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LATIN AMERICA: Rural Women Forge Their Own Path in Microenterprise

Franz Chávez

LA PAZ, Dec 20 2007 (IPS) - Rural women from five Andean countries presented their successful microenterprises as part of a regional competition for female crafts and food producers, which also served as an opportunity for sharing the life stories of these leaders in the struggle against poverty.

Ten women’s organisations from Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Colombia and Venezuela participated in the first ever Women in the Fight Against Poverty Regional Competition, sponsored by the United Nations International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), whose mission is to enable poor rural people to overcome poverty.

Damiana Quispe, a representative of the Inca Pallay Association of Bolivia, travelled to La Paz to accept first prize in the crafts category. Thanks to her participation in a successful microenterprise, she has earned the respect of her community and is able to exercise her rights, while her children look up to her as one of the family’s breadwinners.

Quispe’s journey to La Paz from her hometown of Tarabuco, an indigenous municipality in the southern department (province) of Chuquisaca, was turned into a veritable odyssey by the social and political conflicts currently plaguing Bolivia.

Along the arduous 805-kilometre route, she feared being intercepted by protesters from the city of Sucre who were waging battle against the police and pro-government indigenous sectors at the time.

During a stop on the highway, the van transporting Quispe and the rest of her group was stolen, and she was on the verge of giving up on the trip. Holding up the cheque for 4,000 dollars that accompanied the first-place prize, she commented, "With this money I think I can get my van back."

Justina Morales, a 32-year-old Peruvian woman and leader of the Aswanq&#39ari ("Strong Man") Association of Dried Meat Producers, said that her small enterprise stands out for its strict quality control in the selection, processing and marketing of dried alpaca and llama meat.

As the winner of the 4,000-dollar first prize in the food products category, Morales travelled to La Paz from the province of Azangano in the department of Puno, located 1,300 kilometres south of Lima.

Barefoot and clad in a baize blouse and pleated skirt, she recounted that by creating her own source of employment, she was able to give up the risky business of smuggling food and clothing across the Bolivian border two years ago.

Thanks to her new job, she now covers 70 percent of the household costs she shares with her husband, a public school teacher with a modest salary.

Morales and her 19 partners took on the daunting challenge of starting up a business that demanded perseverance, a change of attitude and patience until the first profits could be realised. That was the hardest part of all, she told IPS.

Ana María Pinaya is the director of the Delicias Andean Rural Microenterprise located in the altiplano or highlands region of Bolivia in the department of Oruro, 250 kilometres from La Paz.

Under her leadership, the microenterprise has succeeded in breaking down the prejudices of consumers by raising awareness of the fact that llama meat is both healthy and nutritious, with a protein content of 24.82 percent and a fat content of merely 3.69 percent.

Pinaya and her partners took second prize, worth 2,500 dollars, in the agricultural food products category, after winning first prize in the Bolivian national competition.

In the same category, the third prize of 2,000 dollars went to a Colombian microenterprise called Vamos Mujeres ("Let’s Go, Women" in Spanish), which specialises in products made from sugar cane derivatives.

Fourth prize, along with 1,500 dollars, was awarded to the Ecuadorian women who run the Mulalillo Dairy Product Processing Plant, which was started up with a single cow and has now grown to support numerous families in the area where it operates.

The Emprendedoras (Women Entrepreneurs) of Venezuela were awarded 1,000 dollars for organising and creating a team spirit among a group of women who produce tropical fruit jams, jellies and preserves.

In an exhibition hall at the National Art Museum in La Paz, llama and alpaca meat, honey, dairy products and jams and jellies were displayed in late November alongside colourful Andean woven goods, hats crafted from natural fibres and ornaments created by women from the Waorani indigenous community who live deep in the Ecuadorian jungle.

The event also served as a space for the sharing of experiences among these rural women who not only displayed the results of their work, but also their strength and courage in tackling the challenge of creating and developing sources of employment and production in areas of extreme poverty.

Overcoming fear and distrust, becoming small entrepreneurs and breaking into a field normally reserved for men are the primary achievements proudly emphasised by these successful rural women leaders.

All of them share the conviction that their work is crucial for improving the living conditions, health and education of their families.

The idea of rewarding these entrepreneurial activities was promoted by the IFAD representative in La Paz, Marie Canavesi. The goal was to create a spirit of competition that would create awareness among the prize winners of how successful they have been in their initiatives, Canavesi told IPS.

Women from Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela and Colombia participated in national competitions, and in each of these five countries, two associations – representing the two categories of crafts and food products – were chosen to travel to La Paz for the regional competition.

The first national competition was held in Bolivia. It attracted the participation of women from 150 poor municipalities, or almost half of the country’s 327 municipalities, and served as the inspiration for the regional event.

One of the most effective means of transmitting knowledge and encouraging women’s involvement in these initiatives is through horizontal leadership training, said Canavesi, who added that the presentation of audiovisual material about the 10 groups clearly illustrated the success of the project.

The second and third prizes in the crafts category, which included cash awards of 2,500 and 2,000 dollars, respectively, went to two groups that produce handmade hats: Las Vicuñitas from 3 de Mayo in Collini, a town near Lake Titicaca in Peru, and the Coofa cooperative from Colombia.

The Waorani Association, made up of women from this indigenous ethnic group of the Ecuadorean rainforest, received the fourth prize and 1,500 dollars for their crafts created with stones and seeds from their natural surroundings.

Finally, the Gavidia Women Weavers Cooperative of Venezuela was awarded fifth prize for their successful work in raising sheep and producing wool and woven goods.

These women have overcome the barrier of fear, said Canavesi, and they talk about their ideas and projects so passionately that they fully convince their listeners of the successful direction in which their initiatives are moving.

The support provided by IFAD is a means of recognising the women who have achieved these successes through tremendous effort, Nuria Felipe, IFAD communications officer for Latin America and the Caribbean, told IPS.

From the experience of this first regional competition, Felipe highlighted the forms of organisation practiced in the communities and their contribution to the integration of peoples with productive traditions, which together serve as "engines of development."

The generation of economic opportunities based on their own cultures and with respect for autochthonous means of production represents a formula for confronting globalisation, under the principle that "the past is the key to future development," Felipe concluded.

The project also had the support of German Technical Cooperation (GTZ), the Andean Development Corporation (CAF), the Regional Programme in Support of the Indigenous Peoples of the Amazon Basin (PRAIA) Foundation, and the Bolivian Vice Ministry of Small Enterprise.

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