What is it like to be a woman in tropical conservation? Wisdom, advice, and inspiration from 6 leading women

by

Veronica Rebollo

April 1, 2021

What is it like to be a woman in tropical conservation? Wisdom, advice, and inspiration from 6 leading women

“If you are passionate about something, and you know that is the right path for you to follow, do not hesitate. Just go for it.”

Photo of Mónica Alzamora

Mónica Alzamora

Mónica Alzamora received this message from her parents at an early age. She had the good fortune of being raised in a very supportive family that understood her passion for biodiversity. And though the conservation field in Latin America has been traditionally dominated by men, Monica never gave up on her dreams of studying and protecting primates in the rainforests of Peru.

Today, she is the Conservation Director both at Rainforest Partnership Peru and at Yunkawasi, a Peruvian NGO and close implementing partner of RP. Both roles involve regular visits to remote field stations in forest and rural areas, as well as close cooperation with communities in undertaking conservation efforts.

She was one of the six panelists joining the event titled “Women at the Forefront of Tropical Conservation: a trans-sectoral perspective” held on the 7th of March 2021 in commemoration of the UN International Women’s Day.

Each of these remarkable women have claimed their own space in the conservation sphere, whether that be in academia and education, public administration, the private sector, or from the heart of their communities.

The role of women in tropical conservation– what has changed and what hasn’t?

Lorena Durán is a lawyer with over 15 years of experience in the public and private sector. Over the course of her career, she has occupied several directive roles in the areas of public policy, environmental management and administrative law. She recalls her early career days.

“When I was sent to work in rural areas, I was barely 30 years old and already in charge of an office. In the place where I was meant to work, that was received with suspicion. My capabilities were put at stake, first for being so young, and secondly, for being a woman. ”

According to Lorena, the situation has changed in Peru. Opportunities for women to occupy high-level roles in the public administration have increased in the last years. More and more over time,  women are gaining senior governmental positions– and the working dynamics at office level seem to be gender-sensitive and fairly inclusive. Nevertheless, the situation in the field has farther to go.

“The toughest experience for a woman is working in the field, because there, the role of women is constantly questioned, and besides, women have different needs that are not taken into account or covered in those situations.”

Lorena won her team’s respect only when she got the chance to prove her skills and performance– being always on the move, travelling to remote locations, walking long distances under harsh conditions  and effectively dealing  with a wide range of people through a variety of (often tense) situations.

Photo of Lorena Durán

Lorena Durán

Mónica had similar experiences. At only 20 years old, she joined a globally recognized conservation institution, one of her lifelong dreams. All she had learned about conservation so far was from the classroom. Working on-the-ground was like a slap of reality for her.


“There, I got to experience for the first time what injustice and harassment mean, situations that I could never imagine when I was younger. The violence does not need to be physical or verbal to have an impact. It can manifest as a stare, as a gesture or as a simple text.”

At one point, she was inclined to leave her dreams and return to the safer environment of an office – but a few colleagues dissuaded her from the idea. “And most of these colleagues were men! It was good for me to have some male allies, and I got to see the two sides of the same coin.”

Mónica is proud of persevering through this, as she feels currently equipped to deal with inequality and knows when and how to respond to it. She also believes Peru is steadily becoming more gender-sensitive in many professional sectors. Nevertheless, she thinks there are still gaps that are not so evident at a first glance. For instance, Perú is far behind other countries that grant parental leave both to fathers and mothers – as it is assumed that parental obligations need to be equally shared.

Even though more women are occupying highly responsible roles in their workplace, they may find it difficult to keep up with a highly demanding career once they decide to become mothers. Because parenting is often perceived as a woman’s role, mothers tend to shoulder greater responsibility in raising their children. Without appropriate support from the government, their workplace, or their husbands, many women feel forced to give up professional opportunities.

