Stories from the Field: Three Indigenous Women Entrepreneurs and Their Resilience During Covid-19 Pandemic

October 15, 2020

On the United Nations International Day of Rural Women, we recognize three participants of the WIPO Traditional Knowledge Division’s training and mentoring program for indigenous women entrepreneurs.

(Photo: courtesy of Elena Variksoo)

Passing Down and Protecting Potato Preservation Practices in Peru

Meet Aurea Eulalia Mendoza Capcha from Peru. She is a 34-year-old potato farmer from the rural community of La Quinua – not to be confused with the grain, quinoa, Aurea keenly notes, although they are pronounced in the same way. Aurea belongs to a family of dedicated farmers and she has been growing potatoes in the field since she was a little girl, following the footsteps, literally, of her grandparents and parents as they pass down the culture of potato preservation for generations. Her daughter, Kamy, two years old, has already been joining her mother on the field, seeing how important the potatoes are for her family as well as her community, Aurea says.

What does a typical day look like in Aurea’s shoes? When she is not harvesting potatoes, she wakes up early, prepares and packs food for the day, and by 8am she is already on her farm working on various farming and animal-rearing activities. She works there all day, with her parents, siblings, nieces and nephews and her daughter, while eating what she prepared in the morning. They leave around 4pm in the afternoon, have dinner, and retire for the day.

When asked about what makes these potatoes special and unique, Aurea says, “Everyone in our community eats potatoes. It’s the most important food. Thanks to the potato, we can survive.” In fact, the entire world eats potatoes. They are nutritional and medicinal, even, she adds. Beyond the physical benefits, there is an important cultural value of the potato in the community, linked to the traditional knowledge, methods and tools of preserving the varieties unique to the region and the country. Aurea understands this, and now her daughter can experience the same knowledge and practices passed down for generations.

Besides being a mother and a farmer, Aurea has been an active member of the Association of Guardians of the Native Potato from Central Peru (Asociación de Guardianes de la Papa Nativa del Centro del Perú – Aguapan) since its establishment six years ago, serving as vice president.

(Photo: courtesy of Aurea Eulalia Mendoza Capcha)

Thanks to the potato, we can survive

Aurea Eulalia Mendoza Capcha

The group aims to raise the profile of native potato varieties and promote agrobiodiversity and the associated traditional knowledge. During meetings, they exchange seeds as well as knowledge on farming techniques. The group is set to double its size to 100 members, with 10 representatives from five more regions.

As one of the 24 current participants in WIPO’s training and mentoring program for indigenous women entrepreneurs, Aurea is receiving personalized guidance on IP-related issues for her project, “Promoting agrobiodiversity in the highlands of Peru’s central Andes”. The project aims to create a collective mark to distinguish and commercialize the native potatoes produced by the members of the Aguapan association of small-scale farmers. She notes fondly the support she receives from her WIPO mentor, a fellow Peruvian who understands the context of her work and with whom she can speak freely and openly in her native language.

The Covid-19 pandemic has put a slight delay on the Aguapan’s activities. The group has been seeking to register their collective mark to differentiate their product from potatoes produced by other associations. Due to the pandemic, they have not been able to meet, and it has taken longer for them to elaborate the rules of use for the mark. The national Intellectual Property Office has been closed for a while, creating a challenge to complete and deliver the necessary paperwork for registration of the mark. Fortunately, for Aurea and her family, who grow potatoes mostly for their own consumption, the pandemic has not interfered with their daily life, beyond enjoying less access to the market than before.

When asked about the future for her daughter, Aurea sees Kamy continuing the potato preserving tradition while simultaneously studying and building a career, perhaps in the agriculture field.

Mittens, Milk and Museums: Traditions of the Seto People of Russia

Elena Variksoo, 27, is one of 200 to 300 Seto people in the Russian Federation. She lives on a khutor, a rural locality where her nearest neighbors are several kilometers away. She can detect their presence by the smoke emanating from their houses.

On a typical day, Elena wakes up at 5am to milk the cows, prepare the milk to sell, feed all the animals – cows, chickens, pigs, goats, and other farm animals – then go to work. She teaches history at a school for four hours a day. During lunch, she milks the cows again and feeds the family, chats with her neighbors, and does some needlework. In the evening around 6pm, she is with the cows again and cooking cheese or preparing milk before retiring for the day around 9pm.

Her family has always kept a farm, and they also have a vegetable garden. Usually her mother sells dairy products, meat and vegetables at the local market; this is no longer the case because of the Covid-19 pandemic and because her mother is over the age of 60.

(Photo: courtesy of Elena Variksoo)

I am quite a country person

Elena Variksoo

New circumstances call for new solutions. Elena adapted during the pandemic, turning to social media to sell products. She began studying the strategy of promotion through social networks, and has plans to create her own blog so more people can learn about life on the farm. “I want people to be able to learn about us in real time,” she says.

