Costa Rica

Defenders of the forests: Costa Rica's green heart beats in the mountains of Talamanca

After years of struggle and community organization, the Costa Rican women's association Kábata Könana (Defenders of the Forests and Mountains) received the 2021 United Nations Equator Prize for their response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the global climate crisis. The Cabécar Indigenous women of Talamanca are increasingly leading the destiny of their Indigenous communities.

Their efforts to protect natural resources are joined with those of hundreds of Latin American Indigenous peoples who, together inhabit a third of the continent's forests.

Kábata Könana

In her yellow dress, rubber boots and waist-length hair, the 47-year-old Maricela Fernández Fernández, is a Cabécar leader from the Talamanca canton. "This is part of a grassroots process and struggle, because the role of women and their participation has always been part of our worldview. Do you know what motivates me?" she asks, giving her answer away with the direction of her gaze, "Seeing so many young women working, empowered."

It is noon on a Friday in Progreso, a small town to the east of the extensive Talamanca Cabécar Indigenous territory. On the grounds of the Kabata Women's Association, the recent arrivals finish arranging their inventories on improvised bamboo tables: bags of rice and coffee, piles of yellow yuca, multicolored chili peppers, ground ginger, potatoes, oranges, cocoa, smoked meats, plantains, and more. There are also woven baskets, earrings, banana flour, and passion-fruit plants. At the other end of the tents, the cooks continue making lunch enveloped in the smoke of chicken and turmeric.

Maricela has just come from a meeting and as president of Kábata Könana, she is likely to continue from meeting to meeting for the rest of the day. Her cohorts have been waiting for her for a while, but since each person knows what they need to do and how to do it, they know that her presence is not essential for the day to go as planned. They have been together since 2016 when they founded the association and have dealt with the deep-rooted problems in their territories in many different ways: the misogynistic macho culture, environmental pollution, deforestation, the loss of their language, ancestral knowledge, and even hunger. Beads of sweat break out on Maricela's forehead every time she stops her march.

Innovation and the technology: Allies to the Cabécar identity and Kábata Könana

Although it is early and there are only a few visitors, it's easy to predict that today's activities will be successful. The women are not only there to sell their products but also to barter: the Indigenous Virtual Barter Shop (Estanco Indígena de Trueque Virtual Productivo) was established in mid-2020, during the pandemic, as a way to feed their families, and boost the economy.

The monthly barter shop was immediately consolidated as a sustainable development mechanism for 10 communities in the Cabécar Indigenous territory. It was organized by the women's network and began to sell and trade agricultural products, handicrafts, knowledge and news through WhatsApp, an application that they have been able to exploit as a cultural strengthening tool. The 247 associates help to maintain their families and communities, and soon after beginning their efforts, other Cabecar communities such as Tayni and Nairi Awari heard about them and began replicating these alternative trade models.

"Here in the territory the land is inherited from mothers to daughters, but then men started selling the women's land. So, in 2008 we founded another organization called Kasatkö to fight to recover these lands. Today, all the women have their farms and a collection center where they can sell their products," Maricela says.

"In our worldview women are the ones who inherit the clan, they are the ones who carry the connection with nature from one generation to the next. With the barter shop we strengthened our culture because we recovered our traditional production systems and protected the forests and the springs."

The first attempts to organize began more than 15 years ago. Maricela says that her first objective was to confront and prevent gender-based violence against women, something that still motivates her to this day. As they progressed and grew as an organization, they realized that one of the main causes of their problems stemmed from the looting of their farms and plots by romantic partners. This stripped them and their children of their autonomy, resources, cultural roots, and the chance at an equal and fair present and future. They understood that the violence was not only physical and psychological, but also economic.

Conflicts over land ownership are deeply rooted in the history of the Latin American Indigenous peoples, who inhabit 404 million hectares of the continent, including 35 percent of its forests. Despite of these lands and peoples being rich in natural resources and culture, they suffer from severe economic inequality and lack public services, as detailed in a recent report by the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO). The contribution of Latin American Indigenous peoples in environmental conservation and the fight against climate change is critical, since 30 percent of the carbon stored in the region's forests is located within their territories, representing 14 percent of all the carbon captured by tropical forests worldwide.

Living between the rivers and mountains of Costa Rica's southern Caribbean coast, Cabécar Indigenous communities like Gavilán Canta, had been displaced in order to survive long before the start of the pandemic. But the arrival of the virus also brought about physical isolation. The women had been working on their own agenda, at the time developing a solar panel project. All of a sudden, they were forced to guarantee -- for the short, medium and long term -- the food on their tables and for their loved ones.

