Real change often requires high-level planning and support. But sometimes all it takes is determination at the community level. On Costa Rica’s Chira Island, the hard work of women's collectives has resulted in the restoration and preservation of vital mangrove forests.
By Marco Quesada, Country Director, Conservation International - Costa Rica. This post was originally published on Conservation International's blog, Human Nature.
One afternoon last spring I sat with my colleague Emily Pidgeon in a hand-built lodge on the outskirts of the town of Palito on the Costa Rica's Chira Island. We were there to speak with the women who founded the Chira Island Women’s Collective, a group committed to bringing income, education, and security to their island. Around us stretched a thriving coastal community that overlooks the Gulf of Nicoya, the country’s most productive estuary. The gulf is home to crocodiles, rays, egrets, and ospreys. And mangroves – more than half the island is covered, enriched and protected by lush mangroves. But the mangroves were under threat, the women told us, and we were here to see how women on the island had organized to make a difference.
Over the last decades Chira’s mangroves have come under increasing pressure from exploitation for firewood or conversion into salt evaporation and shrimp ponds. Where the mangroves still stand, they are heavily degraded. This means Chira’s shores are more exposed to erosion from wind and waves, and its fish have fewer nurseries and safe harbors. “We had always known our mangroves were very important,” said Liliana, one of the founders of the women's collectibe. But it wasn’t until recently that the link between declining mangrove health and declining family income from fishing hit home. 10 years ago, according to Liliana, the women of Palito decided to improve their community’s economy by improving the health of the mangroves.
The women partnered with the National University of Costa Rica and received environmental training in mangrove management. They became close observers of environmental mismanagement on the island and, on one occasion, won a prize from an international foundation for an influential report on mangrove destruction. Soon, the women decided they needed a boat of their own, though they couldn’t afford a new one. Thanks to more training through the university, the women built by hand the first fiberglass boat made on the island, which they now use to give mangrove tours to tourists.
Throughout their work, the women were not supported by the men in their community. Isabel, another founder explained: “They told us, ‘If you are as good as a man, then you should build this on your own.’” And so they did. The lodge where we sat was built by the women, in addition to their network and boats. It provides accommodation for mangrove volunteers and is the site of ongoing trainings and meetings of the island fire brigade. The women of Palito are now the unofficial “keepers of the mangroves,” noticing any harm to the trees or destructive fishing occurring in the island’s many channels.
“This is the island of Chira, where women work and men cry.”
It was the third time the joke was told, and it still caused a good laugh among the group. I was standing at the beginning of a “human chain” that was moving, one by one, more than 200 mangrove plants through a degraded mangrove forest. Women formed the chain, members of a collective from the town of Montero that was inspired by the women of Palito.
We had been working since 4:30am and by 8 a.m. the mangroves were humid and hot. But neither the heat nor the mosquitoes, thirst, mud or heft of our loads - each bag of dirt and seedlings weighed five pounds (2.3 kg) and had to be carried for hundreds of feet – could dampen the spirits of the group.
The women knew that they were helping their community. Where we were going, most of the trees had been cut four decades ago. Trees had naturally returned slowly since then yet sediments were still eroding from between their roots. The long roots of these new seedlings would someday fill the gaps and help hold the muddy soil of the estuary fast, creating sediment for more forests. Below ground this would lead to carbon sequestration. Above ground the roots would provide refuge for fish larvae and juveniles and habitat for numerous invertebrate species, such as the clams and cockles that these women rely on for their daily living. The women's husbands, mostly small-scale fishers, rely on these mangroves as well: the fish they seek with hand lines live within these mangroves when young and depend on them for food when adults. Sea turtles, eagle rays, birds and mammals also rely on these rich coastal habitats.
Conservation International (CI) has been working with small-scale fishers in the Gulf of Nicoya and on Chira for over five years. When we decided to start a pilot project on mangrove restoration, this group of women were the first to say yes to our scheme. For five months they cleared a mangrove area near their community of entangled nets and plastic. Next they began planting mangrove seeds in bags, like the ones we carried today, which they had filled by hand with sand and sediment. Then they watered every bag twice a day.
The women have done all this work on a voluntary basis while still taking care of their daily family responsibilities. In Chira, women play a heavy role in raising children, looking after the house and searching for other sources of income. On an island where opportunities for work are few, they have recognized that if successful, their project could perhaps attract tourists and even the attention of government agencies that could eventually pay for their time and energy.
Two days before I arrived on the island, more than 40 students and teachers from Chira’s only high school had spent two mornings volunteering with the women. They helped transport young trees through a deforested area that had recently served as a salt and shrimp pond — absolutely exhausting work. The women told me that they had felt very apprehensive about the students not caring enough for the plants; after all, these plants had been under the women’s care for five months now. In the end, all plants made it safely into the forest. I, and my team from CI, were lucky enough to help them complete their journey.
This is the third piece in IUCN’s Gender and Restoration case study story series. To read other case studies and learn more about how gender must be considered in restoration planning and implementation, visit our homepage for the series. To contribute a story of your own write to [email protected]