In reviving their traditions, Peruvian women find their voice

This is the latest post in Human Nature’s “Gender + Conservation” blog series

Awajún woman, Shampuyacu, Peru

Awajún woman in the village of Shampuyacu, in the buffer zone of Peru’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest. The women of this community recently set aside an area of forest where they could cultivate and harvest traditional plants — and keep traditional knowledge alive. (© Conservation International/photo by Andrea Wolfson)

In many societies, women are the keepers of traditional knowledge.

It is no different among the Awajún people of northern Peru, renowned as skilled warriors and for their women’s knowledge of plants as medicines and food. But, as is often the case, this traditional knowledge — passed down from mother to daughter — eroded as the modern world encroached.

When Conservation International (CI) began working with the Awajún community in the village of Shampuyacu in 2012 — near northern Peru’s Alto Mayo Protected Forest — the women saw an opportunity to bring back what had been lost.

What they wanted wasn’t small: a forest of their own where they could cultivate and harvest their traditional plants. They identified a patch of forest that suited their purposes, and they went to their community’s general assembly to ask for it.

But would their request be granted? Though women are often involved in making decisions with their families, it is the men who vote on final community decisions — including those on land use — in the general assembly.

This experience highlighted something that few people in the Western world realize: that the roles and responsibilities of men and women in traditional societies have a direct impact on the long-term sustainability of conservation efforts in those communities.

belt made from huayruro seeds in Awajún community, Peru

An Awajún belt made of huayruro seeds grown in the forest near the community. Native to Peruvian rainforests, the huayruro plant has been an important part of Peruvian culture for centuries. The red and black seeds are are said to bring good fortune and abundance and ward off negative energy. (© Conservation International/photo by Andrea Wolfson)

First step: Education

This situation is not unique to this village, or to Peru — in many communities across the globe, men often have access to, and control over, decision-making that affects community land, despite the fact that the women are just as connected to the lands and waters where they live.

My colleagues and I at CI in Peru wanted to think more critically about how gender influences projects, and how these projects influence men and women differently given their respective roles and responsibilities. We asked ourselves many questions: Why is it important to think about gender when doing conservation work? How can we start incorporating gender considerations into our everyday work?

We realized that first we had to improve our understanding of the main issues. We focused on three areas:

  1. Building our knowledge: Through two workshops led by a team of local gender experts, we worked with CI Peru’s technical and operations staff to align our understanding and establish a foundation of knowledge.
  2. Assessing gender policies and requirements of donors and the Peruvian government: We discovered a lot of common ground, and identified diverse needs and guidelines that could help our work on the ground.
  3. Incorporating a gender approach to our work: We’ve realized that incorporating gender considerations in our work will significantly contribute to the long-term sustainability of our initiatives. Encouraging men and women to participate in conservation efforts has been shown to create a stronger sense of ownership among all.

We are now working on developing tools that can help us share our information, and on promoting inclusive language or gender-neutral language. This is of special importance in Spanish-speaking countries like Peru: When someone addresses a group made up of men and women, it is common to refer to that group using masculine pronouns, so it is important to ensure that women are “visible” in both written and oral communication. Our team believes lessons learned from our work could teach policymakers about the importance of considering gender, and contribute to gender-sensitive environmental policies.

Awajún women in the patch of forest in Shampuyacu, Peru

Awajún women in the patch of forest in Shampuyacu, Peru where they cultivate and harvest traditional plants that provide a variety of uses, from shampoo to headache relief. (© Conservation International/photo by Andrea Wolfson)

Back in Shampuyacu, the women’s forest is thriving. The general assembly approved the request and there are now 32 women participating in the project. They’re growing a tree whose bark can be boiled to treat various stomach maladies, a palm whose oil is used as shampoo and a plant that treats headaches and typhoid fever. But more important, they are growing their knowledge of traditional plants and recovering ancestral traditions that were almost lost.

So, have we answered all our questions about gender in Peru? Not quite. There is still lots of work to do. Nonetheless, we believe that we are on the right track and look forward to sharing our experiences with the world.

Milagros Sandoval is the environmental policy manager at CI Peru. Read other stories in our “Gender + Conservation” blog series. Want to read more stories like this? Sign up for email updates here. Donate to Conservation International here.


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