Week 2 – 3: Red Zone Goes Green

My job this week was big. Too big for me to handle, I thought, but I didn’t share this with my supervisor. So I left my temporary home in Santa Marta, Colombia at 5:00 a.m. and hopped on a four-hour bus ride headed south. To my left was the grandiose Sierra Nevada range, the highest coastal mountain in the world; to the right a string of remote towns including Aracataca, the birthplace of Nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez and inspiration for “Macondo”- the setting of his novel One Hundred Years of Solitude. As captured in the author’s book, this region is truly the land of magical realism. Even more magical is the fact that I can travel through it, because just a few years ago this was a red zone, a hotspot of terror and armed conflict between right-wing paramilitaries and leftist guerillas.

A tiny pueblo with part of the Sierra Nevada as background. These picturesque towns, which are a piece of Colombian heaven, were straight hell just a few years ago during the civil war, or “conflict” era. Indescribable atrocities are still fresh in people’s memories.



Feeling alive but also wondering what in the world did I get myself into...
Feeling alive but also wondering what in the world did I get myself into…

The assignment was to visit the Indigenous Itti Taake (Chimila) reservation with a two-fold purpose: to develop a closeness to the community and to conduct a preliminary ecological and social characterization of the area. FundaHerencia, my host organization, wanted to determine if the Itti Taake people were interested in participating in the pilot project of BanCO2, a compensation system of payment for ecosystem services, and to assess if the conditions of their settlement were suitable for the project. Jose, the former elected official for the community in question, was waiting for me at the bus stop for the municipality of El Copey. We got acquainted quickly since I had to hug him around the waist as we rode around in a rented motorcycle through bumpy, dusty roads collecting the goods we were to carry up to his people. Gifting is a customary first step to establish a relationship with a community and a universal sign of goodwill. Once all the coffee, rice, oil, lentils, tobacco, sugar and artisan cookies were secured, we headed up the Sierra mountain, still on motorcycle, for another couple of hours, climbing off to walk through the rocky spots and steep slopes. (As a mother of two small children, I adamantly avoid this mode of transportation, especially if helmets are amiss, but alas, there was no way around it.) Along the way we negotiated rides and picked up family members, all of whom were needed to help carry the supplies since word got out that their only mule had gone missing.

Crossing a stream on our way to the rez. The woman to my right is Teolinda, the
Crossing a stream on our way to the rez. To my right is the “Cacica”, or elder chief. By her account she’s in her 90s, but  she’s got children in their 30s, and her physical condition was that of a teenager’s!
The children. Most of them don't get sent to school for many reasons. A primary concern is that the sporadic education that is available does serves campesines (peasants) and does not reflect their culture and values; parents are concerned that the new generation will lose the Itti Taake language.
The children. Most of them don’t get sent to school for many reasons. A primary concern is that the sporadic education that is available serves mostly campesinos (peasants) and does not reflect their culture and values; parents are concerned that the new generation will lose the Itti Taake language.

When the road was no more, we began our vertical hike on foot, crossing streams and chatting and eating wild mangos and starfruit until I realized I was blacking out. But every time we stopped to rest, Jose would encourage me by saying we were a 10-minute walk  away from our destination, and that’s how he strung me along for several more hours. Very smart. Anyway, I didn’t realize it then and failed to take notes, but it was during these stops that I collected the most valuable information. Maybe because they saw my vulnerability (laying down on the dirt floor with leaf-cutting ants marching over my pale face) their guards came down and they shared important parts of their personal and communal history. When we finally made it to the first hut I felt reenergized and ready for additional introductions- especially meeting the children!

Taking notes during circle time.
Taking notes during circle time.

Circle time with about 12 heads of household lasted over two hours. Usually I get along better with men but in this case the women really popped for me. They were generous, receptive, insightful. Every person, but especially a couple of council members, had excellent questions about the project, like who conducts the initial census and subsequent ecological monitoring in the conservation area? Can it be done with the help of locals and become a source of income? I couldn’t answer all questions but the dialogue was fruitful. Deliberations amongst themselves happened in their language and there was a lot of back and forth. I was impressed by their knowledge of current events, especially in the social and environmental arenas.

To the left, Jose, the former elected
To the left, Jose, our bridge to the community and the former elected “Cabildo”, who during his tenure (and somewhat still) takes care of external affairs. To the right, the “Maximum Authority” and decision-maker for all internal affairs. The hut in the background is his.
Teolinda the
Teolinda the “Cacica”, or elder chief. She’s also the mother to both the former and current Cabildos. Not sure what her position entails but ultimately everyone does what she says. Super intelligent and sweet woman. I adored her.

