Women Leading Community Development in Rural Peru
At the age of 29, Isella Torres Castillo is a leader in her community, the mother of an 11-year-old boy named Snider, and the vice-president of the Zonal Carmen de la Frontera of the Norandino Co-operative, of which she has been a member for the past six years. Norandino works with small producers of cacao, coffee and brown sugar in Northern Peru to improve the lives of member families through trainings, and access to storage facilities and local and international markets. They’re also a partner of our INVEST Co-op Peru project, which creates sustainable livelihoods by strengthening small producers’ position in agricultural markets. The quality and quantity of cacao and coffee increases, and farmers’ financial literacy and management skills improve.
Isella is currently enrolled in one of INVEST Co-op Peru’s leadership schools, which train future leaders in self-esteem, business management, the co-operative model and principles as well as gender equality.
Her community, Carmen de la Frontera, is a place of extraordinary natural beauty. Families there generally produce coffee, cane sugar and bananas, among other crops. For a long time, producers used traditional sugar mills to refine the cane sugar into a strong sugar cane alcohol called cañazo. “Producers would make strong alcohol to drink and to sell because the sugar cane was worth so little. Our community suffered from alcoholism.” Isella explains that alcoholism was linked to high levels of domestic abuse and violence in the community. It also increased the burden placed on women, who had to fulfill both productive and reproductive work. Their community’s development was stunted as most men were not concerned with improving their families’ living conditions.
Faced with this situation, Isella organized other women and youth in her community. They engaged with non-governmental organisations and lobbied authorities to obtain approval and support to build a granulated cane sugar processing plant. With this plant, producers are now able to make organic brown sugar, known as panela. According to Isella, this initiative has changed the lives of many people. They have stopped consuming alcohol to devote themselves to the much more lucrative production of certified organic and Fairtrade brown sugar. Markets for the high quality brown sugar and for the producer’s coffee beans is ensured through the Norandino Co-operative, which distributes products internationally through co-ops like Canada’s La Siembra. With an increase in revenue, many producers have been able to improve their living situations and expand their cultivation areas.
Isella notes that this process was not easy on her family. Her son told her that he didn’t think she loved him because she often left him and her husband Attemiso to attend meetings. That was difficult for her to hear, but she explained to her family, “This is for you. I want you to have a different life, a better life.” Now, within her own family, she and her husband communicate much better, share roles and responsibilities, and with the additional revenue she has been earning, she hopes to save up enough money to build a better home.
With ongoing training and the support of Norandino and our Invest Co-op Peru project, Isella has high hopes for the future.
“No one can take the trainings away from us. They have empowered us, built our self-esteem and made us realize that we are strong, and we can make a difference. Nothing is impossible in this life. We now know that we have capable and strong leaders in our community. My dream would be that many more women and youth receive trainings.”
Reporting from the highlands, or ‘sierra’ in the Northwestern province of Huancabamba, Piura, Peru, Andrea Westcott-Lacoursiere, Gender and Youth Engagement Officer for INVEST Co-op Peru.