Women’s Collective Revitalizes Costa Rican Island Community

“We had always known our mangroves were very important.” So began Liliana’s story.

My colleague Emily Pidgeon and I were sitting with Liliana and Isabel, two founding members of the Chira Island women’s collective, in a lodge called La Amistad (“Friendship”). It was they — together with the collective’s 13 other members — who had first dreamt of building this lodge with their own hands.

Sitting in a quiet, tree-covered property on the outskirts of the community of Palito, the lodge is now managed by Liliana, Isabel and Teodora, the only members of the collective who withstood the group’s difficult early stages.

Throughout the next two hours the women calmly described how they had overcome extreme opposition from their husbands, families, community and beyond to bring income, education and security to Palito, a striving coastal community on Costa Rica’s largest island, Chira. The island is located within the Gulf of Nicoya, the country’s most productive estuary.

A beautiful maze of mangroves covers more than half of Chira. During a one-hour boat ride we saw crocodiles, rays, egrets, ospreys and numerous other animals living in the dense mangrove forest.

But within the last few decades, these mangroves have come under increasing pressure as they are stripped for firewood and converted to salt evaporation and shrimp ponds. While these pressures have yet to claim significant areas of Costa Rica’s mangroves, degradation of these ecosystems can be costly.

Teodora, Liliana and Isabel have long recognized the importance of Chira’s mangroves for the fisheries on which neighboring communities depend. Mangroves serve as nurseries for the gulf’s commercial fisheries, protect shores from erosion and are vital to support the health of the estuarine ecosystem as a whole.

As Liliana tells it, it was 10 years ago when the women first partnered with the National University of Costa Rica. Back then, they were mostly seen as mothers whose roles were to raise children and care for their homes and husbands. Fishing — their families’ main source of income — had been deteriorating for a while, however, and the women were determined to find economic alternatives.

First, they received environmental training and became close observers of environmental mismanagement on the island. A report they made on mangrove destruction even earned them a prize from an international foundation.

Next, the women decided they needed a boat of their own, but couldn’t afford to buy a new one. Thanks to more training through the university, the women built by hand the first fiberglass boat made on the island.

Once the boat was operational, they used it to give mangrove tours to the few tourists who visit Chira. The women’s presence there during the tours has had the added benefit of making them the unofficial “keepers of the mangroves.” They notice any harm to the trees or destructive fishing hidden in the channels.

This boat also plays another critical community role: the best emergency transportation to and from the island. Since then, many babies have been born in hospitals thanks to the fast boat ride to the mainland.

This group of inspiring and exceptional women identified the need for a place for community gatherings and accommodation for visitors to Chira. Again in partnership with the National University, and with seed funds from various sources, the group built the charming La Amistad ecolodge where we sat to hear their story.

Throughout this project, the women were opposed by the community — particularly the men. Isabel explained: “They told us, ‘If you are as good as a man, then you should build this on your own.’”

And so they did. Now the lodge provides accommodation for the volunteers that come to assist at the island schools. It is also the site of ongoing trainings for people across the island, and the nerve center of the island fire brigade.

The women closed our evening with one last story. One day, a year or so after the lodge had opened, the women were surprised to see a contingent of about 30 local men walking the path toward the lodge — their husbands included. All had their heads hung low.

One brave man stepped forward and explained, “We want to apologize. We have not valued the type of women we have in this community. We should have supported this project.” He then said that the men would like to join the collective and be part of the project.

Without hesitation, Liliana said no. She told them that the women would support the men, but they had to form their own collective and undergo the training that the women had gone through. They had to demonstrate a true commitment to the community. And so the Chira Island fishermen’s collective was formed.

The work of this group of men has also proven inspiring. They started preventing the use of gill nets on a small rocky reef; now they fish with nothing but handlines. Several governmental agencies and NGOs, including CI-Costa Rica, have stepped forward to support their project. Today, the island has two “responsible fishing areas” where only hook-and-line fishing is allowed.

CI-Costa Rica has been working with the fisherman’s collective throughout the last five years to implement sustainable fishing practices and to help them sustain the mangrove ecosystems that support the island’s people. Today, we have expanded our projects to include environmental education, mangrove replanting and tourism training.

The mangroves are part of a complex interconnected ecosystem, where actions in one place have a direct impact on other areas.

Similarly, the remarkable chain of events that has revitalized this coastal community may have never been set into motion without the determination of these three women a decade ago. I commend them on their efforts, and can’t wait to see what Chira looks like in another 10 years.

Marco Quesada is the country director of CI-Costa Rica. Much thanks to Emily Pidgeon for her contribution to this post and thanks to the Swedish Postcode Foundation for their support of this project.