Rural Women in Nicaragua: "Anything is possible..."
The successful experiences of María Epifania López, a young peasant woman from the isolated village of Buena Vista,
generate a good many reflections on backyard production,
community development and women’s leadership.
José Luis Rocha
“My name is María Epifania López, and I’m a 21 year-old single mother with a son. I work as a Peasant University (UNICAM) promoter and sit on the Buena Vista Community Council. I passed third grade, but then didn’t continue studying because the school in the neighboring community of Quebrada Grande where I studied didn’t go any higher at the time. Since I started working with development organizations I’ve realized the great opportunity it provides us to improve our standard of living and just how important it is to know how to take advantage of it. Many farmers don’t do so because they don’t know how to read and write. That’s why I’ve taken on the task of learning as much as I can and passing it on to the other producers. I don’t just try to reproduce it; I also try to put it into practice on my plot of land to provide an example to the rest. I realized that my model plot was not enough, that I had to take them by the hand and get them to apply the same ideas on their own plots. That’s why I decided to start up an ‘experiment,’ as I call it. First I convinced seven families from my community, which weren’t very willing to participate, to let me train them and to work together on backyard improvements. That’s how we cultivated a community vegetable patch that benefits the seven families working there. When they began to see the results, they started up vegetable gardens in their own backyards, which is something I feel proud about."
Representing rural Nicaraguan womenThis is how María Epifania López Carazo introduces herself in a document put out by the Institute of Human Promotion (INPRHU), the oldest NGO working in Nicaragua. The World Food Program (WFP) chose María Epifania to represent rural Nicaraguan women in the Second Latin American Meeting of Female WFP Beneficiaries, which was held in Peru under the slogan "Women in the Vanguard of Food Security." While there, María Epifania also talked about her experiences at the Second Regional Food Security Fair "For a Millennium without Hunger." "I never imagined I’d travel to Peru," she said. "I’d never left the country before and didn’t even have a passport. I’d never even been to Honduras, which is so close. They told me that I was going to represent all rural Nicaraguan women, women who are seeking alternative ways of breaking out of poverty and leaving their timidity behind them."
The 7 families that she started out with have multiplied into 43 in Buena Vista and 23 in Quebrada Grande. A great deal of timidity has been left behind on the way. After climbing up and down a number of hills to talk to envío, María Epifania appeared sporting a little Peruvian bag, a symbol that her efforts have been recognized. Tanned by the sun and with a sparkle in her eyes, she spoke directly, frankly and with remarkable fluency. This woman is an example of a reality that, while far more limited than it should be, is still much more common than we tend to believe.
The path for rural women María Epifania and the other women from Buena Vista work in an unfavorable environment. As rural women struggle to pry open spaces for themselves, they find that their path is strewn with obstacles. In the 1980s, although some 3,800 women joined farming cooperatives, barely 1 in every 10 cooperative members was female. Between 1992 and 1996, the agrarian reform implemented by the Chamorro administration provided 23,067 property deeds to 37,810 peasants, but although the country had a woman President for the first time in its history, only 25.43% of the direct beneficiaries of this titling program were women. The property distribution system has not favored women because it assumes that they are not farmers. Land is still inherited according to patrilineal descent. Purchasing land and/or legally registering it require money, and most rural women are not remunerated for their work.
is strewn with obstacles
In 1995, Property Stability Law 209 established that agrarian reform titles issued in the name of the head of the family were understood to have also been issued in the name of that person’s spouse or de facto partner in a stable union. This provision was included in article 49 of Law 278 on Reformed Urban and Agrarian Property, which was approved in 1997. But anything can be printed on paper; the problem in Nicaragua continues to be that what is approved is not necessarily respected. Ignorance of the laws, lack of access to lawyers and the fear of being attacked by their ex-partners stop women from claiming their right to half of the land that they possessed with their partners. Few institutions and media organizations bother to systematically denounce this situation. Among the few that do is La Boletina, a bimonthly magazine produced by the NGO Puntos de Encuentro to help increase gender awareness among women, and indeed men.
Technical assistance is another area in which women find themselves at a disadvantage. Currently only three out of every ten people who receive advice from the state-run Agricultural Technology Institute (INTA) are women. Although this low figure does represent notable progress over the situation just five years ago, it is still not enough. It is not enough to provide pest control training and not educate around gender issues. Providing women with access to such services contributes to democratization, but an approach centered exclusively on technical aspects does nothing to generate cultural changes.
