Field Study and Service-Learning MediaBlog

26 February, 2011

Grupo Ecologico de Mujeres de Abanico (GEMA)

Situated at the base of Costa Rica’s most active volcano, La Arenal, lies a lush green organic farm that belongs to Cristina Berrocal and her family. For 25 years, Cristina and her husband have managed this 5 hectare estate encompassing a wide variety of fruits and vegetables as well as cows, chickens and worm compost. The couple also own an impressive farm- scale biodigestor that converts cow manure into a reliable source of energy for their kitchen stove. However, the most striking feature of the farm is the presence of hundreds of medicinal plant species, from the well known ginger and lemon grass to the not so common bushy lippia plant used to alleviate sinuses and stomachaches.

Cristina is one of eleven active members of a successful women’s cooperative called “Grupo Ecological de Mujeres de Abanico (GEMA).” GEMA is a women’s medicinal plant cooperative that cultivates, processes and sells 29 different types of organic herbs in the form of teas, spices and natural products like shampoo. Fifteen years ago, Cristina was approached by the cooperative and invited to become a member. Since then, she has reserved one-fourth of her farm for the organic cultivation of medicinal plants.

The roots of GEMA reach back to 1995, when a group of women in the small town outside of La Fortuna called Abanico got together in search of a sustainable income-generating project that would benefit the entire community. With the help of a Peace Corps volunteer, they assembled and carefully assessed the needs, strengths and interests of the group. One of the women presented the idea of growing medicinal plants and the rest were on board with it. Beginning with 17 women, the group was supported by a non-governmental organization called ANDAR that provided the start-up seeds as well as the preliminary training in growing medicinal plants. The NGO also helped the women establish business relationships with big national tea companies like ManzaTe and Mondaisa. For the first ten years, ANDAR acted as an intermediary, purchasing the herbs from GEMA and then selling them to the companies at a higher price. Realizing that they could be make a bigger profit by selling directly to the companies, the cooperative finally eliminated ANDAR as the middle-man five years ago.

Today, GEMA is comprised of 10 women and 1 man, all of whom are farmers with their own plots of land. Each member is responsible for cultivating, harvesting and drying their herbs. Once dried, they are transported to the processing facility/office in Abanico where the herbs are processed and packaged into small plastic bags or canisters. GEMA opened up their factory in 2003 through funds from Fundecooperacion para el Desarrollo Sostenible, a Costa Rican foundation that supports environmental and sustainable development projects. The facility provides ample space for their office, meeting room, packing supplies, machines and educational garden.

What is most fascinating about this particular project is that it’s female-dominated. In a highly macho society, women, especially the wives of farmers, are relegated to the home where they are expected to complete household chores and care for the children. While some of these women faced immense challenges by their husbands in participating in the project, most of the women had cleverly secured a good level of lasting support. Cristina and Nidia Castro, the Vice President of GEMA were some of the most lucky ones. Women who lacked spousal support were unable to convince their husbands to give them a portion of the farm for medicinal plants. As a result, many of the women in the initial group of 17 members were forced to drop out, leaving behind the 10 women that are in the cooperative at the moment.

Furthermore, when the project was first proposed in 1995, nearly all of the husbands thought that growing organic medicinal plants was a silly and naive idea. They were highly skeptical of organic farming methods and had great difficulty believing that it would yield favorable results. Within just the first few months of planting, however, the husbands witnessed first-hand the wealth of benefits provided by organic gardening and were so sold on the idea that they decided to convert their entire chemical-filled farms to organic.

Because of GEMA, not only did these women become key contributors to the family income, but also achieved a significant degree of gender equality in their household. Like many women of her time, Cristina received a K-6 education and never had the opportunity to grow beyond her role as a housewife and mother. According to her, GEMA gave her a space to bond with other like-minded women as well as additional educational opportunities through numerous capacitation workshops on organic farming, medicinal plant properties, making medicinal plant products and business entrepreneurship skills. Her expanded role in the family has also enabled her daughter and granddaughter to take on active roles in the community and become advocates of sustainable business practices. Her oldest daughter and her husband are the proud owners of the first Eco-lodge in La Fortuna. Her oldest granddaughter is currently pursuing environmental studies at a local university. In light of all these successes, it seems that female business entrepreneurs can be major catalysts for social change in their respective communities. The full cooperation of women alongside men in society especially in the area of sustainable development has significant implications that will be furthered examined as this case study is continually compared to other similar women’s groups in Costa Rica.

Author: Joan Ngo

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

El JardÍn la Aroma-Tica

Fervently interested in the art of sustainable agriculture and plants with medicinal qualities, our group ventured to El JardÍn la Aroma-Tica, a 5 Ha. organic farm located near La Fortuna. The owners, Christina Berrocal and her husband, provided us with the opportunity for some experiential learning and a glimpse into the processes of their sustainable business. Fifteen years ago, Christina became a member of 'Grupo Ecologico de Mujeres de Abanico' (GEMA), a women's cooperative in which individual families cultivate and package medicinal plant products. She is one of the eleven members involved in this organization and produces herbal tea's and shampoo. In total, the farm supports 150 medicinal, edible, and aromatic plants, cows and chickens. The entire production system incorporates principles of sustainability and supplies environmentally friendly products that support human health. We began our day by traversing the garden paths sheathed with wild grasses and surrounded by an array of healing herbs. As we explored the garden, Christina described the various uses of her plants, the parts used create remedies, and allowed us to experience the smells and tastes of many herbs. Her collection ranged from plants with cancer inhibiting properties, such as Cat's Claw, to dandruff relieving Indigo. After the enlightening tour we were ready to understand how the biodynamic system functions.

