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Lina Palomino Santos is the President of COOPASER, a member owned farmers’ cooperative in the buffer zone of the Tambopata-Bahuaja Biodiversity Reserve Project area. She’s a fearless businesswoman, proud to represent female leadership, especially in agriculture. Lina is primarily a conservationist. “The conservation of forests is very important,” she says. “I believe that our survival depends on us continuing to keep the forests standing and trying to reforest what is already degraded.” Lina brings this ethos to COOPASER where she’s working with hundreds of farmers in the perimeter of the Tambopata National Reserve and Bahuaja Sonene National Park to support the transition in land-use to sustainable agroforestry.

COOPASER was founded in 2014 by 21 producers of cacao, with investment from the Althelia Climate Fund and support from AIDER, the local Peruvian NGO and project developer of the Tambopata-Bahuaja Biodiversity Reserve REDD+ Project. It wasn’t until 2017 when Lina discovered the work of COOPASER and AIDER. Her neighbour had recently signed a partnership with AIDER to regenerate degraded pastureland. Her family saw how this partnership was not only generating economic benefits for their neighbour, but protecting and nurturing the forest ecosystem that was so critical to her community’s existence. Lina’s family started work with AIDER immediately.

In the beginning, the going was hard. The challenge was to reforest a minimum of 3 hectares of pastureland by producing cacao plants through agroforestry systems. But the pastureland was highly degraded, previously dominated by fast-growing Brachiaria grassland. From the start, AIDER provided full support, assisting at first with the development of a plant nursery on Lina’s farm. Bags of soil and seeds were provided, and technical assistance to ensure the growth of viable seedlings. AIDER also taught Lina and her family how to graft the plants and support their growth once planted. Although always learning, Lina’s family is now helping to educate other farmers to follow in their footsteps. Agroforestry has proved to not only support a diversified income for their family, but has allowed them to contribute to the conservation of the forest.

COOPASER has grown rapidly since its humble beginnings. Today, the cooperative has hundreds of members who are committed to farming cacao responsibly through agroforestry systems and other regenerative methods. Lina joined the Board of Directors after experiencing first hand the impact of this work for her family. As a female president, Lina is setting an example for women in her region, and changing perspectives and practices on agricultural production to build a system that is inclusive, equitable and regenerative. “I think that the fact that we women are moving forward, taking on these positions, it empowers our young women so that they can follow in our footsteps and also work in agriculture. I think it is very noble work,” she says.

Looking ahead, Lina and the team at COOPASER are aiming for greater financial stability, to better equip their plant, allow their staff to specialise and provide further technical assistance to farmers. A key focus for COOPASER is to achieve quality cacao with zero deforestation across its entire cooperative – a lofty challenge that will require even greater collaboration across the region. “Farmers alone are not going to achieve this,” she says. “It is the cooperative that has to take on this challenge and support cooperative members in achieving this objective, to obtain fine flavour cacao with zero deforestation which helps us to conserve our forests.” But key challenges remain. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a recession that has damaged the market for cocoa. Selling and marketing cacao is now more difficult, and farmers must be producing premium products to beat competition.

“AIDER is a very important institution for us,” Lina says. “It is an arm, a lever that allows the conservation of these forests. We would not exist if it had not been for the perseverance of AIDER in wanting to fulfil this dream.” COOPASER’s presence is critically important in this region, bringing together local allies in the conservation of the Tambopata National Reserve and the Bahuaja Sonene National Park through REDD+ project activities, led by AIDER. “Before our work with AIDER, the farmland was an expanse of pastures where we couldn’t even walk. Now we have trees where we can see monkeys, huanganas, picuros and a great number of birds,” she says. “It is something very important, I think, what we have done. This reforestation, this managed cultivation, this agroforestry, it has allowed us to recover. There are many plants that are native to this region, and they are becoming known again, such as the sacha jergón, which is a medicinal plant. Our cedars and an infinite number of natural plants from the area are growing again.”

Lina continues, “The cooperative plays a very important role in the region, because it is an alternative for people who have a farm. Instead of using it for illegal mining, it is an option to work with agroforestry. Likewise, planting and recovering these degraded areas gives us a feeling that allows us, I think, to be satisfied. With all this work that we are doing, we are contributing to the generation of our forests, the maintenance of our forests, to mitigate climate change in some way.”