Herbs in the Rain Forest: Healing and Independence

A women's cooperative in Costa Rica grows medicinal plants and herbs to further both the health of their community and their own independence.

| May/June 1997

The farming community of El Tigre lies in the lowlands of northeastern Costa Rica, nestled among once-active vol­canoes that are now covered in rain forest. In the community is a small, open-air shop filled with dried herbs and boxes of teas, soaps, and other herbal products and flanked by rows of plants growing in care­fully tended raised beds.

The shop and gardens belong to Mujeres Unidas de Sarapiquí or MUSA (United Women of Sarapiquí), a medicinal plant cooperative named for the Sarapiquí river and established in 1985. Its aim was twofold: to bring affordable health care to El Tigre’s forty-four families, for whom Western medicine was too costly or too far away, and to help local women gain financial and social independence.

A rough start

Passersby could easily miss this tropical nursery that seems to have sprung up naturally among the tree ferns, heliconias, palms, and bromeliads that stock the landscape. A closer look, however, reveals a white sign with black and blue lettering pointing the way to the shop, while another sign advertises organic remedies for arthritis, colitis, high cholesterol, gastritis, anemia, nervous conditions, and diabetes.

Many members of the community initially didn’t support the cooperative, Sandra Jiménez Jiménez, MUSA president, told me on a recent visit there, but the women were still determined to move forward with their plan. They were well-schooled in using medicinal plants, thanks to the lessons learned from their mothers and grandmothers, and they saw in these traditions a way to meet both of the organization’s goals.

The members and their families moved to temporary housing and began working on property that was standing unused. Soon, because their work took them outside the home, the women became targets of community scorn. In addition, a few of their husbands resented their work, complaining that the women were neglecting their home duties. So antagonistic was the community that, when the land being used by the collective came up for development, the residents voted against using it for the medicinal plant project.

MUSA members vowed not to give up on the collective and return to their traditional roles. One member offered the collective a small plot of her family’s land, and the women quickly began working again. Because they didn’t own any tools, they worked with their hands and without pay. After three years, they were able to harvest and sell marketable plant products, which allowed them to buy more seeds and, finally, tools. A local community member gave them a small, framed structure that now serves as the collective’s open-air shop.

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