The Inter-institutional Commission for Women and Rural Development (CMYDR) was created in 1993 and formally recognized by the government on October 14, 1997, through Presidential Decree 57-97. The commission aims to transform the living conditions of the rural population, particularly rural women, but it has not been exploited enough. Although institutions continue to be created, plans accumulated and new actors involved, women’s productive role continues to be restricted.
"We women can do it alone, A look back through human history reveals that agriculture originally started as a female occupation in many communities of the world. The transition toward a male agricultural system was caused by changes in population density and agricultural techniques. But little is remembered of that previous era and there is a limited vision of the productive role that women can play and an even more restricted view of their current potential.
we have to make a start"
María Epifania had to make a difficult break with the past in order to reestablish herself as a female producer. "When I was 18 I went to live with the father of my child," she recalls. "But very soon we started having problems. We didn’t understand each other. He didn’t like me working with other women or getting involved in farm work, but I’ve liked farming since I was small girl. He said that we had enough with his salary. Since I felt oppressed at home all the time, I decided to go back to Buena Vista. I lived with him for three months in Jinotega and then went back to my parents’ house. Then I was visited by a UNICAM agronomist who wanted to convince me to work with them. I liked what it involved: managing revolving fund projects with barnyard fowl and working on conservation, workshops and road construction."
To establish male domination, the low status of women has to be maintained and their contribution restricted to their functions as wife and mother. On the road to their emancipation, many women find it almost impossible to reconcile these reproductive functions with other roles conceived of as atypical in the patriarchal system. Many ways of thinking need to be changed, eliminating labels and demolishing age-old skepticism reinforced by a system that uses many different tools, such as gossip, repression and censure of collective consciousness, and low levels of self-esteem implanted deep in women’s hearts and minds.
"Some women think, ‘I’m going to find a man who can help me because I can’t survive alone.’ And I tell them that we can do it alone," explains María Epifania. "At first people said, ‘What does that girl think she going to do? She’s just a woman. If she’s going around out of the house it must mean she’s got several men. Anyway, vegetables aren’t enough.’ At first even my dad got annoyed and didn’t support me. But when there was more income because the vegetables provided us with food, my position improved and I convinced my household that we had to lead the way so the community could see that things could be done."
Buena Vista is at the antipode of globalizationIn addition to the cultural obstacles present in any rural community, María Epifania had to break down no-less formidable barriers specific to her own particular community. The conditions in Buena Vista could not be more adverse for women who want to farm. Buena Vista is located in the El Cuje district of the Totogalpa municipality, which belongs to the department of Madriz. Most houses are adobe with clay roof tiles, encrusted into the sides of the hills. Some even have thatched roofs, made out of bundles of interwoven straw.
There is no transport, so local producers have to walk for hours with their merchandise on their backs to sell in Ocotal, the nearest market town. The same is true of construction. The fragile roof tiles have to be transported over the steep hills with the utmost care, which is why people prefer local materials such as straw. The isolation keeps them submerged at a subsistence level.
Far from the market, at the antipode of globalization, most production goes for family consumption. People eat a kind of rennet cheese, if they are lucky enough to have a couple of milk cows. The cows also serve as an investment, a sort of insurance against emergencies and a way to turn the dried corn stalks into animal protein. Cows, however, are only found where there is pastureland and minimal capital accumulation. Vegetable gardens can only be found where there is water and the desire to tend them, and corn where there is enough land to sow it. Hiring out to the nearby cattle ranches and not-so-nearby coffee plantations during the picking season complements income.
Most families own between 3 and 10 acres of land. Of the 43 families in Buena Vista, 13 have no land at all. Only 10 have over 10 acres, and no one has more than 20 acres. The minimal land availability stops the locals from leaving plots idle to rest the soil. The absence of fallow land, the shortage of water and the miserable doses of fertilizer applied have led to a drop in yields. Given a generous rainy season, 1 manzana of land (which is Nicaragua’s standard rural measure, equivalent to 1.7 acres) might yield 5 hundredweight of beans, 9 of corn or 10 of sorghum, in a country where the none-too-impressive average national yields on the same amount of land stand at 6 hundredweight of beans, 15 of corn and 15-20 of sorghum.
