Chapeando el Monte (Clearing a Field)
“Es trabajo de hombres,” “it’s men’s work” is what they told me when I said I wanted to go to the fields and help the family at La Iguana Chocolate clear the land to plant frijoles (beans). If you remember from my “harvesting cacao” post, the finca, the cacao farm, is quite a hike away and lies on a very steep slope. The fields for the frijoles are just above the finca on an even steeper slope that was covered with vegetation.
This is the story about a girl doing a man’s job.
I got up that morning at 4:50am, knowing they would be leaving at 5:30 to get as much work done as possible before either the mid day sun or the mid day rain. I had told them I was going with them the night before, but they had only laughed and said girls never go out and prepare the field for planting. The reason why? Because we would be hacking away wild tropical growth with machetes on the steepest hillside I have ever worked on.
The family was quite surprised when they saw me ready to go at 5am. I ate a quick gallo pinto and a fried egg and hiked out with Juan Luis, the father. Jorge, the eldest son, and Aaron, another volunteer, would catch up to us on horseback. At the finca we would meet up with two other men who would help us. I was the only girl. Which is why I didn’t take my camera. Sorry. That day I really wanted to prove myself as a hard worker, not a blogger.
We got to the cacao farm, walked all the way up it and found ourselves at the bottom of the steepest slope I have seen in this community.
“We’re going to chop all that down?” I asked as I looked up the slope and examined the vegetation. The slope had not been farmed on for a while, so the whole area was turning back into a rainforest.
“Yes, all of it” they replied as they got out their machetes and started sharpening them. We would work in a diagonal line, chopping down everything as we walked across. Then we’d walk up the slope a bit and chop down another diagonal stretch. I had to work fast to not get caught between two macheting men. But it was only my second time using a machete, and this time I wasn’t just cutting at centimeter thick stems, this time I was chopping down vines, shrubs, branches and trees.
I brought down the machete with as much force as I could and worked as fast as I could, but no matter how much I tried the men would always cut faster than me. I never complained and worked in silence, only taking water breaks and resting when they would.
We got to the field and started working at 6am and returned home at noon. My hand was destroyed. I was exhausted. The sun had beat down on my back all morning and the vegetation I would hack down would slap me in the face. I have never done such physically demanding work in my life. I was sweating buckets, my face stung, my hand was cramped and blistered. But I did it!
I was so proud as I walked up the entrance to La Iguana and greeted the mother of the house. I must have looked like a wreck.
“Fue muy dificil, no?” “It was hard work wasn’t it?” she asked. “It wasn’t easy, that’s for sure,” I replied. “But I would go again. It was very rewarding work.” I think she still didn’t believe me.
The men in the family said very little about me going out into the field. The other volunteer there was very impressed though. He’s been coming out to work on the farm for the past 3 years and has never seen a girl do that work. A few nights later I told some of the women in the community and showed them my swollen, red hands. They were shocked and couldn’t understand why I would want to do that kind of work.
Yesterday I went back out into the field to finish the job with the men. This time was not as difficult as the first time. My hands are sore and swollen again, but I don’t feel as exhausted as the first time. This time, the men noticed. After about 4 hours of work Juan Luis called me over and said, “Ya Nicole. Has trabajado muy duro. Sos muy valiente por venir a chapiar. Ahora descanse,” “Okay Nicole. You’ve worked very hard. You’re very brave for coming out here to work. Now rest.”
At last! The recognition I was looking for! Now I know they will take me seriously and trust my word. I proved that women can do the same work as men, and not just out of obligation or necessity, but out of choice. I also proved to myself that I can do this type of work. Clearing a field has given me so much appreciation for all agriculture, especially in this environment. It has also made clear the impact that land use change has on the environment. At several points during the day I would stop and contemplate the fact that if we had let this hill go wild it would become a rainforest. Was I essentially cutting down a rainforest? Yes, in a way I was. But the way they are going to use the land justifies this. We left all the vegetation we cut down on the field to biodegrade, and simply threw beans out on top of it all. Some would find their way to the soil and grow. The weeds and all will grow back, but no chemicals will be used to combat them because the frijoles will grow anyway, they will just be among other plants.
In February they will likely harvest the beans. I wish I could be here to see that, but alas, I should be moving on soon. Mastatal has been a wonderful community to integrate in to and learn from. I’m going to start researching my next destination though, Panama. I know I could stay here in Mastatal for so much longer; I am comfortable here and have gotten very close to the tico family at La Iguana Chocolate, but there is so much more I want to see and learn out in the world. It’s time to move on…