Nature & Nurture

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The midmorning sun beats down on the García sisters as they smile and pose next to a colorfully painted sign that says Hogar de Mariposas: Home of the Butterflies. Karen McDaniels, a visitor from the United States, snaps their photo. “We’ll use these in your brochure, OK?” she says, before climbing a flight of earthen steps and walking a muddy path to see the butterfly sanctuary.

A member of the Rotary Club of Denton, Texas, McDaniels has come to Mollejones to inspect firsthand the impact of a Rotary Foundation global grant championed by her club in partnership with the Rotary Club of Cartago, Costa Rica. The grant has three components that address business training, aquaponics, and an eco-hotel. Among other things, the grant provides support for the García sisters and other local women who recently launched a tourism cooperative to attract visitors to experience the area’s rainforests, waterfalls, butterflies, and birds, as well as its traditional way of life. Rotarians partnered with the Tropical Agricultural Research and Higher Education Center; based in Turrialba, the organization, known as CATIE (pronounced “KAH-tee-ay”), has been working with the women for years.

At the sanctuary, hundreds of butterflies flutter about. Like a suitor trying too hard, they’re almost aggressively friendly, landing on visitors’ shoulders, hands, and bags. A gaudy orange and black butterfly even latches on to the lips of Eliécer Vargas, a professor of sustainable tourism at CATIE. “She fell in love with me!” he jokes as the butterfly gives him a kiss.

According to town leaders, until the late 20th century, Mollejones was a coffee and sugarcane town. But when commodity prices began to plummet two decades ago, half of its population left to find new ways to make a living. That’s when the idea for community-based tourism took root. The village lies near the Río Pacuare, where you will find some of the planet’s most celebrated whitewater rapids. In 2011, Mollejones hosted the World Rafting Championships, and the following year, a few of the residents went to CATIE for help strengthening their tourism industry. Soon after, Vargas and his students became involved.

Full of ideas, energy, and one-liners, Vargas is the primary conduit between the Rotarians and the women. He’s the perfect complement to the more reserved and no-nonsense McDaniels. Born in Saudi Arabia, McDaniels was educated in Switzerland and the United States. She spent most of her career working around the world for 3M; after retirement, she founded two nonprofits — one in Cambodia and another in Indonesia — to help the people she had met while living in those countries. When the children of the waste pickers she was working with in Indonesia grew sick from drinking tainted water, she struggled to find assistance for them. Someone suggested she contact a Rotary club there. The Rotary Club of Jakarta Cilandak stepped in, and McDaniels was hooked. 

In 2017, McDaniels joined the Rotary Club of Denton, where she spearheaded the ecotourism global grant. Vargas, who had never worked with Rotary before, wasn’t sure what to expect. He didn’t even know if the Rotarians would follow through on their promises. “Then I met Karen,” he says. “She demands, and she delivers. She walks the talk. And after meeting the Rotary team, I realized that she pulls in people who want to make a difference.”

The Rotary Foundation global grant has three components that address business training, aquaponics, and an eco-hotel.

Angie Montoya Fernández’s father had been a coffee picker, but that’s a seasonal job. He didn’t want to travel  to work in the capital city of San José, a couple of hours away, because he wanted to remain with his family. Instead, he and his wife learned English and became tour guides. “When I grew up, I wanted to be a tour guide too,” Montoya says.

As she talks, Montoya stands at the entryway to Guayabo National Monument, Costa Rica’s largest pre-Columbian archaeological site. A map of the landmark stands behind her, and to her side, the path to the ruins runs through a rainforest filled with ferns, vines, and epiphytes.

About 20,000 people visit the monument annually, and Montoya and her family are some of the freelance guides who show them around. To support other small, local entrepreneurs, Montoya’s mother, Rosa Fernández, had the idea to offer those visitors things to do while they’re in the area. Now, when people call to arrange a Guayabo tour, they also have an opportunity to book other options, such as a farm tour, lodging, or a cooking class. “I love the pre-Columbian history, but we need to move people to other places, too,” Montoya says.

That’s where the women’s tourism cooperative, called RETUS — Red de Emprendedoras del Turismo Sostenible de Turrialba, or Network of Women Entre-preneurs of Sustainable Tourism in Turrialba — comes into play. “The challenge for big tour operators is to trust a small tour operator or small provider,” Vargas says. “With RETUS, we hope this will give the local women a chance.”

The tourism cooperative got its start as an outreach project with Vargas’ graduate students at CATIE. “I wanted my students not just to read about sustainable tourism, but to do it,” Vargas says. He didn’t have money in his budget for outreach, but he could muster up some for research. So his students, who are studying at the center through a joint master’s program with the University of North Texas in Denton, began working with people who lived in the surrounding towns and villages. In Mollejones, for example, they held workshops where residents talked about what is unique about their community. The students transformed those conversations into experiential tour ideas that showcase the community’s heritage.

Vargas identified six women who were already working in tourism. “I call them the madrinas,” he says — the godmothers. These were women who may have been single mothers, or who raised a group of kids, or who learned English even though they had no education. Like Rosa Fernández (one of the madrinas), they went on to greater achievements and served as examples of what other women could accomplish.

Vargas told the madrinas that he wanted to help them form a tourism network, but it was up to them to choose the women who would be part of it. He told them to think of themselves as businesswomen and to envision what they wanted to happen in their communities and how they could help make that dream a reality. “I told them bring the women, but don’t tell them this is a project,” Vargas says. “Tell them this is a movement: ‘Don’t be a part of RETUS because you want to help yourself. Be a part of RETUS because you want to help women just like you.’” Three of the original madrinas decided they wanted to be involved, and they ended up with 18 women participating in some of the early phases of the tourism cooperative.

What those women were most eager to learn were business skills, things like administration, accounting, and marketing. Exactly the kinds of things Rotarians are experts in.