Those families without land rent from others or live with their parents in an increasingly dense economic unit that serves as just a temporary dam against an increasing build-up of pressure on the land. Land can be rented for 100 córdobas (just over US$7) per manzana per harvest, or an arrangement can be reached to pay the landlord with half of the harvest. It is very difficult to acquire more land. Although the purchase price of a manzana of land is just 1,000 córdobas ($73), the land market shows very few signs of life. The limited areas for sale are in the highest, most arid and eroded zones and even they are only sold off during an emergency, such as the need to pay back an urgent debt.
A work force keen to improve The predominance of smallholdings means that the plot has to be intensively exploited, something that in turn influences the preponderance of men in agricultural activities. In the region comprising El Cuje and neighboring rural districts, family labor is thus extremely under-exploited. Certain local conditions tend to mask the situation. A great deal of the women’s time is taken up doing domestic chores that require water, much of which is spent traveling long distances to fetch the water from places where it can be obtained in sufficient quantities. In the words of Amparo Ochoa’s song, "Life goes; it goes down the drain, like dirty water in the laundry."
its living contradictions
In this context, the family vegetable patches provide a way to make use of this work force that is keen to improve its living conditions. "After two in the afternoon people don’t have anything to do," María Epifania explains. "The men have already come back from working the plots and the women have already done the washing and cooking. When we women finish our work, we’re idle. But now the men aren’t the only ones seeing to the food, we women are contributing to the household too."
Even if it is only in kind and not in hard cash, this "contribution" improves women’s position. In order to be valued, the women of Buena Vista participate in the kind of work that everyone values: the "visible" work that produces food. This implies an extra effort, because they are not excused from the "invisible" work of domestic chores. On the other hand, one adverse factor actually favors them: the same technology is available to both men and women and it is the most basic possible. There is no way to work with oxen on these slopes, so the vegetable gardens and plots of basic grains or pasture are maintained using identical tools: hoes and machetes. It may even be that cultivating a vegetable garden requires greater, more detailed or more sophisticated agricultural knowledge. The knowledge acquired, with or without a pile of diplomas, is another mechanism that provides female labor with greater credibility.
Woman to woman: Training workshops are the equivalent of school and university education for peasant women and men. Knowledge is power and it boosts self-esteem. María Epifania knows as much and wants to spread the word: "What I most value about myself is the knowledge I’ve acquired. I’ve learned to have self-esteem and learned that we women can change a community. That has been possible because the community has supported me. Many people here no longer think of me as someone who only studied up to third grade, because they see me training people here or going to Estelí to make presentations, and they know I went to Peru."
Knowledge is power
María Epifania has received courses on agricultural issues, gender approach, marketing, health, general hygiene, food preparation and nutrition, and has participated in exchanges of experiences on backyard improvements. She was also involved in a diagnostic study to determine what technologies farmers in communities of Estelí adopt to improve their plots of land and which ones provide the best results. In addition, she has participated in three fairs in Ocotal, Estelí and Totogalpa. María Epifania is now an expert in organic fertilizers using manure and compost and pest control using crop rotation, "yellow traps"—plastic sheeting used to capture the white fly—and leaves from the blackwood tree, among other techniques.
All of the training she has received has been reproduced several times back in the communities of Buena Vista and Quebrada Grande. That’s the deal, so that knowledge—and with it power—can be transmitted through popular education. This teaching method is based on a minimal knowledge of the most elemental instruments (reading, writing and arithmetic) and thus demands a greater level of creativity. But it also exploits the advantage that she shares the same worldview as the people she is teaching and can thus press the right buttons with greater sensitivity. "The specialists help," she says, "but transmitting knowledge from peasant to peasant and from female peasant to female peasant is better. That’s why we promote peasant exchanges."
The sharing of experiences among peasants imposes a rhythm that initially is perhaps slower than that imposed by an avalanche of techniques and dollars, but it offers more possibility of taking root. Skepticism is countered by the showcase effect: what is promoted is on display in the promoters’ own backyards and plots of land. In the case of Buena Vista, the promotion of vegetable patches runs up against a very well founded skepticism based on the lack of water and the poor quality of the soils.
