Notes from the Field: Women’s Co-ops Lead the Way in Environmental Conservation

by Jon Becker, Trees, Water & People Board President

clean cookstove Honduras
A Lenca girl in Honduras stands proud next to her families Justa clean cookstove.

In the words of a great King, “I have been to the mountaintop, and I have seen the promised land”.  The mountaintop is quite literal ­- we’re visiting villages to the west of Tegucigalpa at altitudes up to 9,000 feet. I have come to Honduras with Trees, Water & People’s Executive Director, Richard Fox, for a week of meetings with our Central American program partners and trips to the field to see our projects in place. The Asociación Hondureña para el Desarrollo (AHDESA) Director, Ignacio Osorto, is our driver and he is TWP’s longtime in-country collaborator on clean cookstove and reforestation projects.  A tall, regal man who has been through decades of change, struggle, and hard-fought progress in Honduras, Nacho, as he is affectionately called, is taking us up to meet with two of AHDESA’s more recent clients.  His son Ben, who basically grew up with AHDESA, is with us on this trip, in his new capacity as TWP’s Central American Regional Coordinator.

Women's Co-op Honduras
La Cooperative Mixta Mujeres de la Sierra

After about three hours of climbing and winding up into the highlands of the department of La Paz, through breathtaking pine forests intermingled with small farms and pueblos, we arrive at the picturesque mountain village of Marcala.  To me, this is holy ground, because the area surrounding Marcala is one of the important and premium coffee growing regions of Honduras.  It occurred to me that in a future, more perfect world, the lands underneath which petroleum lies will no longer be so treasured, and the places like Marcala, where great coffee comes from, will be properly venerated.  But for today, we are here to meet with one of AHDESA’s new associates, La Cooperative Mixta Mujeres de la Sierra.  Nacho has described them to us as a women’s coffee co-op, but what I’m about to experience goes so far beyond that label.  Because now comes “the promised land”. We are greeted at the Co-op office by the women of the mountains, indigenous people called Lenca – smiling and so welcoming.  They’re dressed in a mixture of western and traditional, brightly colored clothing, some with their children  along.

We take our seats in their meeting room, the lights go down, and these lovely ladies whose roots go back centuries in this land begin their PowerPoint presentation to us.  My head’s starting to spin as I hear their story about organizing themselves to improve their position in the coffee trade, expanding their work to include development, production, and branding of other products such as wines and snack foods, branching out into a variety of financial services including micro-lending, and delivery of educational programs for their members and their children.  I learn that several of them have traveled to the U.S. and Europe to meet with other co-op and business leaders.  I am absolutely floored.  This is the “developing” world?  Well, it’s developing very fast.

women's co-op meeting honduras
Members of the La Cooperative Mixta Mujeres de la Sierra meet with TWP and AHDESA staff.

Nacho and Ben begin our presentation on the products and services we want to work with the Co-op on – clean cookstoves, solar lighting, and solar phone charging.  I look around the room and see several of the women checking messages on their smart phones.  Phones that might soon be receiving their charges from these solar appliances.  They’ve actually been on board with our stove program for about a year and a half now, have completed the trainings on stove construction with AHDESA’s technicians, and have now built and installed some 500 Justa clean cookstove models.  They are thrilled about the prospects for adding the solar devices to the mix – many of their members live without electricity in their homes.

solar lighting
Richard Fox is as excited to give solar lighting as this woman is to receive it!

We are thrilled about their organization, the depth and breadth of the services they provide, their remarkable ability for gracefully straddling the modern and traditional worlds.  And perhaps most exciting of all – Las Mujeres are not alone,  they are not one-of-a-kind.  There appears to be a vibrant, growing movement of women’s rural agricultural co-ops in Honduras, and I presume this must spill over the borders into our other Latin American program countries – Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, and Haiti.  I feel like we have found our match, the perfect platform to connect with our mission, via of course our fantastic in-country project partners like AHDESA.  I walk out of our meeting in Marcala, high in the mountains of Honduras, higher still with the excitement and joy of believing that our way forward is right here, in place and ready to go.  These women are the real leaders into the better, more just, more sustainable future.  Our job is to serve them.  We can do and we will do this.

Future leaders of La Cooperative Mixta Mujeres de la Sierra

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Trees, Water & People is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization committed to developing sustainable community-based conservation solutions.

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