Probably the most interesting part of this gathering was at the end when Jose’s handsome brother Bienvenido, the current elected “Cabildo”, arrived from a trip and came storming in (so to speak, because the meeting was held outside), clearly unhappy to have an organization interacting with his community in his absence. A debate ensued and it was obvious there was a deep-running tension between these two sibling leaders who had very different visions of a sustainable future. Whereas Jose, the younger brother who was educated in the city, is extremely proactive and passionately believes in the need to partner with non-profits and governmental organizations, Bienvenido, who was raised within the traditional culture and retains its warrior spirit, is skeptical of outside entities and fiercely guards his right to welcome them (or not) into the community.

I heard out Bienvenido, and although some of his cabinet members were appalled by his rudeness and told him so, I thought his concerns were valid, and I learned a lot from his perspective. He conceded that BanCO2 could be the lifeline that secures the continuity of his extremely marginalized people. Though he liked that the project offers a fixed salary in exchange for setting aside a part of the forest for conservation, it is one that nonetheless needs to be evaluated by the entire community for all costs and benefits.

Homes are spaced apart out of sight from each other. This one had a garden of papaya, yams, hot peppers and herbs.


The purpose of BanCO2  is to fight climate change and poverty by compensating people for setting aside nature conservation zones that produce ecosystem services. With this in mind, the creators of the original project, in the Antioquia region of Colombia, have developed specific criteria for considering families as a potential recipients of BanCO2 payments.

I will advocate for the Itti Taake as the perfect beneficiary community for the pilot project for the region of El Cesar, not just because they captured my heart (which is dangerous because these decisions should be made objectively, and that’s not easy), but because the Itti Taake, who don’t exactly meet the criteria but can produce equal environmental and social benefits, give the BanCO2 model the opportunity to show its adaptability.

1. Ecologic Criteria

  • Remnant forests of great biologic or ecologic value
  • Forests with some protection designation at the municipal or regional level
  • Natural forests located in watersheds that serve urban water managements systems

The Itti Taake (Chimila) Indigenous community that I visited (there are others) is comprised of about 18 families settled in a 190-hectare parcel located at about 800 meters of altitude (2600 ft).  Though the area does not enjoy any protection designation and I did not observe any remnant forest, there are several small tributaries to the Rio Iriguani which itself feeds a system that provides water for some municipalities. It is along the tributaries that canopy cover is densest, mostly with secondary forest, but otherwise the area is a mix of wild orchards, small agricultural plots, abandoned pasture land, and hut settlements.

The low percentage of forest presence was a concern for FundaHerencia. However, the community itself recognizes and expresses that there can be no talk of conservation until reforestation is tackled. Reductions of carbon emissions through reforestation is as effective as conservation because growing forests capture carbon at a faster rate than steady-state ecosystems. The scientific director of the foundation agreed this is a way in which the BanCO2 model can be adapted to produce best results.

2. Social Criteria

  • beneficiaries must have possession or ownership of land and must live on it to guarantee the care of the areas of compensation
  • originally designed for peasant families of the lowest economic standing

The poverty measure for Unsatisfied Basic Necessities, or UBN (NBI in Spanish) is self reported as 100% in this community. There were so many indicators of this when I was there that I won’t get into now. The Itti Taake is not considered a “campesino” or peasant community, but there is great interest by the sponsor bank and all regional institutions to engage indigenous communities in this model. The other point in which the BanCO2 has shown signs of adaptability is in the requirement that families present documents of legal ownership of the parcel. This is beneficial to the Itti Taake community since this is a group of internally displaced victims of the armed conflict era, and have only been in this settlement since the early 1990s, waiting for the official “reservation” status.

Hence, from the ecologic and social perspectives, the vulnerable, resilient, proactive and eco-savvy Itti Taake (Chimila) people of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta should be considered as beneficiaries for the pilot project phase of the BanCO2 project of compensation for ecosystem services for the region of Cesar for their potential cultural and environmental contributions to the country and the world. It is a fabulous opportunity to assist this area in decisively transitioning from blood red to forest green. 


  1. What a captivating project you are working on. This is a really interesting concept within the sustainability field, and I love the inside view of it. How great that the locals are being involved directly, informed and engaged in the decision making, and getting their voices heard. This is a really special opportunity, and I commend you for your efforts, fearlessness and perseverance, quite literally, when it comes to the mountains and jungle terrain, and also in terms of your emotions and mental state. These are truly challenging conditions, but your write up proves that the most challenging tend to be the most rewarding. Well, done, SuperKari! I am eating your research up and can’t wait to hear more!

    1. Thank you Holly! Believe it or not, I’d rather tackle the jungle than one of those networking mixers you so flawlessly participate in- I’d be terrified of those! How do you show up and start chatting people up? I’d be so awkward! Seriously, when you talk about that in your posts, I’m always in awe. heehee!

  2. This is awesome, Karina! And inspiring because I think my tasks are too big for me, as well. A project such as this is so well suited for you. Your spirit and knowledge can help these communities and I can imaging how much you will gain from this experience, also. Great opportunity and keep up the good work!

    1. Ericka you are right on. I can give some, but mostly I am gaining insight and knowledge from working with these communities. Thanks for the feedback!

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