A commitment to empower women is embedded in Heifer International’s core values for sustainable development. In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, this week we’re sharing the stories of Heifer participants who take the gifts of animals and training and run with them to extraordinary results for themselves and their communities. Through hard work and innovations, each woman secures her rightful place in the family, the marketplace and the world.

Photo by William Russell Powell

Esperanza Caal, 22, lives on her family’s farm outside Sayaxche, Guatemala, where oranges, mangoes, sweet potatoes, nutmeg, bananas and corn grow in tidy patches and rows. Crops thrive in the steamy heat, and the Esperanza proudly offers a bowl of fresh pineapple slices to visitors, a tasty welcome that highlights the bounty of the land.

But the abundance the Caals enjoy today was hard-won. Like many indigenous Guatemalans, their ancestors spent decades laboring on huge European-owned coffee farms that swallowed the plots they once tended for themselves and their families. And during the devastating 36-year-long civil war that was especially punishing to indigenous people, opportunities for families like the Caals to escape their servitude and strike out on their own were virtually nonexistent.

Twenty years ago, though, Esperanza’s father and grandfather decided to change their family’s future by laying claim to the land the family now lives on. Miles from any passable roads and churning with mosquitoes that thrive in the wet lowlands, the Caals’ farm wasn’t considered much of a prize. It took 14 years of work to make it habitable, but now, the family is healthy and proud to be independent. Each year, their harvest grows.

As participants in a Heifer project promoting sustainable agriculture and fair trade, the Caal family sows Heifer-provided seeds that yield high-quality fruits and vegetables that fetch good prices. In Heifer trainings, they learn how to market their crops to make fair profits. And the Heifer group members encourage each other to hold on to their farms, which are so productive now that outsiders frequently show up with offers to buy the land.

Esperanza has listened to the stories about her father and grandfather working on the coffee farms and struggling to survive during the war, and she has no plans to leave the family farm that took so long to build. “There’s plenty of room, I’m happy here. I want to stay,” she said. “I’m always thinking about how to improve the land.”

Author

Austin Bailey

Austin Bailey is a writer and editor for Heifer's World Ark magazine.