"How could anything good come out of this grit?"The soils of Buena Vista are compact, saturated with gravel and generous amounts of flint. Some wondered how this grit could possibly produce anything. A machete thrust scarcely penetrates a couple of inches and roots only penetrate this parched land a couple of millimeters a week. Breaking up the soil using a hoe and removing the granite ribs only reduces its water retention capacity.
Problems just mount up. Water falls once in a blue moon. There are no community wells and the few individual wells were not sunk deeply enough so most have dried up and are full of leaves. So, understandably, there are no big vegetable plots, just small patches measuring ten square meters. The bigger plots have been established where there is more water.
For all the obstacles, that grit now produces onions, beets, cabbages, tomatoes, sweet peppers, radishes, chilies, carrots, cucumbers and a kind of squash that needs little water and limited space. "The children are better fed now," says María Epifania happily. "Everything we produce from the vegetable gardens is eaten. If we had enough water we wouldn’t have to invest so much time and money." The vegetable plot is like a small garden, an oasis in the middle of this wasteland. The seedlings are established in tires filled with the best earth to maximize water use.
By following this path, "leaving the smell of tools and hands in the air," these mainly female vegetable gardeners and a handful of male companions can approach self-sustainability and increased income. The self-sustainability comes from the fact that they are producing their own seeds, while the increased income results from a law verified long ago and set down by Danish economist Ester Boserup: "An increase in male income would normally have the effect of making leisure more attractive and discourage married women from entering the labor market. An increase in female income, in contrast, would replace leisure time with some additional income for the family as a whole and therefore tend to increase the female labor supply."
Ethics and esthetics: This additional income, however, is not always so perceptible. The monetary incentive is weak in areas with such limited contact with local markets and so marginalized from globalization. The inhabitants of Buena Vista have to walk for over three hours just to reach the town of Totogalpa. That is why scratching the surface of people’s stories usually uncovers ethical reasons for the work, such as giving the earth the care it deserves, or a primitive religious motivation, such as described by María Epifania: "Before becoming a UNICAM promoter I was a cooperative member. And before that I started by collaborating in the Church, singing in the choir and working for a year as a catechist. I was 18 at the time and that made me think things over. The UNICAM people were already visiting here at the time."
Caring for and decorating the earth
People are not always attracted by the glitter of gold. Other stimuli also dazzle. There is esthetic incentive in addition to the ethical and religious component that makes the participation of Protestant minister Don Mauro and the Catholic Delegates of the Word in promoting new techniques so important. Thus flower gardens have also multiplied in the homes, filled with many different varieties, and even the plots of land have been given form, with live fencing girdling the hills and crops following their natural contours, suggesting a harmony with the landscape. And as they no longer burn the old stubble before sowing, the landscape retains its natural simplicity.
Women remain at a disadvantage The fact that these activities bring no monetary reward represents a danger for the women involved. The backyard economy has its problems. When not integrated into the market, it can reinforce the women’s subjugation.
unless integrated into the market
Three decades ago, Boserup observed in her celebrated study, "Women and economic development," that "when land sales increase, women find themselves at a disadvantage, since they normally cultivate for family consumption while men cultivate to sell or else work in exchange for a wage. It is thus the men who have money and can buy land, making it probable that land ownership will gradually pass from women to men, even in those tribes in which women have the right to inherit land."
This danger is permanently present and prevents women from inheriting the land that the laws and politicians have promised them. Marketing continues to represent a challenge, and INPRHU now wants to make efforts in that direction. But it will require a great deal of initiative for what is now only a hint of an idea to coalesce into a concrete and viable project.
A leader with initiative Perhaps the one thing scarcer than water in Buena Vista is initiative. When envío visited the area, Alina Mendoza, an INPRHU promoter in Somoto, accompanied us. She knows all the nooks and crannies of those hills. When we asked her what the key to success in certain communities was, she did not hesitate before replying, "Leadership, having a leader who has initiative and guides the rest of the inhabitants. That makes the difference between a community that progresses with its projects and one that doesn’t respond."
is the key to success
Buena Vista has been fortunate. María Epifania has led many projects in just three years: the extension of the dirt road to her community with help from the Totogalpa local government and the WFP; a housing project negotiated with UNICAM and the municipal government; a UNICAM roofing project; credit for the establishment of a storage center; wire mesh for 47 chicken coops for 30 families in Buena Vista and 17 in Quebrada Grande; and vegetable and fruit seeds to improve the backyards of the same 47 families.
