The Future of Conservation is Female

There’s a reason that gender equality ranks high on the UN list of Sustainable Development Goals: Experts know that leveling the playing field for women in developing countries is an essential component of sustainable economic development. When it comes to farming and forest communities, gender equality is especially critical to both food security and the global climate solution.

To put it simply, if we want a healthy planet and a livable future, rural women must have equitable access to the resources, training, and opportunities that their male counterparts have. There’s plenty of data to support this urgent imperative, but perhaps the most vivid way to demonstrate how women will save the world is to introduce four conservation “super-sheroes” who have successfully transformed their communities and the landscapes around them.

Agung Widi, An Indonesian Sustainability Super-Shero

Agung Widi

Agung Widi, founder of Kalimajari Foundation

Corruption and bankruptcy had all but destroyed the Kerta Samaya Samaniya, a cocoa coop in rural Jembrana, Bali. And the cocoa farmers here could ill-afford to lose the support that a cooperative could have offered: productivity was plummeting, plant diseases were decimating crops, and families were sinking deeper into poverty.

Enter Agung Widi. She started the Kalimajari Foundation in 2002 with the express purpose of revitalizing the cooperative through sustainable agriculture practices. It wasn’t easy—demoralized farmers were leery due to prior corruption and slow to believe in Widi’s environmentally friendly farming methods—but today 609 farmer members belong to the Kerta Samaya Samaniya (KSS) cooperative. Covering 867 hectares, KSS has been certified under the UTZ certification program (now part of the Rainforest Alliance) for seven consecutive years. Today, the farmers enjoy better livelihoods while working their land in a way that can be sustained for years to come.

Widi is a formidable advocate for farmers and sustainability on a national level, too, working on policy reform aimed at transforming the cocoa sector into one that’s sustainable and centers farmer livelihoods. But she’s perhaps the fiercest advocate for women farmers: one widowed mother of three recalls Widi regularly visiting her at home to be sure she and her children were faring well and that she had all she needed to farm successfully. Another woman said she never dreamed that as a poor cocoa farmer, she’d never be able to send her children to college—but with Widi’s business and personal guidance, she’s done just that. Widi and her organization have launched a formal gender equity advocacy program as well, starting at the district level with the aim of moving into national policy. Last spring this leader won the prestigious CSR Indonesia Award from Media CSR Indonesia for contributing innovative ideas applied to the greater good of Indonesia. The title of the award, translated from Bahasa Indonesia, means “most inspiring person.”

Mary Waihigo Kamau, Renewable-Energy Rockstar

Mary Waihigo Kamau

Mary Waihigo Kamau

Just a few years ago, Mary Waihigo Kamau was a widowed mother of three struggling to make ends meet in a tea-producing landscape in central Kenya. To earn a living, she collected charcoal dust from the local market, packing it by hand into briquettes to sell. It was a laborious, painstaking process that yielded only 60kg of briquettes per month.

Then she signed on to participate in a Rainforest Alliance initiative to encourage farming communities in this tea-producing region to switch from hazardous fuels (like charcoal and firewood) to renewable energy. Waihigo undertook training to learn how to make carbonized, smoke-free briquettes; today, with equipment provided by the program, she makes as many briquettes in one hour as she used to make in a month. (The briquettes she now makes are better for people and prevent deforestation, too.) Waihigo quickly became a star entrepreneur in the program, selling to local households as well as hotels and other customers. Her income has increased greatly, and she’s is now one of the region’s most passionate advocates for renewable energy.

Like a Boss: Yuriria Hernández Velasco

Yuriria Hernández Velasco

Yuriria Hernández Velasco

Photo credit: Michael Toolan

Yuriria Hernández Velasco is a boss, literally. As the manager of K'áax Mayas, a woodworking shop in Quintana Roo, Mexico, she not only calls the shots in a shop full of men, she is the creative force behind efforts to add value to timber harvested by Alianza Selva Maya, a consortium of five ejidos (communally owned lands) working sustainably. The Rainforest Alliance worked with the local group Alianza Selva Maya to launch K'áax Mayas in 2015. When Hernández was first hired to run the shop, K'áax Mayas was only making floorboards. But partly because of Hernández’s interest in design, and partly because products like doors and home décor generate more revenue, the shop expanded into making furniture and other finely crafted wood products. “When I first learned to make furniture, it was magical,” she said.

Hernández is also the commercial director of Alianza Selva Maya, which is looking to sell directly to consumers as well. To that end, the five-ejido alliance opened a showroom in the tourist town of Chetumal in April 2018. Hernández, who is originally from an indigenous community in the northern highlands of Oaxaca, appreciates being able to help bolster local incomes while protecting natural resources. “It gives us pride to use the wood and know we are taking care of the forest.” Hernández said.

Calling the Shots for a Better Future: Janet Bato

Janet Bato

Janet Bato

Photo credit: Georgina Avlonitis

Janet Bato, a tea farmer in Thyolo, Malawi, explains what it was like before her community began working with Greenpop, an organization dedicated to restoring forests, on a project facilitated by the Rainforest Alliance Sector Partnership program. “Women in my community are such hard workers, and we produce all the cash crops––working long hours in the field while tending to our children. Women do all the work, yet it’s the men who call the shots and control the resources.”

But that was then. After working with the project, which promoted both sustainable agriculture and gender equity, Bato became so enthusiastic about restoring the local landscape that her village could not help but take note: She was selected to be the village’s manager of natural resources. “I have plans for tree nurseries so our children will find their forests restored. That’s the future I envision. That’s what I want for my children: a beautiful Thyolo rich in nature and natural assets.”

People collecting dirty river water

Around the world, 1.3 billion people live on less than $1.25 a day.