As a young girl growing up in rural Costa Rica, Giselle Solis watched her father working as a hunter and decided she would grow up to be different.
“When I was little I wanted to be a park ranger,” she says. “My dad was a hunter, and I was never really okay with the activity that he did. So I wanted to be a park ranger to protect the national park and animals.”
Years later, Giselle now works for the Association of Organized Women of Biolley (Asomobi), a female co-operative and social enterprise that runs guided tours into the neighbouring La Amistad national park, hosts rural homestays and sells locally-grown coffee and honey.
We meet in the Coto Brus region of Costa Rica, a hilly area famed for its coffee production and Italian heritage, after a workshop to help coffee producers reduce their environmental impact. It’s part of the pioneering €8 million Nama Café programme in Costa Rica, which aims to reduce the impact of the coffee industry as part of the country’s plan to be carbon neutral by 2021.
For Giselle and the women’s association, it was a project that chimed with their own views on sustainability.
“Our main concern is our children and their future,” she says. “We want to leave a world that is better for them, and teach them that resources are not renewable, and that you can’t take it for granted that you can just drink tap water and it’s good for you. The populations of birds and trees, it is important for us to teach children that it’s important to take care of them, in order to keep them safe for future years.”
She sees the Nama project, which involves two government ministries and international funding from countries including Germany and the UK, as an important national initiative to tackle climate change, but believes any change must also come from companies and individuals.
“Of course individuals are important, but sometimes the fear of not being capable enough to make a difference, or the fear of uncertainty is bigger than most people. But we are an example of what can be done if you overcome that fear
“We have been protecting the environment in our community through our own efforts, while programmes like Nama Café are aligned to the national strategy of carbon neutrality. The sea is very big, but if it’s missing one drop of water then it’s not the same sea.”
Giselle’s story isn’t the only example of women in Costa Rica passionate about sustainable coffee production. Spending time on the Nama Café programme, I was left in the care of three fabulous ladies running various parts of the project. Agronomical engineer Emilia Umana recalls how, at the start of her career, she was the only female agronomist working in her field team. Without noting any discrimination, she nonetheless paints a picture of women in agriculture that is all too common around the world.
Umana in fact comes from a long line of agronomists, and followed the family tradition of getting a tattoo of the first crop you work with (coffee beans of course!). Along with her husband, she graduated from Costa Rica’s Earth University with a degree in sustainable agriculture and says she has a lifelong passion for the coffee industry.
At the workshop in Coto Brus, I watch as environmental engineer Alexia Quiros teaches a room of primarily male coffee producers how to calculate emissions in their businesses, converting greenhouse gases into carbon dioxide equivalents in a complicated process of fractions and equations.
It’s somewhat at odds with the rest of the room, where black and white portraits of managers and teams from years gone by line the walls – a nice record of the history and identity of the coffee industry in Costa Rica, I think, before realising that women are almost entirely absent.
Helping growers apply for credit to invest in green technologies is Ana Bublatzky’s official role, a job she does while also writing a Masters thesis on the challenges and opportunities in publicly regulating low-carbon processes, using coffee as an example. She spends her free time interviewing producers during the Nama workshops and is full of ideas about how to turn the low-carbon transformation into a financial strength for the coffee industry.
A few weeks later, during an interview with ministry of agriculture representative Gabriel Umana at the prestigious headquarters of national coffee institute Icafe, I am told how the Nama Café project has created an awakening at his ministry, and prompted a “new way of thinking” about things such as climate change.
Part of that awakening should be a recognition of the intelligent, dynamic and passionate women who are driving much of this project forward. And then perhaps in the future, there will be some female portraits joining the walls of coffee fame.
* One other fantastic lady who deserves a mention is the talented Becky Mursell, who photographed the Nama Café project for me and specialises in travel, human interest, portrait and event photography. See more of her work here.