Mujeres Ambientalistas de Jiquilpan: another Mexican success story
Jiquilpan is a typical, very small Mexican town (population about 2000) in the state of Jalisco, about 2kms outside another small town, San Gabriel (population about 5000), which is famous as the place where one of Mexico’s greatest writers, Juan Rulfo, spent his childhood. To get there from Ciudad Guzman, where I live, you have to cross to the other side of the volcano del Nevado, a spectacular drive, full of twisting curves, that climbs up to about 3000 meters, before descending into the plain where San Gabriel is located.
I had been invited to San Gabriel by Alejandro, the coordinator of tourism there, who was keen to show me and my son around the area. Part of our two-day trip, just before Xmas, was to visit a project called ‘Mujeres Ambientalistas’ (literally translated as ‘environmental women’), a group of women who had set up a co-operative to produce jam and other products mainly from the fruit guayaba, and using particularly the fruit that was judged not to be suitable for selling and which otherwise would have been thrown away.
When we visited the cooperative, I was fortunate enough to be able to talk to not only the president, Tamar, but also a consultant from Mexico City, Gerardo Chavéz Segoviano, who was helping the cooperative with the production, distribution and sale of its products.
Tamar told us the history of the cooperative. In 2003, a group of women, who met when they took lunch to their children at the local school, decided they wanted to do something about the rubbish that was accumulating in their town. For a year, this group of about 20 women, together with about 60 children, and with the help of the local priest, organised the clearing of rubbish from sites around the entrance to the town.
This process of working together (what sociologists would call creating social capital) led to looking for ways in which the women could work together to create an income for themselves and where they could also pursue their commitment to the environment. In 2004, they set up a cooperative with the idea of producing jam and other completely natural products from the guayabas that were not sold as fruit. They were given a grant by the state government of Jalisco of 300,000 pesos (about 24,000 USD) and also borrowed from the same government a further 500,000 (40,000 USD) pesos at a low interest rate.
For two years, the women worked together learning by trial and error to make their different products, paying off some of the loan, but without creating any income for any of them. In these two years, half the women left the cooperative. Furthermore, they contracted three consultants to help them (all male), with the technical aspects of their production process, who basically advised them very poorly. Tamar estimates that the cooperative wasted about 300, 000 pesos on bad advice.
Fortunately, the new engineer, found by personal recommendation by a relative of the president, has been a great asset and has helped the cooperative enormously. In 2008, they have had sales of 800,000 pesos (about 64,000 USD) and some of their products are likely to gain certification by a national body accrediting products suitable for diabetics – instead of using sugar, they use a product that comes from the agave plant, which also makes a delicious alternative to honey. In addition, their products, under the label Campo Deli, have just started to be distributed and sold in supermarkets in Mexico City. It is likely their sales will triple in the following year.
Overall, to conclude, this is a great success story. When I talked to the president and her adviser the following factors stood out as key reasons for their success:
- As already mentioned, the social capital that was generated by taking collective action over an environmental issue that concerned them all. There is an interesting parallel here with my previous post about the conservation of turtles by an indigenous community. What is it that leads a community to decide to do something about the degradation of their environment, especially when many communities do nothing?
- The key role of leadership. It was clear from what the consultant said and from listening to her, that Tamar is an exceptional leader. So much so, that I will devote my next post to this.
- The important role of finding someone who can offer the advice and expertise that is lacking in the cooperative. In this case, Gerardo, the adviser, helped the women manufacture products with much higher and more consistent quality, use their equipment more effectively and economically, and find important sales outlets in Mexico City. Gerardo does not have a website, but can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org