March is Women’s History Month and the perfect time to focus on pioneering women making a difference – women like Isabel Uriarte. Raised on a coffee farm in the rolling hills of Northeastern Peru, Isabel grew up very much aware of the difficult lives women from her region endured. Isabel’s family left the coffee farm and relocated to the city to insure she received an education – a move that ultimately made a difference in the lives of countless women.
Getting to Know the People of Peru
I fell in love with the land of Peru. From the Spanish-Colonial cities like Lima and Cusco, to the dense jungle of the Amazon, to the mysteries of Machu Picchu, and to the islands of Lake Titicaca, the diversity of the land was captivating. But I also fell in love with the people – especially after experiencing a home stay with a Peruvian family on Amantani Island.
Watching the indigenous women cook for their families, herd sheep, work in the fields, and tackle the high altitude without gasping for air despite their advanced age left an impression on me. But it wasn’t just their hard work that made an impression. It was their perseverance despite having far fewer options than we enjoy. The indigenous women can’t choose a career or follow a dream. Their path through life is often set from birth…if you were born on a coffee farm, chances are you would become a coffee farmer. And until recent years, women had few rights. So with March being Women’s History Month, I wanted to introduce you to one of the most amazing women I have ever met, Isabel Uriarte, who just happens to be from this beautiful land and who is changing history for many of these women.
Recognizing a Need
Life on the coffee farms in Peru had never been easy for the women of the community. All of the land was owned by the men. The bank accounts belonged to the men; domestic violence was common and women were treated as objects. Isabel Uriarte grew up on the coffee farms, but her family moved to the city so she could continue her education. She studied Sociology and later obtained her Masters in Business. While in college, she met Victor, who became her husband. Isabel and Victor discovered they shared a mutual desire to make a difference in the lives of the indigenous people in their country. Upon completion of their education, they decided to return to Isabel’s roots – the coffee farm.
Isabel Gets Things Started
Isabel’s pioneering efforts resulted in the formation of Café Femenino – a female coffee growing group within the CECANOR cooperative. She began to hold meetings in the community to discuss necessary improvements. At first there were only eight women in the organization. The men were skeptical and would not allow the women to go to meetings alone.
In 2000, the cooperative became Fair Trade Certified. Farmers began receiving more money for their crops, but the farms were still owned by the men and often the proceeds were squandered by the husbands on whiskey and beer. Isabel knew the solution would have to come from keeping the women’s coffee separate.
Fair Trade standards required women to participate in all levels of the cooperative. As a result, the men were required to deed over a portion of their farmland to their wives. The women farmed the land and kept the money they received from their crops. Women were empowered for the first time in these communities – something uncommon in the Latin American culture.
Owning the land and retaining the profits from the crops gave the women the financial incentive to work even harder. With the women in charge of the finances for their portion of the land, profits began to go to betterment of the families.
As a result, girls are now getting an education along with boys. Women are no longer treated as objects…which has significantly decreased the problem of domestic violence. Right now there is a big campaign promoting nutrition with a focus on the use of quinoa – a grain filled with protein that grows abundantly in South America. Communities are thriving and lives have been changed forever.
A Labor of Love
Today, Isabel works with over 1,500 farmers and about 65% of them are women. She spends most of her time in the field with the farmers – sometimes walking up mountains for three or four hours each day. She does it because she loves it, she loves the people and she strives to be a beacon of hope to the women of the community. The world needs more women with the courage and conviction of Isabel!