“The women were willing to volunteer time, to work for their children and their future,” Woulimata Thiaw reminisces about the early days of the Popenguine Women’s Group for the Protection of Nature. She does not hold back about how men did not believe in the cooperative’s potential. Thiaw, the current Cooperative President, turns the discussion to the organization’s successes and current plans. Things have changed in the past few years: all that work was a good idea and husbands, sons and brothers have gotten on board.

1987 saw both the land and the economy of costal Popenguine, Senegal depleted. Scavenging for cooking wood, overgrazing and droughts had laid the land bare. Traditional fishing no longer brought in enough money. It was then that 116 women decided to step out of kitchens and away from wash tubs. The move was a brave one—they faced harassment and divorce—and the choice paid off. After raising and planting hundreds of seedlings, birds began to return and tourists began to visit.

Inspired by the achievement of the Popenguine Women’s Group, women from eight villages came together to create COPRANAT, a coop dedicated to conservation and economic development. The Senegalese Government gave them jurisdiction over the rehabilitation of 1,009 hectares of land. Now 1,500 members labor for and benefit from the cooperative and the community. The group works not only to regrow mangrove and wooded areas; it removes non-bio-degradable garbage spread over much of the land, composts other waste, tends gardens, builds latrines, runs a restaurant and has built small bungalows for tourists. Most importantly, it raises the standard of living for people in the region.

In his ode to the women of his country Leopold Senghore, Senegal’s favorite poet and first president, writes, “And now, high up on the sun-baked/pass, at the heart of summer, at the heart of noon,/I come upon you, my Promised Land,/And your beauty strikes me to the heart/like the flash of an eagle.” It’s a poem the women of COPRANT might have learned at school and one they may think of as they rebuild their promised land.