Interview with Shierly López and María Teresa Arguedas, members of COFERENE

Interview by Katiana Murillo, Rainforest Alliance

“If you look at the group’s history, the members were all housewives for whom being wives and mothers seemed like their only purpose in life. I think that this is where we’ve grown the most. We’ve realized that we can be housewives and also professionals, and have more satisfying lives.”

The Women’s Collective for Saving our Ecology (COFERENE, for its name in Spanish) is a predominantly female organization formed by a group of housewives in 1995 in San Juan de San Ramón, in the Costa Rican province of Alajuela. What began as an attempt to raise the profile of women in society while improving household incomes came to focus on solutions to the community’s environmental problems. Now the group manages a recycling initiative that has expanded beyond their community to become a model for the country. Through a permanent environmental education program in schools and a training service offered by the group, COFERENE is raising awareness about the need to be more responsible about solid-waste management, not only for the benefit of the community, but of the country and the planet as well. Shierly López and María Teresa Arguedas are members of COFERENE.

Question: What was the motivation behind the launch of COFERENE and what kinds of activities are you involved in now?

Arguedas: COFERENE was formed in San Juan de San Ramón by a group of housewives who, apart from the responsibility of running households and raising families, sought ways to generate income and raise their families’ living standards. It was after forming an organization with this goal that the group became interested in recycling solid waste.

This kind of work was viewed as strange in San Ramón, where people looked down on it, and considered all solid waste to be garbage, not something that could have any value. I wasn’t involved in the group at that time, and I thought working with garbage would lower my self-esteem. Now everyone realizes that recycling is a way to help the environment, and people have begun to see that garbage can be worth something.

In the beginning, there was no budget, nor an office; the members had to go from door to door collecting material. They stored what they collected in their own in homes. Later, they managed to rent a warehouse. The organization has had its ups and downs, but it has managed to evolve and grow. The women who founded it have moved on, but now we’ve taken over, and we’re very ambitious. Every woman who has passed through COFERENE has had a positive experience and an opportunity to learn. Apart from being housewives, we’ve managed to become businesswomen, and we feel good about aiding our community, the environment, and ourselves.

We collect trash from people who collaborate with us, we take it to our collection center, sort it, and sell it. At the moment, there are nine members who are working in this. COFERENE has a total of 19 members, 16 of whom are women.

López: We have proposals that describe what we offer businesses, institutions, hotels, and so on. Most companies are now demanding compliance with environmental norms such as ISO 14000, and garbage is a part of that.

We go to businesses and teach a course in which we explain the garbage problem and the damage caused by it, not only as garbage but the process behind its production; for example, we demonstrate the environmental impact of making plastic. We also give them solutions to their problems. We do a diagnostic of how they are working and how they can better deal with their garbage. We also have a module on trash collection campaigns.

We also have a program in the schools, where we give a talk and then organize a collection campaign to measure the training’s impact. We’re also working with the municipality to create a bigger training program so that it isn’t something so isolated.

Q: How much solid waste do you manage?

Arguedas: Something between 10 and 12 tons per month. We have a lot of paper and cardboard. Waste collection has high and low seasons; for example, when the schools and businesses update their archives, or during holidays. Around Christmas there is much more paper and cardboard produced. This helps us because we can recycle or reuse cardboard. We are very close to the town of Palmares, which is a center for furniture production, and many of its carpenters buy material from us.

Q: How do you collect the waste?

Arguedas: We have a truck, which is becoming too small for our needs, and we work with a series of routes. We try to coordinate how many and which days we visit each business. At the moment, we collect mostly from institutions, though there are also some housewives who collaborate with us. The idea is to cover the households with the support of the municipality. The current administration realizes they can’t continue like this, or before long, the town dump will be full.

López: We’d like to provide better service here in San Ramón, but sometimes we can’t complete our route, even though we start at 7 am. A bigger truck would help us a lot, since we could eliminate the middlemen. For example, we don’t deliver the cardboard we collect to the recycling plant because our truck is so small that it wouldn’t be cost effective.

Q: Then what do you do with the waste you collect?