Nine cows play an integral role in Christina's business. To begin with, the cows milk is extracted, used by the household and sold in the community. The foundational components of the businesses operation derive from the excrements collected daily which are used as fertilizer and as a source of energy. 75 to 90 percent of plant nutrients fed to animals are excreted in their manure. This means that the nutrients channeled by the plants from the soil are stored in the plant's biomass which are later consumed by the cows and finally excreted . The nutrient-rich manure is recycled into the soil to enhance it's quality. Manure not only adds organic matter into the terrain, but it also serves as a soil conditioner and a compost ingredient. When cow waste is mixed into the soil, moisture is retained, compaction is prevented, nutrients do not leech away, and the soil's pH is balanced. Instead of the cow excrements becoming runoff and contaminating the local water systems it is collected and recycled into the farm. The reuse of the organic matter relieves any need of inputing harmful chemicals, saves money, and reduces environmental pollutants.

A biodynamic system takes advantages of the natural interactions in an ecosystem as well as the multiple uses of each resource. Interestingly enough, Christina's kitchen is fueled by gas derived from the cows manure. A few years ago ICE, Instituto Costaricense de Electricidad, Costa Rica's main energy provider, facilitated Christina with a biodigestor bag and training at no cost. This system enabled her to provide the kitchen with renewable energy and served as an incentive to prevent the cow waste from potentially entering the hydraulic systems. Everyday, Christina and her husband mix 2 large buckets of cow manure with 6 buckets of water (1:3 ratio) and stir until the mixture is liquidated. The organic substance is poured into the large bag where a continuous flow has been established. Anaerobic bacteria, breakdown the biodegradable material in the bag without oxygen and produces a byproduct of methane, carbon dioxide and liquid. The gas inflates the bag and the nutrient-rich liquid, or digestate, gradually runs out one end and fertilizes the crops. The pressure from the biogas pushes up into a tube connecting the bag to the roof of the house where the energy is dispersed into the kitchen and used to make the herbal shampoo. This system allows the farm to be self-powered, replaces the use of fossil fuels, enables the shampoo production to be sustainable, provides the soil with nutrients, and maintains the ecological balance of the environment.

Compost, decomposed plant matter, is recycled as a fertilizer. Adding compost to soil enhances it's quality and is a key ingredient to organic farming. One way to speed up the decomposition process and reduce the workload is to add a specie of earthworms to the composting matter to feed on organic waste. This method termed vermiculture, is an important property that contributes to the richness of Christina's soil. She uses Red Wigglers to breakdown vegetable or food waste, and bedding materials. Food scraps, newspaper, soil, and cow manure are combined with the worms in a large wooden bin. The worms feed on these materials and break-down them down into simple properties. The end-product, or the worms' waste, is a heterogenous mixture of organic matter containing water-soluble nutrients and nutrient-rich organic fertilizer to be applied to the garden. Red Wigglers are recommend because the have great appetites (they eat more than their weight in food everyday!) and breed very quickly. Vermicompost increases plant growth, conserves the soil, and is a great way to recycle your food and bedding scraps!

There was an abundance of lush compost ready to be applied to the soil! Erica, Miguel, Tait and I filled sacks with the natural fertilizer
and spread it among the bases of the plants in the greenhouse to enrich the soil quality. Using a shovel, we made spaces around the edges of the plants and filled them with compost to promote their growth. Remaining cautious not to damage the delicate roots, we continued this process until we distributed the organic matter around every herb. Amanda and Joan harvested Tilo Criollo, Justicia pectoralis, the herb most sought after by the purchasing companies. This water-willow is commonly known as Tilo in latin America. In folk medicine, Tilo is used as a tranquilizer, alleviates headaches, is an anti-inflammatory agent, and fortifies the nervous system. No wonder it's in high demand.

Joan and Amanda placed the harvested herbs in the solar dryer. Christina efficiently uses the sun's renewable and powerful energy to dry the herbs. The solar dryer applies the greenhouse effect to trap and contain heat. Strong UV rays are able to enter the greenhouse. Some of the energy from the solar radiation is absorbed by the interior properties, including the plants. The quality of the energy degrades to infrared radiation which gets trapped in the greenhouse since it is not strong enough to escape. Sunlight is continuously being trapped in the solar dryer resulting in an accumulation of heat. On an average sunny day, the herbs are dried in 2 days. On rainy days the process lasts from 5-7 days. Once again Christina's methods take advantage of the natural resources in a sustainable way. This is an energy efficient, long-term, inexpensive, and environmentally sound system.

The biodiversity supported by El Jardin Aroma-Tico facilitates natural tropical interactions while making use of the land, conserving soil, and attracting a variety of pollinating species. Christina's farm, she and her family included, is self-efficient. She makes simple manipulations and leaves the rest to nature. All of the agricultural inputs derive from her land. Her system displays a continuous flow of matter and energy and promotes natural ecological functions as opposed to degrading them. El Jardin Aroma-Tica is a haven of healing plants for human organisms that does not sacrifice the environment's equilibrium and instead works along it's very side. Christina is able to make an income while practicing environmental stewardship. Essentially this farm is run by applying the knowledge of natural ecosystem functions and is living proof that sustainable businesses can be successful in every sector; ecologically, economically, and socially.

Posted By: Jeanne LaRoche