Improving the livelihood of rural Indigenous women in Bolivia

Country Bolivia

Volunteers Chelsey Berendse and Christina Tellez help harvest and market Bolivia’s botanicals.

With an abundance of flora in Bolivia, Indigenous women are learning how to turn botanicals into profitable businesses producing and selling everything from medicinal tinctures to shampoos and syrups.

These women botanical producers have formed a co-operative called APAMA, bringing together women from across the country to help them expand their sales, maximize plant production and improve their overall business skills. Through the co-op, the women can learn from one another and provide support to each other.

“The association is important to all of the women for different reasons, but the main reason, even more so than any economic benefits, is the social aspect,” said Chelsey Berendse, a Canadian clinical herbalist who is currently volunteering with the women’s co-op in Bolivia. “The women look forward to meeting once a month and getting away from the stress of their days for half a day. They laugh, chat and harvest the plants together. The women all say that the association has been a great source of skill-learning and leadership building over the years.”

Chelsey, a Winnipeg native, and fellow Canadian Christina Tellez, of Halifax, are currently volunteering with APAMA through Cuso International. Chelsey is there as a volunteer medicinal plant extraction advisor, while Christina is a volunteer entrepreneurship advisor. While Cuso International has long supported Bolivia by sending skilled volunteers to work on various community projects, this is the first time volunteers have been seconded to this women’s co-op.

In Alcalá, the small countryside town where the co-op is based, Chelsey and Christina spend much of their time visiting the women in their communities to learn more about their work and offer guidance on how to improve productivity.

“They are incredibly busy women—some of them get up at 4 a.m. and start cooking for their families. And aside from attending their children and the animals they raise, they have other things to do such as community meetings. They have corn and chili to grind, and land to attend to,” Chelsey said. “They grow some of the plants themselves. Other plants are growing wild and they harvest those from around the area.”

The products the women make with the botanicals include tinctures with chamomile and other native plants, and bee propolis. They make ointments for joint pain and congested lungs, and they sell their botanicals to a pharmaceutical company that uses the product to make a syrup. Recently, Chelsey has also helped the women to produce two new products: a medicinal mouthwash and a throat spray.

The determination of the women in the association has been an inspiration for the Cuso International volunteers. “They have faced a number of challenges throughout the years that could have caused them to stop functioning,” Christina said. “They have survived a massive fine due to lack of information on tax procedure’s, loss of membership, and lack of workers for their laboratory. However, they continue to see the value in having their monthly meetings and carrying forward with trainings and the involvement of their daughters in the activities at the laboratory. Although most of the women are illiterate, they persist in the advancement of their association and take pride in what they are able to accomplish together.”

Passing their skills onto their daughters is one key area that Chelsea and Christina are trying to help the women of the co-op with; this ensures that the younger generation of women in the rural communities will have opportunities to make an income and have independence.

While their volunteer placements are drawing to an end in the coming months, Christina has already signed on for another six-month placement with APAMA. She encourages other Canadians to consider volunteer placements, specifically in Bolivia with with APAMA.

Please consider donating today to help send more volunteers Chelsey and Christina where they are needed most to make a real difference.