In addition to food products, Elena also creates handicrafts based on the traditional Seto culture. All products are made using only raw materials or ingredients, supplied directly by the Seto Community of the Pechorsky District. This “Setomaa project” is what she is working on as part of the WIPO's training and mentoring program for indigenous women entrepreneurs.

When asked if she ever ran into intellectual property (IP) issues, Elena recounts a story when she was at a local museum working with masters who deal with traditional patterns. They were making mittens, which sold very well.

(Photo: courtesy of Elena Variksoo)

“Once, I saw that copies of our mittens began to appear, but they were bad copies. The color scheme and patterns were not right,” she explains. “At that time, we did not even imagine that it was possible to somehow protect some elements of our traditional national culture.” The color scheme defines the worldview of the Seto people. If one changes the color or even a tiny element of the pattern on the mitten, the meaning changes completely, Elena explains.

Luckily, the regional authorities began to pay attention to national culture during this time. As more mittens were sold and more copies began to appear, a regional program for supporting Seto culture was launched. “Attention was paid to the popularization of native culture,” Elena says.

“[The authorities] very actively began to shoot videos and stories for television and radio about the Seto culture, and people began to understand what Seto mittens are, where you can find real ones, and which ones are fake. During this time, fake mittens disappeared from the shelves.”

Elena experienced the practical advantages of taking measures to protect traditional knowledge and traditional cultural expressions, which can have positive impacts. She is now planning to apply for a trademark, currently waiting for the decision of her commune for whether to apply on her behalf or on behalf of the commune.

As for future plans? Elena has dreams of creating a Seto cafeteria. “Seto’s cuisine is simple, healthy, delicious and rich, made with local products,” she describes. Plans for developing the cafeteria business were interrupted by the pandemic, but she expects to realize this goal in the near future.

Perseverance during a Pandemic in Palawan, Philippines: Resilience of the Tagbanua People

Loreta Alsa hails from the Tagbanua People of Palawan, Philippines. A Forest Ranger by training and recipient of numerous awards in agroforestry, environment and leadership and enterprise, Loreta is part of the Non-Timber Forest Product Exchange Programme, which works with more than 100 civil society and community-based organizations to empower forest-dependent communities in Asia towards sustainable management of forested landscapes and ecosystems. As an Advocacy Officer, Loreta assists indigenous people groups in obtaining their Certificate of Ancestral Domain Title by formulating and implementing their community development and conservation plan within their ancestral domain.

As part of WIPO’s training and mentoring program for indigenous women entrepreneurs, Loreta is working on a project that aims to apply indigenous knowledge, skills and practices to traditional honey harvesting practices in the context of a honey community forestry enterprise. She wants to create a brand to help commercialize honey harvested through different indigenous practices. The honey will be labeled based on the honeybee from which it is collected.

Beyond being just a brand for distinguishing products in the marketplace, Loreta hopes that this project will be a mechanism to protect the Tagbanua knowledge, skills and practices from exploitation and degradation.

Like many others around the world, the Tagbanua people were affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

(Photo: courtesy of Loreta Alsa)

No harvest, no money

Loreta Alsa

Lockdowns began in the middle of March for them. Loreta recounts, “The indigenous people have their own farms, but they [their products] cannot be brought to downtown because they are not allowed to travel and sell their products.” She adds, “Besides the other crops, the gathering of wild honey from the forest is an additional source of income, but because the temperature is too hot it affects the nectar of the flower.” This basically means, in her own words, “No harvest, no money”.

Many in the community are expecting the delivery of relief goods (e.g. 10 kilos of rice, cans and noodles) by village officials for daily consumption, but it can take up to a few months. Loreta also mentions that the supply is not sufficient because of limits and restrictions for every family.

(Photo: Jjimmy boy A.Tito)

The indigenous Tagbanua people are proactively taking matters into their own hands – literally. They are planting rice and different crop varieties to have additional food sources for their families as well as to maintain the seed bank of the different varieties of upland rice and other food crops. They also set aside different varieties of upland rice and other vegetable seeds for the next season.

In the midst of what could have become a food and economic crisis in their community, the Tagbanua people are living a relatively uninterrupted life, says Loreta, continuing their day-to-day activities, despite restrictions on travel to the city to sell their products. It is thanks to the traditional knowledge, skills and practices in harvesting rice, honey and crops, as well as hard work and a resilient spirit, that the Tagbanua people thrive even in times of a global pandemic.

Traditional Knowledge

For more information about WIPO’s work in traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions and indigenous entrepreneurship, visit the WIPO Traditional Knowledge website. To receive updates, sign up for the WIPO Traditional Knowledge e-newsletter.