Editor's note: International Women's Day is Sunday, March 8. The theme this year is #MakeItHappen, celebrating the achievements of women everywhere in whatever field they pursue. Follow along this week as we higlight some of the women we work with who are feeding their families, becoming small business owners and educating their children, among a host of other achievements.
Carmen Vaca, or Doña “Choca” as everyone knows her, is an exceptional woman.
She works with her husband, Saul Herrera, producing cocoa, coffee, rice, beans, citrus and cupuaçu fruits, açaí berries and chestnuts on their farm near the Brazilian border in Guayaramerín, Bolivia.
Heifer Bolivia began promoting agroforestry in 2004, the same year Doña Choca stepped up to a challenge, which in Bolivia had traditionally been reserved for men: leading her community.
After receiving their first seedlings Doña Choca and her husband began implementing agroforestry systems, where diverse plants, crops and animals are cultivated together for symbiotic benefits.
It isn’t for the faint of heart. A lot of work is needed for these types of systems to be successful. They started with five acres of land, and anxiously awaited the arrival of their homegrown food to fill their bellies. However, the benefits of agroforestry system did not come easy and required more technical support to grow their cocoa plants.
The couple had a few challenges. The timber trees grew so tall that they shaded the smaller cocoa plants, stunting their growth. Doña Choca knew that someone had to intervene and manage the agroforestry associations to restore harmony to their crops, so she took charge.
Doña Choca felt overwhelmed at first, and even thought she might have to choose between fighting for the other 38 farming communities and fighting for her own plantation.
“Sometimes I felt like throwing my hands up in defeat. I was about to set fire to my own chocolate,” Doña Choca said.
Thankfully, with the support of her husband and their four children, as well as technical advice from Heifer, not a single cocoa leaf was burned. Heifer gave her the technical knowledge and helped her organize a corresponding management system that saved her cocoa production. Doña Choca took her knowledge back to her community, and gradually, plantations began to respond favorably to the care given.
Now the Vaca-Herrera family has enough food to eat and is able to offer their lemons and chocolate in the local market, but their income is still too small to afford their children’s studies.
The couple has decided to experiment with a new enterprise to supplement their wages. Don Saul works with the Trinity Road construction in Guayaramerín.And, while Don Saul is away from home working, Doña Choca cares for the plantations.
Doña Choca said the farm is like a “big green box” where they’ve deposited all their dreams.
“We want to keep working on this because we are growing old and we want to have an economical alternative to sustain us when we are older,” Doña Choca said. “For us, the agroforestry system is our retirement plan for the family that will hopefully allow us to continue living as we do today for years to come.”
Photography courtesy of Heifer Bolivia