Field Study and Service-Learning MediaBlog

21 March, 2011

Colectivo Feminino Rescatando Nuestra Ecologia (COFERENE)

The Colectivo Feminino Rescatando Nuestra Ecologia (COFERENE) is a fascinating hybrid of a grassroots organization and microenterprise devoted to protecting the environment through comprehensive recycling programs and fostering community activism through information, communication and environmental education. Created by a group of housewives in San Juan, San Ramon in 1995, COFERENE is a predominately female-managed organization whose recycling initiative has become a model for the nation. The wide range of social and environmental activities combined with its multiple partnerships with the government, businesses and NGOs, transformed COFERENE from a small community-based organization to one of national notoriety with international support from organizations like the World Wildlife Fund.

Maria Isabel Ramirez Castro founded COFERENE fifteen years ago during a time when women’s groups and recycling programs did not exist. Her idea to recycle was sparked one day after cleaning up a mess left after a holiday celebration in the community. She began collecting newspapers amid scrutiny from her neighbors. All solid waste was perceived as garbage and such work was considered strange. Despite public disapproval, Maria managed to sell the idea of recycling to other housewives in the community who wanted to make a difference in their own lives and the lives of others.

Not long after, 15 housewives convened and formed an organization in attempt to generate supplemental family income and break out of their traditional roles of homemakers. In the process, they also became a practical solution to the community’s environmental problem. In the initial stages of COFERENE, there was no facility and no funds. Members collected recyclables on foot and then slowly progressed to the use of a city truck borrowed from the municipality. Items were stored in their own homes. Eventually, they rented out a warehouse and their organization snowballed from there.

COFERENE collects, classifies and packs paper, plastic, glass, aluminum and cardboard goods from San Ramon and other nearby counties. The sorted goods are then sold to local businesses (such as a furniture production factory in Palmares), national companies (like Dos Pinos) and even transnational corporations (like Coca-Cola). There are buyers for all materials and COFERENE keeps track of what is bought, by whom, when, at what price and under what conditions. Any waste leftover is channeled to the city dump. The municipality donated landfill space for COFERENE to use.

Trash collection is completely free to the community. Due to resource constraints, the group has only one truck that works with a series of established routes. Currently they collect mainly from institutions such as small shops, businesses, hospitals and schools who save their recyclables until pick up day. One of the future goals of COFERENE is to cover households with the support of the municipality as it involves more trucks and manpower. Approximately 10-12 tons of solid waste is processed at the recycling center. Most of the waste is paper and cardboard. There are also “high and low seasons” for waste. During the holidays such as Christmas and Holy Week, more paper and cardboard is generated and all of it is recycled.

In addition to the recycling program, COFERENE conducts outreach to various sectors in the community. They deliver environmental workshops, presentations and talks to businesses and K-12 schools. Courses on waste production and management teach businesses the environmental impacts of making and disposing plastic and offer alternatives. In partnership with students from the University of Costa Rica, the organization developed an environmental education program based on the use of of theater, cartoons and age-appropriate materials. City-wide campaigns on the “Recollection of Solid Waste Recyclables” are organized throughout the year to raise awareness at all levels of society.

COFERENE depends on multiple partnerships: governmental, corporate and private and NGOs. The organizations that have been the most instrumental in the success of the organization are: the Instituto Humanista Para la Cooperacion de los Paises en Desarrollo (HIVOS) who provided funding and technical support, FUNDECOOPERACION who encouraged COFERENE to formally become a microenterprise, Instituto Nacional de Aprendizaje who currently offers free workshops to COFERENE members and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) who has supplied the group with environmental educational materials.

Despite multi-level institutional support, COFERENE still faces serious obstacles to maintain their growth. The municipality can be unresponsive to their request for funds and support. Operational costs are high and worker wages are low. The constant lack of funds and risk of rejection of their projects are always on the horizon. This year, COFERENE managed to secure 3 months worth of salary for each worker from the Ministry of Work. It is an opportunity that can be solicited through paperwork every year, but not guaranteed.

The group has had its peaks and valleys. Like most organizations, there has been a dwindling in membership and currently there are 7 full-time staff working at the center. However, no matter how great the challenge, COFERENE has remarkably managed to grow and flourish. There appears to be a legacy of passionate, charismatic female leaders managing the organization. Maria Teresa Arguedas Delgado is currently the Vice President and while she wasn’t involved in the group in the beginning, she is extremely active in all areas of the organization. She not only works alongside her staff, sorting paper and other materials, but also conducts presentations at schools and business, manages the overall operations of the microenterprise and provides unlimited leadership and enthusiasm for the program to her staff and community.

An organization like COFERENE provides an excellent perspective on the many obstacles women have faced in launching sustainable development projects as well as the incredible gains that they have made amid such odds. Aguedas claims that the greatest achievements in the organization have been the national recognition as both a grassroots organization and microenterprise, and the transformation of women from ordinary housewives into social entrepreneurs. The women have learned not only how to make a positive impact, but also how to manage a sustainable business. Participating in workshops allows them to share their achievements with other like-minded women and also learn from the experience of others. They are constantly empowering and being empowered in this line of work.

Author: Joan Ngo

NOTE: A directed study comparative analysis paper with further details on this and similar sites is available here: Achieving Sustainable Development Through Women's Entrepreneurship: A Comparative Study of Social Microenterprises in Costa Rica and Nicaragua.