Women’s Opinions Didn’t Count – Planting Trees in Bolivia

During Coen’s photography assignment for Bevrijde Wereld, a Belgian NGO that supports agricultural projects with a focus on food safety, we visited various rural communities in Bolivia. In the village of Kolga Koya each household received six fruit trees and was instructed on how to plant and maintain them.

Planting trees? You dig a hole, put in the tree, close the hole and water the tree, right? Or is it not that simple?

The community of Kolga Koya lies at 3800 meters, in an undulating landscape where the one constant is a merciless wind. It’s chilly and we put on another sweater as we are waiting for the women farmers and Abdón, a fieldworker of the Bolivian NGO INCCA, which is one of the NGOs supported and partly financed by Bevrijde Wereld.

The meeting was supposed to start at ten but in Bolivia time has a different meaning from the one we grew up with. Not only that, this meeting is for women and they simply can’t leave the house before they have finished their chores and taken care of their kids. Subsequently, they often have to walk long distances so it isn’t until eleven that our meeting starts.

Malnutrition

In Bolivia’s rural areas people hardly ever starve. There are enough potatoes and corn for everybody (unless there is a severe drought or too much rain). However, their diet knows little variation, which often leads to malnutrition. Not only does this shorten people’s lives, but undernourished kids have concentration problems in school.

INCCA helps rural communities to set up vegetable gardens with a variety of vegetables. Apart from tomatoes and onions, they ever eat any other vegetables. Planting fruit trees should help improve their diet as well.

How to Plant a Tree

Abdón puts a large drawing on the wall to explain the project. Because of the fierce wind the people need to protect their vegetable garden with a wall or fence, which is also needed for these trees. Besides the wind the wall will keep out hungry sheep. The holes need to be of a certain depth and those who have made these preparations (which were instructions given during a prior meeting) will today receive their trees.

Abdón’s plans need some adaptations. The women are incredibly insecure about how to go about planting these trees and Abdón is busy answering their questions until three o’clock. Together they make a schedule whereby Abdón will visit each household to plant one tree as an example. He has three hours of daylight left to visit thirteen houses that lie scattered in the surrounding countryside.

Local tradition: where there is a meeting or get-together everybody brings a dish for lunch which is shared with the group (©Coen Wubbels)

No Voice

The women organization of Kolga Koya hasn’t existed for very long and the women aren’t used yet to getting these kinds of responsibility. “The men did these kind of things and they didn’t listen to women,” Abdón tells me later. “This means that many of the women don’t dare to dig those holes and want me to come and check if they chose the right spot.”

One of the families we visit is Doña Elsa’s. They already built a fence and on our arrival the men are ready to dig the holes. Initially it’s nice to see how the men like to contribute, but then I notice how little by little they are taking over. Women are slowly moving to the back, busy mixing the (natural) fertilizer and removing rocks while Abdón is instructing the men on how to plant those trees.

Woman preparing fertiliser (©Coen Wubbels)

Signing for having received the fruit trees (©Coen Wubbels)

It will take time for confidence to grow before women in similar situations will stand up and demand they are the ones to be instructed. Planting trees may not be so difficult, but the process of communication and dealing with sensitivities and hierarchies in communities is what often makes work of NGOs so complicated and/or time-consuming.

Fortunately, INCCA has two women in her organization and on various occasions they visit these communities as well and focus on such aspects as confidence and responsibility (among other things). “Much has changed during these past couple of years, but more remains to be done,” one these women informs me.

Additional Reading

All photos by Coen Wubbels. Follow him on Instagram here & here.

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