Arguedas: Everything is classified then sent to different plants to be recycled. We have buyers for all the materials. We keep track of who buys what, when, at what price, and under what conditions. Recycling hasn’t been made much of a priority in Costa Rica, and the few companies that recycle materials become saturated easily. We consequently have to spread one type of material between various companies. For example, we divide the glass between one big company and various smaller buyers, such as honey producers. We also have a handicrafts program. We’ll soon be training a group of women in the Pacific port town of Puntarenas. The idea is for them to sell handicrafts made from trash at the cruise ship port.

Q: What kinds of handicrafts do you make?

Arguedas: We make handicrafts out of bottles, we make boxes, furniture, baskets, bags, masks, etc. We’ve exploited every kind of material, from aluminum cans to newspaper. You can always transform things. Many people don’t believe us when we explain that something was made from garbage.

Q: Are you making a profit from the recycling?

Arguedas: Operational costs are high, and the pay is low. Some people think we earn a lot of money, but it isn’t so. It is a constant struggle. At this time, we survive solely on what we earn, but we’re trying to get funding for your training program and to strengthen our organization.

Q: What does the work you’ve accomplished mean to you?

Arguedas: One of our accomplishments has been that COFERENE is known on a national level. It has also been a real achievement to manage a business, to share our experiences with other women, and to serve the organization and the community through our work. It is also satisfying to get together with women from other groups and learn about their work, which has been as difficult as ours, yet they’ve continued forward. For me, this has been a marvelous experience.

Sometimes women’s groups that haven’t had the opportunity to start projects call us. We try to motivate them and help them. We don’t have a budget to work with groups, so we sometimes regret that we can’t do more. We’ve incorporated the training of other groups into some of our projects, because we don’t want to keep all of our experience to ourselves. We believe that it is very important to share our experiences, so that other women understand what we are doing and how good they’d feel if they were involved something like this.

Q: What have been the principal obstacles?

Arguedas: The lack of funds and the risk of our projects being rejected, which is one of the toughest things. Also, the fact that some people, or municipal governments, don’t understand what we are doing, and oppose us. It’s difficult when you don’t have support.

Q: Do you think your community is now more aware of the importance of managing waste?

López: Little by little, people are becoming conscientious. I wouldn’t say it happens from one day to the next; it’s a process, and we’re still working hard at it. People need to understand that everyone has to be part of the solution — COFERENE isn’t the solution to the garbage problem.

Q: What have been your principal achievements?

López: We’ve had plenty of them. If you look back at when the organization started, we had nothing: no vehicle, no warehouse. The founders were real fighters who didn’t give an inch. We now have our own building, a department for every area, and a truck. Those are some of the most tangible achievements.

I believe, however, that among the greatest accomplishments of COFERENE is the way that it has transformed the lives of all the women involved. If you look at the group’s history, the members were all housewives for whom being wives and mothers seemed like their only purpose in life. I think that this is where we’ve grown the most. We’ve realized that we can be housewives and also professionals, and have more satisfying lives. We can say that we have fulfilled our potential as women. Now we have the opportunity to get to know lots of other people.

You go to a ministry and meet with different people with confidence, not with fear, or embarrassment. Personally, as an environmental educator, to give a presentation in an auditorium where there may be people who know more than I do is an achievement that gives me a lot of satisfaction.

Also, if we add up all the garbage that COFERENE has managed and translate that into how many trees were saved, or how much energy and water was saved, the quantities are pretty significant, and growing. We truly believe that we are doing something for the environment. We continue to educate people, who in turn become more conscientious. It used to be that when you walked through the center of San Ramón, you would have to step into the street because the sidewalks were covered with cardboard and other trash. Now there is much less garbage in the streets.

Q: Do you think Costa Rica is ready to develop this kind of program nationally?

Arguedas: No. What is needed is for the government to get interested, for groups of municipalities to unite, and for big recycling companies to open that can process the volume of material. Too few of them exist now. We’ve had to switch our recycling company for plastics, for example, because they become saturated and can’t receive any more.

López: People’s attitudes need to change completely, beyond just the act of sorting garbage. If the recycling companies become saturated, that’s as far as we can go. Another thing that needs improving is people’s willingness to purchase products made from recycled materials.

Arguedas: I think the government should promote the opening of recycling plants, support the ones that exist, and promote handicraft production.

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