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Agronomist Vanessa Mendoza is a role model for many of the girls she works with in chocolate-harvesting communities. Agronomist Vanessa Mendoza is a role model for many of the girls she works with in chocolate-harvesting communities. Photo by Dave Anderson

Editor’s note: Empowering women is at the core of Heifer International’s model for sustainable development. In honor of International Women’s Day on March 8, this week we are sharing stories of the women with whom Heifer works, who take the gifts of livestock and education to produce extraordinary results for themselves, their families and their communities.

It’s not the most glamorous or lucrative profession one could choose, but lots of the girls in Jasiaquiri village in northeastern Bolivia have made up their minds. They want to be agronomists, just like Vanessa.

Vanessa Mendoza is a frequent visitor to Jasiaquiri, which she reaches by flying from her home base of Trinidad on a prop plane, then driving over bumpy dirt roads in a pickup. She works for the Bolivian NGO CIPCA, the Centre for Research and Promotion of Farmers, which is teaming up with Heifer to help people in Jasiaquiri and surrounding villages protect and capitalize on the rich supply of wild cacao growing in the forests. The unique cacao that grows here is part of traditional regional cuisine, and it also makes one of the most delicious chocolate bars on the planet.

Visiting Jasiaquiri with Vanessa Mendoza is like visiting Costco with Joe Biden. There’s always going to be an entourage. That her most ardent fans are young girls makes sense. Vanessa has an education and career that allow her to offer real help in rural areas where paying jobs are scarce. She’s also pretty and friendly, and she paints her fingernails to look like ladybugs.

On an overcast day in January, Vanessa sat at a table at the home of Susana Abalos Dorado, an enterprising schoolteacher in Jasiaquiri. Besides teaching school, Dorado also raises chickens and ducks, runs a snack shop out of her front yard and maintains a solar-powered telephone for neighbors to use. The camaraderie between these two professional women was clear as Dorado explained the economics of her home village and Mendoza nodded along. The village of roughly 65 families is more prosperous than most, Dorado explained, because it’s on the road to the small town of Baures. Most of the young people here would like to stay, but opportunities are few.

Mendoza is helping the community protect the chocolate forests so they can continue producing for generations, providing food and livelihoods for families here. Mendoza is also helping local chocolate harvesters improve quality and get the best prices. Her job is a big one, but she does it with such warmth and grace that she has plenty of young women ready to follow her lead.


Austin Bailey

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