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.

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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.

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

Conclusions

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
Analysis

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
Analysis

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. 

Week 1: A Lesson I Was Not Expecting

Hello again everyone!

After a couple of weeks in Colombia, I officially began my internship with the Environmental Heritage Foundation of the Caribbean, or “FundaHerencia,” in Santa Marta, Magdalena. My research topic is the economic empowerment of indigenous communities as a conservation strategy, specifically in the form of payments for ecosystem services. I am spending a couple of days in the office just prepping and setting up some field visits. In that short time I have learned (unintentionally) about the importance of an organization’s culture.  The leadership here has created a pleasant, transparent, energizing atmosphere, based on values of resourcefulness, collaboration, and respect, among others. I think having this well-defined backbone of identity has everything to do with FundaHerencia’s success as a regional player in environmental conservation.

Values in Action

Some of FundaHerencia's publications
Some of FundaHerencia’s publications

1. RESOURCEFULNESS- is a huge part of the country’s culture at large, mostly for survival purposes (literally), and FundaHerencia has internalized this trait as well. For example, this organization finally moved into a permanent home this year, but throughout the last decade, with or without adequate office space, they have been prolific at conducting research and publishing an astounding amount of studies. This is a humble organization that gets big things done with little resources. They make it work.

Anthropologist Carlos Castaño- Uribe, the scientific director, shows me the new and improved burial site for the 1000-year old Tairona medicine man, in the midst his office.
Paying respect: Anthropologist Carlos Castaño- Uribe, the scientific director, shows me the new and improved burial site for the 1000-year old Tairona medicine man found in the midst his office.

2. RESPECT- for everything and everyone- and I mean everyone. As construction of the new headquarters was finally under way, relics of the Tairona civilization started popping up from the ground. The crew also discovered the thousand-year-old body of a medicine man! Construction was immediately stopped and would not start again until a spiritual authority from the Wintukwa (Arhuaco) tribe came down from the Sierra Nevada to conduct a proper ceremony for his ancestor. A special ground burial was created and the processed remains were left exactly where they were originally found.

Clockwise from left: Cristal Ange, executive director of FundaHerencia (and my sister); Yasmin, From the Atlantic University Association of Biologists, who will be our partner in the Payment of Ecosystem Services project for this region; Enrique, the economist; and me
Clockwise from left: Cristal Ange, executive director of FundaHerencia (and my sister); Yasmin, from the Atlantic University Association of Biologists, who will be our partner in the Payment of Ecosystem Services project for this region; Enrique, the economist; and me

3. COLLABORATION- is a core value at FundaHerencia. It’s like a default first step at the beginning of any project, to look around and see who’s in on this with them. What’s more, the non-profit sees itself as a facilitator between regional authorities and smaller organizations, strengthening the role of government entities and highlighting the work of their partners. They insist on keeping a low profile and rather give, than get, credit for the positive outcomes of their work. Honestly, I’ve never seen this before.

Infusing the three values of resourcefulness, respect, and collaboration into every decision, from grave diggin’ to project development, defines FundaHerencia as a place where people work hard, treat each other with respect, and realize they are a part of a bigger movement. An organization’s culture can be the defining element that attracts talent and funds and generates results, and FundaHerencia got it right.

Coconuts, Cayeye, Coffee, Color and “Calor”

Calor means heat or warmth. That pretty much describes the city of Santa Marta, Magdalena, whose temperature hovers around 90 degrees Farenheit, and whose peoples are friendly and welcoming. Other words that come to mind are listed in the title of this post and featured in the images below, but it is hard to capture the spirit of this town with words or even images. There are many things I like about Santa Marta, but especially that it is a natural point of convergence for many cultures, specifically indigenous communities like the desert Wayuu and the different groups from the Sierra Nevada.

I made it here after a four-hour bus ride from Cartagena, a straight shot through some of the most extreme poverty and endangered ecosystems in the world, including dry tropical forests and the unique salt marshes of Salamanca preserve. Finally, I am getting closer to the headquarters of the organization where I will conduct my work on payment for ecosystem services. More on that soon!

