ASUNCIÓN, Jul 14, 2010 (IPS) - A year ago, Ramona Pereira was stuck with humdrum domestic drudgery in a rural village in Paraguay. Now she is the leader of a committee of women dairy producers in her community, and at 38 she feels like a new woman.
"This is where I work," Pereira told IPS with a mixture of pride and shyness, as she opened the door to the small dairy in Aveiro, a village 40 kilometres southeast of the capital city, near the town of Itá.
The "tambo", the term used in the southern cone of South America for a small dairy farm which sells unpackaged milk directly, is run by a partnership of a dozen women working in three shifts.
These women mow and chop hay and mix it with a supplement to provide balanced nutrition for the cows. They milk the cows twice a day, feed them and keep the community "tambo" spic and span, as well as selling the surplus milk that their families do not consume to neighbouring villagers.
Every day they strive to strengthen their committee, named "Jaikove Porlâ Rekávo" ("Aiming for Wellbeing") in Guaraní, which is spoken by 94 percent of Paraguayans and is an official language, alongside Spanish. The committee was created in August 2009 by 30 women from Aveiro, ultimately reduced to 12 partners, all of whom have children.
"There are many reasons why women drop out, but it is mainly because of the pressure they face at home," said Blanca Toledo, an agrarian extension worker with the extension service of the Agriculture and Livestock Ministry.
Toledo, who advises the committee, was referring to resistance by husbands who are opposed to their wives developing interests outside the home, let alone an independent economic activity.
"It's not easy, but we are confident in our work," Pereira said as she recalled cases of women leaving the group.
She said with pride that she is lucky, because her husband not only approves of her work, but also willingly lends a hand when one of the partners is unable to work her shift.
"It's no trouble at all to help mix the feed for the cows," said Domingo Gavilán, who lives within a stone's throw of the tambo. He also joins in work to improve the buildings, such as repairing the stable's walls and roof.
"Some men still don't like their wives to concern themselves with anything other than caring for the family. I don't agree with that," said Gavilán, standing to one side of the barn and avoiding the limelight because "this is the women's business."
"My wife has changed, she is happier and we have a better relationship than before; we talk to each other more. Times have changed, and women have changed too," he said. Some time ago he gave up agricultural work to become a street vendor in Itá, he said.
The women took up the challenge of becoming dairy producers at the suggestion of the agrarian extension service (DEAg), part of the National Programme for Family Agriculture.
The core principles of the programme are diversifying production, self- management, farm product marketing and food security. Food security is an area of work reserved only for peasant women who have children.
The goal is for these mothers to devote a small plot on their land to plant a vegetable garden for their family, or to establish a dairy. These enterprises are aimed at increasing family consumption and generating a surplus for direct local sale, or for sale to larger farming businesses.
Within the food security project, women are given training in areas like food preparation, biodegradable products and recycling.
Jaikove Porâ Rekávo is the first women's committee to run a dairy farm in the Itá district, located in Central province, the smallest of the 17 provinces in Paraguay but home to 35 percent of the country's 6.2 million people.
More than half of the Paraguayan population lives off the land, in a country where the economy depends on agriculture and livestock raising, services and tourism. Thirty-six percent of the population lives in poverty, and 20 percent in extreme poverty, surviving on less than a dollar a day.
According to DEAg, there are about 3,000 men and 1,000 women farm producers in Central province, mostly organised in committees. In the Itá district there are 97 committees, 25 of them made up of women.
Committees must fulfil a number of requirements and be recognised by the municipal and provincial authorities and by DEAg, in order to ensure that the projects each of them undertakes are viable.
The women in Aveiro waited several months after forming their committee before the cows arrived. One of their chief problems was finding a suitable area of land, which was solved when a neighbour loaned them a large plot.
Thanks to this, they received five cows and five calves in March. Since then, milk produced in the community dairy is sold unpackaged to villagers, and the income reinvested in the tambo.
The 10 animals are part of an assistance package worth 6,500 dollars, including basic infrastructure and services as well as training.
Toledo said that the basic diet of the 12 families has improved, as previously they drank milk only occasionally. The tambo is expected to start making a profit in November, and a month later product diversification will get under way, in the form of making and selling dairy products like butter and cheese.
Aurora Ramos, a mother of five and another member of the women's committee, is confident that profits will be earned, but stresses that "at the moment, the main thing is to keep the tambo going."
Ramos is doubly committed to the project, because she set aside three hectares of her small family farm to grow pasture for the cattle.
The four women working their shift during IPS' visit said it is all a novelty to them: becoming entrepreneurs and raising livestock, operating by collective self-management and marketing their product.
"Sometimes we wonder what we have let ourselves in for," Ramos said, "but we all encourage and support each other when there are difficulties."
Pereira added with conviction, "we want to grow, this is our challenge, and together we are managing to do so," as she filled the mangers with supplemented fodder.
One of the cows has already delivered the first calf born on the tambo. "When that happened, we felt a bonanza was on its way, even if it's just a silly idea of ours," she said, blushing and laughing at once.