By Milagros Salazar
Peruvian peasant women working in the potato fields.
The traditional image of rural women in Latin America is shifting, from one of subsistence farmers raising their families to that of women playing a growing role in small- and large-scale commercial and productive activities. But behind that change lie both success stories and exploitation.
Gladis Vila, a Quechua farmer from a village in mountainous Huancavelica, Peru’s poorest region, is one of the women behind a movement that has driven the emergence of ecological farmers markets in 22 of the country’s 25 regions, which offer tangible proof that it is possible to produce food without destroying the environment.
"Indigenous women farmers are preservers of biodiversity; we do business respecting nature," Vila, who is the head of the National Organisation of Indigenous Andean and Amazonian Women of Peru (ONAMIAAP), told IPS.
Women produce between 60 and 80 percent of the food in most developing countries, with the proportion rising in relation to a country’s poverty level, according to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO).
Rural activists, researchers and representatives of development organisations from different Latin American countries met early this month in Lima, in the seminar "Mujer rural: cambios y persistencias", in which they discussed the problems and needs of rural women in the broad range of situations they face in the region.
One of the participants, anthropologist Kirai de León, shared the success story of a group of women who grow aromatic and medicinal herbs in Uruguay.
The Calmañana Cooperative, currently made up of 17 women farmers, has been working for 25 years in the southern province of Canelones.
The members of the cooperative not only supply local supermarkets, but export their products to Europe and form part of the national certification board for organic products.
"They are highly respected" by people and businesses selling herbs and spices, and "have made quite a name for themselves," de León, who has supported the cooperative from the start, told IPS.
She explained that one of the medicinal herbs in greatest international demand is "marcela" (anchyrocline satureioides), which has antioxidant, cell-protective, anti- inflammatory and antiviral properties.
According to the World Health Organisation, 85 percent of the world population uses herbal medicine for some aspect of primary health care.
These Uruguayan women help meet these needs, while growing their plants without the use of chemicals.
"We have to change the way we work: we have to not only take care of our husbands, but also the environment. That is an important shift," said Jeanine Anderson, an anthropologist who specialises in gender issues at the Pontificia Catholic University in Peru.
Caring for the environment is linked to the question of access to land. Bolivian activist Elizabeth López of the Latin American Network of Women Defenders of Social and Environmental Rights stressed the importance of this, in order for rural women to be economically independent.
But "The issue isn’t just access to land, but guaranteeing that women have effective control over water use, biodiversity, soil, and other natural resources," the Bolivian activist remarked to IPS. "Without that, their possibilities are limited."
López said the expansion of other economic activities, like mining, limit rural women’s right to land. And although women are the main producers of food, they own less than one percent of land in the world, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
In the Andes mountains, mining coexists uneasily alongside farming and livestock raising, and has specific impacts on women. As the activity of mining corporations has grown in rural areas, "there has been a total lack of recognition of the value of women’s work as livestock farmers," said López, citing protests led by women against mining companies in Bolivia and other Andean countries.
Another growing phenomenon is the increasing participation of women as agricultural wage workers.
In Peru, for example, large-scale agriculture has drawn women from the Andes highlands to coastal areas. One illustration of this phenomenon is Gladys Campos, who used to work for the Sociedad Agrícola Virú, an asparagus producing agribusiness company that has benefited from the country’s agro-export boom.
Campos left Cochabamba, her hometown in the highlands of the northwest region of La Libertad, to work for the company on the coast. But she was only employed there for two and a half years: in October 2004 she was sacked after she set up a union.
"We worked 17 hours a day for poverty wages," Campos told IPS. "They didn’t pay us overtime. They hire you and take you there from your hometown, with promises that they’ll help you, but then they make you work like a slave, and deduct the cost of your food and board from your wages. Then they throw you out."
Similar stories were described by other women at the seminar.
Campos is now secretary of the National Federation of Peasant, Artisan, Native and Wage Working Women of Peru (FEMUCARINAP).
When she worked for the Sociedad Agrícola Virú, one of Peru’s largest agro-exporters, she earned just 214 dollars a month. Women, she says, are not hired just as temporary workers during the January to April main harvest season, but work year-round, with no vacation time.
Peru’s agro-exports grew 28 percent from January to September this year, according to the Ministry of Agriculture.
Non-traditional products, such as fresh asparagus, carmine - - a food colouring extracted from the cochineal beetle (Dactylopius coccus) -- grapes and mangos, represent 74 percent of the country’s agro-exports.
"Those who actually sustain the economy at the cost of long hours of work are the workers, not the companies," Campos said.
Anderson said it is important to study the impacts of women’s growing participation in different small- and large- scale agricultural activities.
In Colombia, women are displaced from their rural homes indefinitely, by decades of armed conflict.
Colombian social worker Flor Edilma Osorio said one of these displaced women told her that "In the countryside, you have hope." The remark, she said, reflects "the longing for the countryside felt by rural migrants caught up in urban poverty.
"In the countryside you can be poor, but you have food. In the city, however, if you don’t have money, you can’t survive. The loss is total," said the expert.