coconut water pit stop along the road
coconut water pit stop along the road
Classic breakfast: cayeye (boiled mashed green bananas, cheese and butter) with locally-grown coffee
Classic breakfast: cayeye (boiled mashed green bananas, cheese and butter) with locally-grown coffee
The map of Colombia to my right- The Gold Museum is a place to ponder and talk about the people and history of the Magdalena region
The map of Colombia to my right- The Gold Museum is a place to ponder and talk about the people and history of the Magdalena region
Koguis, along with their indigenous brothers, climb down the Sierra Nevada to sell their craft. These 100% organic plant fiber bags are colored with natural mountain dyes and are prized by the community and collectors alike. Also available at flytribes.com (sorry about the shameless plug)
Koguis, along with their indigenous brothers, climb down the Sierra Nevada to sell their craft. These 100% organic plant fiber bags are colored with natural mountain dyes and are prized by the community and collectors alike. Also available at flytribes.com (sorry about the shameless plug)
My favorite type of color scheme is PRIDE. I was so delighted and surprised to see this LGBT rights march smack in the middle of a catholic, somewhat machista, pseudo- small town. Wow, wow, wow. This is encouraging.
My favorite type of color scheme is PRIDE. I was so delighted and surprised to see this LGBT rights march smack in the middle of a catholic, somewhat machista, pseudo- small town. Wow, wow, wow. This is encouraging.

As Sustainability Students, We Search For – and Find- Hope

Hello everyone!

Karina here reporting from Colombia. Before officially starting my internship next week, I visited Corales del Rosario National Park, which is only a 50-minute boat ride from the coastal city of Cartagena but feels like a world away. Cartagena, though declared by the United Nations as a World Heritage site for its stunning historic city section, is otherwise tragic. I’m not going to get much into this as to not hurt my people’s pride (I have deep roots here- there are streets named after my great great grandparents), but know this: it is an ecological and social disaster that serves as home to almost one million people. There are virtually no sidewalks, and the crumbling infrastructure sits next to enormous ultra modern buildings. Garbage and garbage smells are ubiquitous (because even trash cans get stolen here), and trees are scarce (they get chopped down so street vendors don’t post up under them). The city also has the highest income inequality rate in all of South America (except for some tiny area in Paraguay). Why it continues to have such touristic allure is beyond me. The breeze is nice and people are lively. Maybe that’s it.

low-impact structures are increasingly favored
low-impact structures are increasingly favored
Corales del Rosario National Park Service patrolling

It was hence a reprieve to visit the National Park archipelago, commonly known as the Rosario Islands. The park has increased in size from 18,000 hectares to 120,000 in the last forty years. However, as the protected areas continue to expand, the quality of the marine environment, which accounts for 20% of the country’s total reefs, continues to suffer. When I was growing up, we could jump off our dock (that area was still privately owned then), and swim beyond the sea grass beds into beautiful coral formations. On this trip, I could not spot one coral head from anywhere, not even from the boat. Bleaching and deterioration due to the usual suspects (increased water temperature, invasive species, sedimentation from channels, etc) has taken a serious toll. 

A local with a tatoo of the invasive lion fish
A local with a tatoo of the invasive lion fish

On the bright side (pun intended), the “enchanted lagoons” that captured our imaginations as kids with their abundant bioluminescence have been meticulously preserved by park officials because of their importance in the life cycles of animals. Other ecosystems in the park which are closely monitored are mangroves, rocky littoral shores, dry tropical forests and sandy beaches. Currently, there are 167 species of fish and 60 species of birds present in the park, and dolphins are still common.

Artisan fishing is a major source of income for the locals
Artisan fishing is a major source of income for the locals

I stayed at the Oceanario Research and Education Center for two nights. This low-key yet iconic organization approaches sustainability projects from different angles. Its first mission is to educate and help people evolve culturally. They are also engaged in scientific exploration and innovative design. For example, resident biologists are spearheading a data collection initiative on the Atlantic Goliath Grouper, Epinephelus itajara, and its reproductive cycle. Since the species has been severely overfished in this region (and worldwide where it occurs), the idea is to apply this knowledge to design low-impact offshore fish farms with the artisan fishermen of the area. This project will act as a genetic bank for the species and as a source of sustainable income for the local community. Another active project is the breeding and raising of Elkhorn coral for reintroduction into depleted reefs. What I love the most though is the low impact and humane design of the Oceanario’s facilities. For example, dolphin tanks are just ocean plots encircled by a fence so low that “Turci” and his pod are virtually free to come and go.

Elkhorn coral being grown for local restoration projects
Elkhorn coral being grown for local restoration projects
Epinephelus itajara- one big momma
Epinephelus itajara- one big momma

I’m back in Cartagena now, but feeling more hopeful than I was before this outing. Though this city is endearing with its folklore and idiosyncrasy, it feels clueless when it comes to sustainability. The question is: will its blindness and unsustainable practices spread beyond the city limits and into the islands, or will the environmental literacy and progressive leadership from the islands reach Cartagena first? As it stands, Cartagena is the dark tunnel, and the Oceanario Research and Education Center is the light at the end of the archipelago.