Mildred Ortiz is one of these mothers, today accompanied by her baby Valentino, who greets us through the screen. But Mildred did not give up her career, nor she is planning to do so. Today, she is  the manager of Paway Nature Center, the first civil society-led natural reserve in Putumayo, Colombia and a regional reference for sustainability and ecotourism.

Photo of a treehouse.
Photo by Veronica Rebollo
Mildred and her son
Mildred and her son, Valentino at Paway’s Natural Reserve’s tree house

When she decided to buy a piece of land to transform it into a protected area, she faced many skeptical reactions – both from men and women- as managing land is generally not considered a woman’s duty. As she moved forward with her plans, she often found that people felt the need to discredit her actions or attribute her success to third parties’ help (such the government’s or her husband’s).

Even though gender equality has advanced in Colombia in the last years, she thinks there is still a need for a general change in societal behavior and a government more conscious of women’s (and in particular, mothers’) needs  when shaping appropriate development opportunities and grants.

“We have won some entrepreneurship grants. These grants are not gender-specific. When you win one, you feel empowered. But then statistics talk. From all these grants, there is barely a 5% won by women. And the Government may say it is not their fault that women do not apply. But these opportunities, often designed by men, do not take into account that women may not be able to attend a course on Saturday, as they may not find who may take care of their kids. ”

Mildred reflects on the changes induced by the pandemic– the shift towards virtual courses, panels, webinars, and other activities has allowed more and more women to be part of these conversations. This has been incidental, but she hopes the government will extract some lessons learned from this.

Leading action at the community-level: breaking the molds to achieve serious impact

The indigenous communities represented by Loly Juagibioy, Senaida Cerda, and Elizabeth Swanson Andi (three women working for and/or from their territories) have strongly established gendered roles. Men’s and women’s roles are different yet equally important for the well-being of the community; they complement each other.

Men frequently adopt a provider role and are often involved in making decisions regarding the future of their community. Women work in the chagra (plots of land traditionally cultivated by indigenous communities in Latin America, often rooted in regenerative agriculture practices and aimed at providing households with food and medicinal plants), craft artisan products, and usually hold caregiving roles. This often means that women are relegated to the household and have few opportunities to connect with the outside world – leading them to a state of isolation.

Views of Loma Visión Chagra (Sibundoy, Colombia)
Views of Loma Visión Chagra (Sibundoy, Colombia). Photo by Veronica Rebollo
Capacity building and education at the project “Nomadic Chagra” at Sibundoy
Capacity building and education at the project “Nomadic Chagra” at Sibundoy. Photo by Loly Juagibioy

According to our three panelists, Indigenous customs, lifestyles, and roles are often threatened by the encroachment of deforestation and extractive industries on their land. In face of these challenges, it is often men who leave the territory to seek new opportunities. Women stay  in their communities – but often feel unprepared to take over decision-making roles.

But this is changing. Indigenous women, and in particular younger women are organizing and leading efforts to expand opportunities and protections for women in their communities.

“We are still closely in touch with our traditional values and knowledge. Our culture is intertwined with nature, and it is utterly important for us to advocate for its protection.” - Elizabeth Swanson Andi

Photo of Elizabeth Swanson Andi

Elizabeth Swanson Andi

Elizabeth Swanson Andi, member of Santu Urku Kichwa community on the Napo river in the Ecuadorian Amazon, is on the mission to teach the world about the close interconnectedness between her people and the natural world, through  a combination of science, story-telling and environmental advocacy. She grew up in her community, surrounded by the lush Ecuadorian Amazon, but left to study abroad – living in the desert of Colorado-. Both places- she said- shaped her into the person she is today and strengthened her connection with nature. She welcomes the opportunity to participate in international events and panels as she considers it of utmost importance to raise awareness on the critical role that indigenous women play as forest defenders.

