By Leonida Zurita Vargas & Melissa C. Draper
Since those first democratic elections of 1997, Vargas
has been repeatedly re-elected as president of the Six Federations
, a role she
executes in addition to her
position as female president of the local Federación del Trópico (Federation of the Tropics).Throughout Bolivia, the women's arm of the Six Federations
, or COCAMTROP (Confederación de las Campesinas del Trópico), is known as the model of women peasant organization, training, and empowerment.
"I do not feel like I am a leader," said Vargas
has spearheaded several projects specifically geared toward the women, at the local federation level and the regional level.Projects are always conceived through a consensus of the women representatives, and subsequent decisions and evaluations are completed through a democratic process.Once, when confronted with the arrival of unexpected emergency funds, Vargas
refused to respond to the donor before calling a full meeting of the Six Federations
representatives in order to make a decision.
The target areas for projects chosen by the women are indicative of the challenges they face.Education and training have long been key priorities.From reading and writing to workshops on the role of drug-related laws and their rights under those laws, the women find a means of educating themselves in the absence of basic government services, and in the face of great obstacles to equality and respect for human rights.As a powerful example to other women, Vargas
explains how she
only recently learned it was illegal for police to search a private home without a legal warrant.
To compensate for the lack of formal education for a great majority of the poor, "we have to teach ourselves" Vargas
said.Beyond the workshops and seminars, which are often sponsored by local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international foundations, the most important teaching is done among the women themselves."The Chapare
is our finest school," noted a local leader from the highland region of Ayopaya when asked about Vargas
and the Chapare peasant community.
natural ability to gain trust as a spokeswoman and her
willingness to be held accountable brought Vargas'
leadership to the national level in 2001.She was elected by a nationwide constituency of over 15,000 Quechua, Aymara, and Guaraní women to direct the National Federation of Peasant Women of Bolivia, Bartolina Sissa.
In this role, Vargas'
audiences range from internationally sponsored fora on issues of free trade to small workshops in nearly inaccessible rural villages with women who speak only Quechua.Most recently, Vargas
hosted a conference sponsored by Foodfirst Information and Action Network
(FIAN) and Via Campesina2 to invigorate a dialogue between indigenous representatives from 24 countries about land issues from a gender-conscious standpoint.
As part of the Global Campaign for Agrarian Reform, a joint campaign by FIAN
and La Via Campesina to encourage equitable land reform based on basic human rights, local NGOs and various landless peasant groups began looking specifically at equality issues related to the woman's role with the land and their legal access to ownership.For Vargas
, the struggle for equality under current agrarian law is double-faceted.
...Negotiation and collaboration, two key aspects of effective bridge-building, have come to define Vargas and fellow peasants' leadership in the Chapare as they engage in national dialogue.
was one of the few women at the negotiation table and brought recognition to the distinct voice of women, who six years earlier would only have had their husbands' voices to represent them.
"We have connections to these women," Vargas
is one of the few models of sophisticated and honest woman leadership who can help us better grasp the complexities and subtleties of successful participatory development.
...Leonida Zurita Vargas is the female president of the Six Federations of Coca Growers of the Tropics of Cochabamba in central Bolivia and serves as executive secretary of the National Federation of Peasant Women of Bolivia, Bartolina Sissa (FNMCBBS).She
is the voice of peasant coca growers who are fighting for their rights to grow the traditional coca plant.