Nature conservation fails without empowered women

If women and girls are not given access to education and do not have control over their reproductive health, we cannot build sustainable communities and provide basic human rights

This year I have been traveling through Latin America, visiting nature reserves supported by the World Land Trust (WLT), as a freelance conservation writer. It’s an adventure that’s taken me to some wild and remote spots, through a dozen different countries with diverse cultures. But it seems no matter where I am, there’s barely a bus ride that goes by when I’m not asked, in one way or another: “where is your husband and children?”

Giving women the choice over how many children they have is the road to conservation success © Bethan John

I recount these bus-based chats to friends and family back home, laughing about the time in Mexico when I was advised: “Be careful; if you wait much longer, your womb will seal up”. Then in Belize, I was told: “If you lived here, you’d be considered an old maid.” I am only 27-years-old!

I remember vividly a conversation I had with a 17-year-old girl on a ramshackle bus winding its way through rural Colombia. She’s giggling at my terrible Spanish, sharing her food with me, while holding a litre bottle of bright orange fizzy drink up to the lips of her toddler. She’s amazed that, being 10 years older than her, I have no children and am traveling alone.

Her first three questions tumble out of her mouth: Why am I not married? How long did it take me to get here? How much money do I make? Each answer is met by wide-eyed silence. We are worlds apart. And suddenly I’m not laughing anymore.

Two months before arriving in Colombia, the reality behind these endless questions hit me. I was volunteering in Guatemala City with the communications team at FUNDAECO, a conservation organisation. One of my jobs was to help César Barrios, director of Communications, to put together a fundraising leaflet.

César starts by gathering quotes from the different people and communities that they work with throughout the country. These range from presidents of community councils – about FUNDAECO’s petitions to congress so that indigenous communities can gain legal ownership of their land – to youth leaders, on the organisation’s environmental education work and commitment to connecting young people with the natural world.

A nature reserve in Caribbean Guatemala that’s co-managed by conservationists from FUNDAECO and the indigenous community © Bethan John

Soon César’s on the phone to Karen Dubois, director of FUNDAECO’s Programme for Healthy and Empowered Women and Girls. Karen is based in Izabal, in Caribbean Guatemala, where FUNDAECO have created a nature reserve protecting tropical forest surrounded by a network of lagoons. The reserve is co-run by the Sarstún Temash Institute for Indigenous Management; this is a pioneering project within Guatemala, as it’s the first time in the country’s history that an indigenous group and a conservation NGO have formed a consortium to manage a protected area for wildlife.

The power of choice

Within the reserve, Karen works with indigenous women to help share their knowledge on using natural resources sustainably, she holds discussions on sexual education, and organises access to medical treatment. According to figures by Human Development, which manages the United Nations Programme for Development (UNDP), in Izabal only 51.4% of births are assisted by medical staff. While in Huehuetenango, another area where FUNDAECO is providing medical clinics, it’s only 22.2%.

César’s request to Karen is simple: ask one of the women you work with why the medical clinics are important. Karen is soon back on the end of the line and she’s quoting Marta Romero:

“I am 40 years old. I have never participated in discussions of sexual education. At age 16, I had my first pregnancy. I have given birth 12 times and ten of my children are still alive. I have never been to a health center for a prenatal clinic and because of this I lost one of my babies. All my children have been delivered in my own house. Thanks to FUNDAECO’s clinics, now my daughters and I will have the opportunity for a healthier and better future.”

These basic facts given by Marta outline the sorrow and pain she has suffered in her life. Up until now, she has lived without choice: she had no power to decide at what age she wanted children, how many she wanted, never mind if she wanted children. It is this that sets me apart from Marta and the 17-year-old girl on the bus; in my life, I have so much choice.

Living in harmony

In a recent interview with the national newspaper, elPeriódico, Karen explained that with education and treatment women can make the decision on the number of children they want to have, based on the amount of resources at their disposal. The idea is to combine conservation and natural resource management, which is FUNDAECO’s main aim, with the empowerment of women because, as Karen says, it is difficult to achieve the first goal without the second. In the same interview, César said:

“If there is a community of 40 families living in a protected area, with eight children each, it is impossible for them not to destroy the forest, to gather firewood, or to hunt animals. We must work with the communities so that they are aware that in order to have enough resources, they must have fewer children and have economic alternatives to fight poverty in a sustainable way.”

During the last four years, FUNDAECO have provided 125 communities with sexual health clinics, where 20,000 women and girls have been given access to education and medical treatment through midwives and health promoters who work voluntarily.

The fear now is not having the resources to ensure the programme can continue and improve. “We are in an emergency”, says César, “because the project is running and there is often no funding, weakening the process.”

When elPeriódico recently ran a story on this issue, they stated: “We repeatedly tried to contact Roberto Kestler, president of the Health Commission of the Congress, to ask about [the possibility of funding the Medical Clinics], but did not got any response.”

If you know of anyone who can help support this project, please get in touch. If we wait for governments to act, if they act at all, it’s often too little and too late. It’s time we ensured that all women in Guatemala have a choice.

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