“I represent a generation of Kichwa women that move between two completely different worlds. We have lived in the community, but also gotten the chance to study and live abroad. We are able to understand both worlds, and act as bridges between them. This is our gateway to help our communities while establishing networks of cooperation with international organizations. But we are still closely in touch with our traditional values and knowledge. Our culture is intertwined with nature, and it is utterly important for us to advocate for its protection.”

Screenshot from Elizabeth’s presentation.
Screenshot from Elizabeth’s presentation. In English: I come from a line of fighting women. The source of my strength is my community.

In this mission, access to education plays a key role in empowering indigenous women to take control over the future of their communities. Such access is not easy in many cases, as some communities are still reluctant to allow their kids study abroad due to lack of the necessary economic resources and the strong traditional roles stated above. Monica explains:

“When I worked in rural areas, I saw both boys and girls going to schools. But girls needed to leave the food prepared by 4:00 am, went to the chagra, did laundry, walked the goats, and fed the brother – all that, before attending school. And in some cases, 13 years old girls already had two or three kids.”

Senaida Cerda, member of the Sani Isla Kichwa community in the Ecuadorian Amazon,  acts as an ambassador for the Sani Warmi artisan women’s organization and supports groups of entrepreneurial women from communities in region to generate income.

Photo of Senaida Cerda
Senaida Cerda

“I told myself I needed to get out by all means to study, prepare myself and come back to help. And that’s what I did. I had to work in many places before I could study but pushed really hard for it– and then, came back to inspire others to do the same. But the pathway for Kichwa women to study is narrow. Some of them are fearful of leaving their communities and families behind. They are full of dreams, but lack the means to make them possible, and that is really disempowering.”

When she returned, she was committed to build a space in which women could reinforce their identity, their culture, and get economic incomes to find self-sufficiency – while at the same time defending their territory from extractive interests.

Sani Warmi participating in a capacity building event
Sani Warmi participating in a capacity building event. Photo by Senaida Cerda

“We need to be wise and work together. This applies to men and women. We need to find cooperation– understand each other’s roles, learn to respect each other, and opt for reciprocity.” - Loly Juajibioy

Loly Juajibioy is pursuing a similar mission in Sibundoy, Colombia. As a member of the Kamsá-Biyá people, Loly’s identity is closely dependent on the territory. Kamsá people have acted generation after generation as guardians and stewards of their lands, which are now threatened by activities like mining, deforestation for agriculture, and land expropriation, which denies indigenous people sovereignty over their lands.

She works, along with the Jajañ Corporation, to introduce Kamsá traditional knowledge into formal education and to provide under-represented communities with resources to have greater participatory roles in local land use policies. She brings together women and men to work in cooperation, acknowledging each other’s essential role and calling for unity towards a common goal. In such a process, she says, organization and cooperation are essential.

Working at the Minga in Sibundoy
Working at the Minga in Sibundoy

“Local communities can only fight when they join their voices against rampant capitalism. This needs to be a common fight as the challenges imposed by capitalism grow everyday. And capitalism goes hand by hand with patriarchy and a cultural and economic global system rooted in extraction and consumption. Capitalism wants us divided. But we need to be wise and work together. This applies to men and women. We need to find cooperation. Understand each other’s roles, learn to respect each other and opt for reciprocity.” -Loly Juajibioy

Creating spaces for dialogue and knowledge exchange such as this panel is a critical part of our commitment to convene a vast coalition of voices involved in rainforest conservation and restoration.

The event lasted for two and a half hours— there was so much to say and share, and too few opportunities and spaces to do so. We were humbled by the leadership and strength of all the women participating and look forward to creating more spaces for this critical and powerful dialogue in the future.

Building from the premise that effective conservation needs to be collaborative, socially inclusive and urgent, World Rainforest Day embraces the knowledge of indigenous and local communities that have lived in the forests for generations.

Although celebrated each 22nd of June, World Rainforest Day is currently a movement of rainforest defenders that exchange and collaborate the whole year round, inspiring others to do the same.

For more information or opportunities for collaboration, contact: veronica@rainforestpartnership.org