That project was the seed that blossomed into Manos de Mujer, which was built on the conviction that it is vital to halt the erosion coming from Tatacoa, in the southern province of Huila bordering with Tolima.
“A human-made desert. For the past 5,000 years it was a tropical dry forest, with trees standing as high as 15 metres,” Múnera said.
“Tatacoa is not really a desert. It’s a very dry area of xerophytes (plants that survive with little water or moisture), which is undergoing a very fast process of erosion with large rill (small gully) systems,” he said.
After the Spanish conquest, the Jesuits brought in cattle and established ranches throughout the region. “There’s no greater predator than cattle ranchers, who push settlers from outside the region deep into the forest,” said Múnera, who has worked on the issue in the province of Caquetá, in the country’s southeast Amazon region.
For that reason, he insists on raising awareness on the danger posed by the area immediately adjacent to the Tatacoa Desert, which extends over 330 sq. km. and is advancing at an annual rate of 1.5 percent.
Múnera dreams of a future in which “the forest will be returned to this desertified cattle land,” although he feels that very little has been achieved in almost a decade of work.
“We planted some 600,000 trees but with Mario Mejía (an environmentalist) we figured we need 16 million to stop the desert from advancing from southern Natagaima, Guamo in the north, Coyaima, Ortega, southern Chaparral, western Alpujarra, Dolores, Prado and Purificación,” Múnera said.
But in Natagaima, the women involved in the project are not discouraged by these ‘minor’ achievements. Because what’s important for them is the knowledge they’ve gained and the real improvements their efforts have brought to their environment and lives. On the day that IPS followed a group of these women as they performed their daily tasks, they couldn’t stop talking about all they’ve learned about agriculture and ecology.
Even so, problems do exist. The gardens range in size from a quarter of a hectare to half a hectare or a full hectare, which means that a lot of work has to be put into obtaining a good yield from a small plot. Meanwhile the government has practically left these women on their own, and there’s no indication that that’s going to change.
When considering results that go beyond production yields, Múnera spoke nostalgically of Aracelly Botache, one of the project’s pioneers, a born-leader who has since passed away. Not long after the crops began to thrive, Botache told Múnera: “The weather has changed here.” She sounded very convinced of what she was saying.
And it was true. By planting trees they had brought the temperature down, in a region where it ranges from 30 to 40 degrees C.
Environmental improvements are not the only good thing to come out of the initiative: women have also been empowered by their work.
“There are some very difficult situations,” Múnera said, citing cases like that of “a woman who told us how her husband would beat her every Saturday after drinking chicha,” an indigenous alcoholic beverage made from fermented corn.
“She told us how with her husband’s first drink, she could already feel the pain of the blows she would receive later. Until, one day, when she was a member of Manos de Mujer, she said to herself: ‘who’s stronger? Him drunk or me sober?'” Múnera recalled.
“So she stood up to him and he never laid a hand on her again. Women feel empowered by the confidence they gain going out to work in their crops, working on their own, knowing they can be self-sufficient. And that’s probably the best thing about this project,” he reflected.
Manos de Mujer currently operates with funding from two international Catholic development agencies: the Ireland-based Trócaire, and the Catholic Agency for Overseas Development (CAFOD), based in England and Wales.
In Colombia it receives support from state institutions such as the Autonomous Corporation of Tolima, the Agricultural Research Corporation and the regional university, but only for specific issues. This support is limited to “knowledge sharing: they contribute their academic knowledge, and we share our experience and the wisdom acquired by the people,” Múnera said.
As part of the project, workshops are held every 15 days or so, with participants working with and discussing audiovisual material on a range of subjects, including soil composition, water cycles, nitrogen, phosphorous, carbon, agro-ecology and environmental education.
The training encourages women involved in Manos de Mujer, like Elcy Lozano, to dream big.
Lozano, who has been in the project for five years, told IPS that her dream is to “Make people aware. What we want to do is build. Not destroy. That’s what I long for every day. Because cattle ranching expands the desert, and is causing a lot of damage. We need to stop it, and revitalise the region instead,” she said emphatically.
Her complaints were focused on the almost non-existent support they receive from the government, which doesn’t even collect the garbage in the area regularly. “So, it’s bad if we burn it, but if it piles up it ends up in the rivers,” she lamented. “But we don’t even think of giving up. All we have to do is look around us and remember what it was like before,” she said as her face lit up with a smile.