SAN LUIS DE MONTEVERDE, Puntarenas – On a drizzly day in the TilaránMountains, northwest of San José, 10 women work together under a corrugated tin roof, turning trash into a living.While a mother and daughter sit side by side, painting flowers and animals on small paper bags, others move between blue plastic barrels and simple machinery. In the corner sits an elderly man shredding pieces of cardboard. A handful of giggling children weave between the legs of the tables and the workers.
These are the women (and man) of the Asociación de Artesanas Ecobambú, an association of artisans in the small rural community of San Luis de Monteverde, near the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve.With assistance from the Tropical Science Center, the Ecobambú association has launched a business turning scrap paper and cardboard into artistic cards, notebooks and gift bags.
For the group of 10 women, mostly heads of their households, the project – begun in 2001 – has meant not only additional income for their families, but also an escape from the monotony of the housework that once defined their days.
“Life before, stuck in the house all day doing chores, was boring,” explained America Brenes, 63, president of the association.
“Now, thanks to the project, the economic situation has changed. And the whole family is involved. The little ones are here, in sight.”
The project has also earned the association international recognition. At the end of this month, a group of the Ecobambú women will fly to Spain to take part in the III International Fair of Women Businesses, Sept. 26 to Oct. 1. The trip, their food and lodging will be funded by the Andaluz Institute of Women, the organizer of the fair, according to a statement from the TropicalScienceCenter.
In Spain, the women of Ecobambú will meet with businesswomen from Europe, Africa and Latin America, and will have the chance to promote their product to potential clients and financial institutions that could eventually help fund the association.
An initial donation in 2001 by the TropicalScienceCenter of $14,000 in equipment and training launched the project.
The women of Ecobambú also receive all their scrap paper from the TropicalScienceCenter, which runs the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve, a gem of Costa Rican tourism, and several gift shops around the country.
The women then take the shredded paper and process it, chemical-free. After shredding the paper and cardboard, the scraps are left to sit in one of the waterfilled blue plastic barrels grouped around the Ecobambú workshop, returning it to pulp form.
“Once the paper is suavecito (soft), we bring it to the blender,” Brenes explained. Then, some of it is left as is, and some is added to tubs that have either bits of grass, coffee husks or other organic material that is mixed in for texture. Finally, the pulp is strained onto a screen and pressed into sheets – not an easy task.
“That’s why we’re so strong,” Brenes boasted, pulling back the sleeve of her blouse to reveal a firm bicep. The sheets are then hung to dry in the rafters of the workshop before they are cut to fit the different products and then decorated.
The efforts of the women of Ecobambú materialize in 500-1,000 bags, notebooks, greeting cards and other products made from their paper each month. The keepsakes are sold at all of the Tropical Science Center’s souvenir stores, located at Póas Volcano National Park, north of San José; Irazú Volcano National Park, east of San José; and at the Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve. In addition, the products are sold at various stores in Santa Elena, the tourist town below the mountaintop preserve.
Wendy Calderón, 24, says she sees various benefits from the program. In addition to working alongside her mother, she also has the flexibility to attend her college classes.
“Not a lot of jobs allow you to miss days,” Calderón said. “I like this because of the income, which wasn’t there before, and because I am helping out the environment.”
“Before, all this was garbage,” she said, motioning towards a stack of cardboard.
“Now it is a source of work, and it has given us a better quality of life.”