Fellow Since 2001
This description of Beatriz Rojas's work was prepared when Beatriz Rojas was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2001.
Beatriz Rojas captures traditional knowledge about key aspects of rural life and uses it to both help rural communities to improve their quality of life and train development professionals to work more effectively with farmers, making their programs more appropriate and sustainable.
The New Idea
Beatriz works with rural Peruvians to increase efficiency in the areas most important to their lives. She systematizes traditional knowledge on farming techniques and agro-biodiversity, health care, environmental conservation, and education for use in other communities. Her team documents input from rural people in simple, reader-friendly brochures, which also include information on modern techniques most applicable to that community's problems. She also forms alliances with other organizations and public agencies related to the components of rural development. Beatriz also spreads the major elements of her model to development workers and agricultural technicians through a formal learning center.
As a general rule, rural communities in Peru, which account for 17.5 million people, are not consulted about development projects during planning stages. This lack of consultation causes programs to fail or be abandoned. The pressure to modernize has led many rural inhabitants to adopt methods often more harmful than traditional ones like agro-chemicals, packaged foods, and expensive medicines, which cause health and environmental problems, as well as limit sustainable biodiversity and the ability to treat problems locally. Loss of native seeds and plants, in turn, fosters dependence on fertilizers and other potentially harmful tools. This problem is compounded by the maintenance of an inferior image of rural farmers, causing further and, in some cases, irreparable loss of knowledge as the older population dies and the younger population migrates to cities, failing to learn the traditional knowledge of their elders. The marginalization of rural communities also allows companies to take advantage of their naivety and eagerness to adapt.
Beatriz's strategy consists of four main components: research, training, self-help, and the nexus between farming, health, the environment, and education. After five years of working in rural schools with the most advanced educational methods available, Beatriz concluded that the children were not assimilating because she and her colleagues in Urpichallay did not know enough about the children's culture. It was at that point that she realized that tackling education alone, without taking into account the other challenges facing rural children and their families, was not enough. With that knowledge, she began to develop an integral methodology with four main components: biodiversity and agriculture, health, education, and environmental conservation, all under the focus of cultural affirmation. Through her organization, Urpichallay, Beatriz builds alliances between service providers in these fields by developing closer relationships with organizations that have experience working with farmers' organizations and hiring the necessary specialists for each program. In 1996, Beatriz initiated an agriculture program in the mountain town of Marcará with a team of agronomists and technicians who worked very closely with farmers. Recognizing the severe problems in children's health, she began a school health program with an obstetrician and technician. This program eventually evolved into a communal health program, working with local clinics and community health promoters to respond to the health needs of the entire community. Urpichallay soon after launched the environmental Water Forever Program, in conjunction with an international organization with more experience in environmental issues. The primary component of all four areas is researchcapturing information on traditional methods and their reasons for use to systematize and preserve best practices through the careful application of modern techniques. In health, for example, Beatriz gathers information from traditional midwives and community healers on medicinal plants and techniques for childbirth. She combines this information with modern knowledge about cleanliness, sterilization, tools, and modern medicines. They spread this information to the public sector, working with Ministry of Health promoters. Urpichallay has proven that health programs that combine traditional and conventional knowledge have a higher acceptance rate among rural communities. As a result of Beatriz's program, concrete changes have taken place in the communities. Areas that had lost their genetic variety of potatoes because native species were abandoned for hybrids have regained that genetic variety through the exchange of seeds between the different communities. Farmers are now more conscientious about protecting their native seeds and, by extension, their native culture. People from the region now understand that they cannot separate the conservation of traditional agriculture from the conservation of their culture. In the Water Forever Program, communities took the problem of water contamination by the mining industry into their own hands, learning how to use kits to measure water quality. They have also diverted the water away from the source of contamination, planted mineral-absorbing plants along the banks, and put lime in the water to leach out dangerous materials. A key to spreading Beatriz's work is the Center for Affirmation of Rural Agriculture and Culture. The center was built with natural materials, using traditional construction methods. To construct the center, community members came together according to traditional values to collectively provide the labor for construction, in a system known as "minga." They now feel that the center belongs to them and are its main trainers. The center provides theoretical classes and hands-on training on farms to learn the method for working more collaboratively with farmers to capture information. Beatriz has also created an on-site internship program for farmers, technicians, and development professionals from all over Peru who come to study at Urpichallay. Her team travels to other areas as well, sharing their methods to spread traditional knowledge and exchange seeds. Beatriz is currently working to better systematize her methodologies and create more innovative and dynamic ways to teach them to others and to generate programs where the rural families are the ones who do most of the work to spread these concepts. To this end, Urpichallay has already published three high-quality books and more than one hundred easy-to-use pamphlets detailing various traditional techniques in farming and childbirth. The books are distributed in the communities through workshops to facilitate understanding of technical language.
Beatriz grew up in a family with nine siblings in the province of Cajamarca. She was affected at a very young age by the way rural farmers had to move out of the way when she and her father were walking on the sidewalk. After beginning her social work within a church group, she left her province for Lima at the age of seventeen to study sociology at the Universidad Católica. In college, she became involved in the leftist movement and social activities, such as working with the Federation of Farmers in a rural region called Quillabamba. In 1979, she co-founded an organization that conducted children's workshops on community values. In 1984, she started a campaign for children's rights with three other institutions, which led to the development of important future organizations for children's rights. After working on a children's program in Ayacucho, where Shining Path's guerrilla activity was concentrated, and participating in a forum in Colombia on children's rights, she founded a home for rural children orphaned by the war. She worked for many years in development projects related to young children. In 1991, she founded organizations to work with the mental health of child victims of war, reduce migration to cities, and improve education for rural children. She is dedicated to fine-tuning her methods in cultural affirmation alongside the rural families with whom she works and spreading her model to other development practitioners.