A titanic project: The extension of the road was the most titanic project. "They thought that the idea of building a road across those hills was a joke. We did it with the people, with men, women and children. The government’s Emergency Social Investment Fund has been promising latrines for some time now, but nothing’s happened so far. My dream is that someone will visit us and see the efforts we’re making to break out of poverty." They got food-for-work support from the World Food Program (WFP) to extend the winding dirt road, which now penetrates all the way up to Buena Vista. They cut into the hills using hoes, pick-axes and spades. The vehicles that dare to drive up to this corner of the world are flanked by an enormous drop on one side and the sharp slope of a hill on the other.
"We didn’t even have tools"
"First the people from UNICAM invited me to participate in building the road to Matasano. That’s why I said to Azucena, the UNICAM representative, that I would like to organize the people so we could have a road to Buena Vista. ‘It’s up to you,’ she said to me. ‘If you feel up to it, it’d be a good thing.’ I told the women and men, even knowing that we didn’t even have any tools here. ‘Let me negotiate with the owner of the land where the track’s going to pass,’ I told them. And off I went to Palacagüina to negotiate with cattle rancher Benito Castillo, who immediately agreed. We started with 13 people and the 2 tools my dad lent me. I talked about our great needs during a UNICAM meeting in Estelí and they gave me 6 more tools. And then WFP provided food for work and the road got built."
Although she is easily the youngest promoter in her community, María Epifania’s agenda is saturated, the price of being a leader who inspires others. "Early in the morning I have to grind corn with my mom. At 7, I go water the vegetable patch. From then until 2 in the afternoon I work on soil conservation projects. I dedicate two days a week to community works, and we do the evaluations and monthly planning, the training sessions and the follow-up visits to other plots of land on the other days. I walk for three and half hours to get to Totogalpa every time I go to help my community. My hope is that other women will also feel up to taking on leadership and doing something for their community."
Who changes whom?Something is changing in the conception of women’s functions, time and capacities. Buena Vista and María Epifania are not unique. They are exceptions, but increasingly common ones. It is a slow process since it takes a very long time for cultural patterns to change. But do they change in the same way for all women? Twenty years after doing her study on women and economic development, Boserup sustained that "the generations of women who were adults in 1970 have experienced much smaller changes and part of these have been negative. Most of them were homemakers, farmers’ wives, market sellers, or worked or ran other family businesses; and they are still doing the same things. But frequently their relations with their daughters and daughters-in-law have changed radically. Now, illiterate mothers and mothers-in-law often have daughters and daughters-in- law who have studied. If the latter have more prestigious jobs and earn better wages than the older women, then the hierarchy that existed among the female members of the family has changed completely."
During our visit, María Epifania’s mother looked on from afar, curious and watchful, almost certainly satisfied with her daughter’s fame, but busying herself in typically female work. Did she plant the seed of what her daughter has become? If not, where did María Epifania’s freedom of action come from? Who helps whom to shake off inhibitions? Does the mother help the daughter or the daughter the mother? "Ah, that is a difficult question!" says María Epifania. "My mom isn’t used to this work, to being in meetings. She’s shy and hardly leaves the house. We have to change things, to help the women from the community overcome their timidity. The main obstacle is that most of the women don’t know how to read. From the ages of 20 to 25,women have more energy and capacity to learn. But here, we have 30 people over 20 who are illiterate."
Certain generations have to support others. The older women opened a space for their daughters and granddaughters, even from their position of subjugation. And they did so—perhaps without really knowing what they were doing—in a quite unfavorable context. Cultural evolution advances through the selection of those women best adapted to a changing context. The mothers are producing small mutations, and now they must help their daughters resist offers to go to Managua to work as domestic servants, which is an unending temptation for many rural young women given the urban dream of regular wages, access to education and some access to commodities. Buena Vista is lucky because there are other plans among the ideas swirling around in María Epifania’s mind. "People shouldn’t think that we live in poverty because that’s how God sent us into the world," she stresses. "I say that anything is possible."