Sonoran scientists start group for Latin American women in conservation fields

The six core volunteers of the Asociación Mujeres y Conservación are, from left: Sofia Vargas, Estefania Ramirez, Nora Villanueva, Laura Cornejo, Cecilia Aguilar and Mirna Manteca. (Photo courtesy of Asociación Mujeres y Conservación)

Francy Foreo of Columbia joined the Asociación Mujeres y Conservación to connect with other women working in conservation. (Photo courtesy of Francy Foreo)

During a recent virtual meeting, members of the Asociación Mujeres y Conservación laugh about how casual their WhatsApp group has become, joking that their new intern might get scared off by all the stickers and memes they share.

More sincerely, though, they hope the internship will be a chance to guide the newbie as she enters the field of environmental conservation. That’s why they started the Women and Conservation Association, known by its Spanish acronym AMC, last year in Sonora, Mexico.

“The mission of the association is very basic, very simple: It’s to empower, highlight and support women in conservation,” said Mirna Manteca, a biologist and co-founder of AMC, which has members in Mexico, Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru and Chile.

In Latin America, conservation is a field of science mostly dominated by men, she said, where women often face harassment, discrimination or discomfort – or simply are overlooked for their contributions. And because they often work with men only, many women don’t realize how common their struggles are.

So Manteca started looking for a community of women doing similar work in conservation and experiencing similar challenges, but she couldn’t find the right fit with the groups that do exist. Some groups were abandoned, most were in English, and others didn’t connect much beyond social media.

“And one day it just occurred to me that if I can’t find what I’m looking for, I can invent it,” Manteca said.

She reached out to five other conservation-focused women in Sonora who have become the volunteer core of AMC. They held their first in-person meeting in March 2020, just as the first wave of COVID-19 hit. Since then, nearly everything has been online, through Zoom and virtual workshops.

The members also started a directory to facilitate connections and a blog, called Libreta de Campo (Field Notebook), where members can publish essays, often about their work and passion for conservation, but also about discrimination and sexual violence – reasons many women have gravitated toward the group.

Members of the Asociación Mujeres y Conservación in Sonora, Mexico, check on wildlife in the field. (Photo courtesy of Asociación Mujeres y Conservación)

Community support

On a hot, sticky July evening, Nora Villanueva and Estefanía Ramírez hike to a high point on a trail in Hermosillo, the state capital. Settling onto some rocks with a sunset view and the buzz of cicadas in the background, they talk about why they joined the association.

“The truth is, it’s really hard to work with all men,” said Villanueva, a biologist who monitors wildlife, such as jaguars in Sonora’s sky islands. “And I’ve always been the only woman, working with all men.”

Her field work often takes her into remote mountain areas where, she said, you’re constantly watching out for yourself. What are you wearing? Do you look weak? How will you protect yourself from unwanted comments or advances?

“When you’re in the field, you don’t know what can happen,” Villanueva said.

The support she received from women in the association has helped keep her going in a field that has driven many women away, she said. She calls it her salvation.

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It helps, too, that AMC is specifically for women in Latin America, Ramírez said. They understand each other’s struggles in a way others can’t.

“As empathetic as women from the United States or Europe might be, they don’t understand,” she said. “Things that for them seem really simple, really easy – they’re not.”

It’s not just challenges particular to being a woman, either, she said, but also other struggles conservationists in Latin America face, such as access to resources and funding, safety concerns, the struggle to find paying jobs and the predominant use of English in the field.

“There are so many women in Latin America doing good work, doing important work, but a lot of times no one knows about it. Especially in the global context,” Manteca said. “And a lot of that is language. Because the rest of the world works in English, so we get left in the shadows.”

AMC tries to address that by highlighting the work of its dozens of members. Most are biologists, but others are conservation-focused psychologists, anthropologists and engineers.

“I thought it was really interesting because it (AMC) wasn’t in Europe or in Canada, it was in Latin America,” said Sandra Bazán Velásquez, an engineer in Peru. “And I was amazed to find that there were people here doing the kind of work I wanted to do.”

Through the group, Bazán said she found other women in Latin America doing highway ecology projects, which gave her hope that it’s possible in her region. She also connected with professionals who could present to her Spanish-speaking students.

“That was such a great experience for them to hear from experts, people who are doing the work, in their own language,” she said.

Sandra Bazan of Peru found other people working on similar conservation projects in Latin America through the Asociación Mujeres y Conservación. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Bazan)

The new wave

For Francy Foreo, a field biologist from Colombia, AMC made her feel more confident and less alone.

“I felt super-seen. I felt embraced by another woman who was doing what I do and who had experienced the things I’ve experienced,” she said.

She stumbled upon the group through a blog post about imposter syndrome, which is something she experienced frequently as a master’s student in Brazil and as the only woman when doing field work.

Finally, she said, women are talking about things they have all experienced but usually never voice: pay inequities; being ignored while people address only their male colleagues; constantly questioning how to gain the respect of co-workers.

“That’s a question a man never has to ask. He just shows up as himself,” Foreo said. “But as women, we have to be thinking of our field work, our research goals, but also what you need to do to get people to respect you, to see you as capable of doing your work. And make them respect you as a woman and don’t try to cross the line.”

She called it double work. It’s also a double standard. But Foreo hopes talking about these issues is a step toward solving them, and opening the door for more women to enter the field.

And that’s what it needs, Manteca said.

“I think the feminine perspective has a lot to contribute to conservation,” she said. “And we’re coming like a wave, all together, to work in conservation.”

And AMC is there to connect and support them, she said: sharing their work, fighting abuse and raising funds to help women advance in the profession.

The Fronteras Desk is a unique KJZZ project that covers a wide expanse of an under-covered news desert that stretches from northern Arizona deep into northwestern Mexico.

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