"We were surveying the situation of older populations on what they thought needed to be improved and changed," says Maricela, referring to the consultations they were carrying out among older adults in their communities, when COVID-19 appeared. "They advised us to take a step back and work on food and nutritional security, integrating our principles of conserving the environment, protecting streams and rivers, and eliminating monocrops and agrochemicals."

Women weavers of climate and health resilience in the face of the pandemic

The awareness that had already started to grow became apparent when facing the challenges of food distribution. By working together, they rekindled their fighting spirit and their ancestrally inherited knowledge. With the 'weavers of knowledge' the women of Kábata Könana created a WhatsApp network that kept them informed about the situations that families were facing, product availability, and logistics for collection and distribution in the barter shop. This network was maintained even during the critical months of the COVID-19 pandemic when physical distancing was needed.

"We distributed seeds, rice, corn, beans, squash, taro, and tiquizque, which were also exchanged among populations. They said to each other: I can't go to your house, but I'm going to send you my products," says Heilyn Sánchez, Vice President of the Association. "We had a more varied diet because different products are harvested in the highlands than in the lowlands."

Almost two years later, the members of Kábata Könana confirm that organic farming, biodiversity conservation, crop diversification, product bartering and WhatsApp chats were steps in the right direction. "Today women have other initiatives and options," Maricela says.

This morning, behind each table filled with products, there is a 'weaver' who is in charge of keeping track of what is sold and what is bartered, and in the Indigenous communities of Sibujú, San Vicente, San Miguel, Los Ángeles, Monte Sión, Progreso, Gavilán Canta, China Kichá, Oro Chico and Arenal, women continue to fight for the well-being of their families under the principles of solidarity, bartering, community and dialogue. Among their 2022 projects are a new headquarters for Kábata Könana, a tilapia pond and a seed museum.

Honouring the leaders

The benefits of organizing have been surprising even for themselves, but their efforts extend beyond community life. Many assume daily domestic tasks, many more raise children or grandchildren -- or both, and sometimes with severe disabilities, many carry out agricultural work, feed and care for animals, and a never-ending stream of other priorities. Often, these tasks go unnoticed and almost never paid, but they never expect to receive recognition. However, Maricela and Heilyn wept with joy upon learning that the Kábata Könana Women's Association had won the 2021 UN Equator Prize and that, in addition to US $10,000, they would suddenly be more visible.

"Even though we have learned to communicate the struggles and efforts of women, our work is often behind the scenes and happens in silence," she says.

The Equator Prize is awarded by UNDP and recognizes local and Indigenous organizations that achieve their development goals based on innovative solutions to challenges related to the climate crisis and environmental degradation.

UNDP honors local and Indigenous groups who are leading the way towards sustainable development. The 10 winning communities of the 2021 Equator Prize were recognized for their work at the forefront of environmental conservation, poverty reduction and climate action.

Local leadership with a global purpose

The Cabécar Indigenous women of Kábata Könana have bravely faced exclusion and gender-based violence to move towards emancipation and autonomy in all its forms, strengthening their leadership roles. They have embarked on a route from which they cannot not turn back.

Maricela now hopes to be part of and guarantee the participation of many more Indigenous women in the REDD+ Results-Based Payments project, led by the Costa Rican Ministry of the Environment and with technical support from UNDP and funding from the world's largest dedicated climate fund established by the UN to assist developing countries: the Green Climate Fund.

The REDD+ initiative seeks to expand the modalities of Payment for Environmental Services developed by the National Forest Financing Fund and improve forest fire prevention measures in rural communities through the management of the National System of Conservation Areas.

"We women want to be included in the new project because we are the ones who ensure that our plots are integral farms, we are the ones who are transmitting cultural and ancestral knowledge, and we are the ones who are telling our families that we cannot have monocrop farms in order to boost our economies and to guarantee sustainable and planet-friendly practices," Maricela says.

Every day and in the face of complex and uncertain scenarios such as the COVID-19 pandemic, Indigenous women continue to demonstrate their historic resistance and resilience. The efforts of these leaders are invigorating their economies, culture, and their health, and empowering future generations.

"It was inspiring for me to listen to Maricela tell how her community uses PES resources to buy more lands, expand the number of hectares recovered and protected, and build community halls, small aqueducts, and other community infrastructure that has a real impact on people's lives. Maricela's story demonstrates how a few well-invested resources can make a difference, generating positive changes in people's lives while contributing to the conservation and protection of the environment from an ancestral perspective," said UNDP's former Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Luis Felipe López-Calva, who had the opportunity to meet with Maricela and other indigenous peoples' leaders during his visit to Costa Rica.