CAMPO, COMMUNITIES, AND COLLABORATION – BY ALI BLUMENSTOCK

 

Overview of the Organization:

This summer I am working for Global Communities’ ANDA program, based in Montería, Colombia. ANDA, which in Spanish means ‘to go forward’, is a five-year program that was initiated in 2013 with the aim of reducing poverty and improving the quality of life for vulnerable populations and victims of forced displacement in 43 communities of the Department of Cordoba. I am working with the new, one-year component of the program that is focused on environmental resilience.

Introducing environmental resilience: The room is packed in La Balsa, as over 60 people from the community listen to Alejandro and Hilda discuss the new environmental resilience component of ANDA.

Communities, Monteria, and Cordoba:

I am based out of ANDA’s Montería office, located in Colombia’s department of Cordoba. As you drive past the iron livestock monuments that mark the southern entrance to Montería, the growth of the city is immediately apparent. The once-open fields are no longer spotted with cattle, but instead are paved with concrete, awaiting new apartment buildings, malls, and other construction projects. But, in the communities in the southern part of Cordoba, a very different reality is visible. These communities are located 2 hours by paved road and another .5-1.5 hours by dirt road from Montería, surrounded by kilometers upon kilometers of green fields and rolling hills.

View from the campo: Monteria is known as the ‘Cattle Capital of Colombia.’ Driving to communities from Monteria, we pass kilometers upon kilometers of picturesque green fields spotted with thousands of cattle.

The journey to arrive in the communities is long, difficult and often uncomfortable, but nothing compared to the journeys of the people who live in these communities. Over the past 50 years, these communities have consistently faced violence and displacement from FARC and paramilitary groups, and they continue to face the threat of BACRIM (bandas criminales or criminal gangs). The Department of Cordoba has one of the largest numbers of displaced people; many people in ANDA communities have been displaced several times over the last few decades and some communities are entirely new – composed of 100% displaced persons.

Reminder of violence and war: All of ANDA’s vehicles are marked by ANDA’s emblem and a “no guns” symbol; this signifies to paramilitaries and FARC that the vehicle is not connected to armed groups and/or violence.

It is insufficient to generalize, as the communities are extremely diverse… urban versus rural, small and highly concentrated versus large and spread out, closely knit versus fragmented, ethnically homogeneous versus ethnically diverse, but a common theme among the communities is their vulnerability to the threats of instability and violence. Unemployment is widespread, violence against women runs deep, forced recruitment into bandas criminales (criminal gangs) looms ominously close. Introducing an environmental resilience and risk management program felt like a daunting task when many parents struggle to provide for and protect their families.

Community engagement: Hilda engages members of the community of Villa Nueva, a caring and closely knit community, as she asks those who are part of the Community Management Committee to raise their hands.

My Work:

Although the introduction of the new environmental resilience component of the ANDA program felt intimidating, the overall reception has been very positive in the communities. It is clear that the communities face countless environmental difficulties – from contaminated water to disposal of trash and solid waste to droughts and floods – but my role is to help ANDA understand the environmental knowledge of communities in order to shape the development each community’s Environmental Resilience Plan and to measure growth after the program concludes. My scope of work this summer has been fluid and a bit uncertain at times – I like to think of it as part of a participatory or Human-Centered Design (HCD) process. After arriving in Monteria, Colombia, I went to the field office in Montelíbano to meet the coordinator of the environmental resilience component of the ANDA program. After reviewing the numerous elements and deliverables of the new component, he began asking me how the organization should collect information to serve as the baseline of the knowledge that communities have about environmental resilience and risk management. I quickly realized that he wanted me to create this methodology within days of my start, before even entering the communities.

Survey collection: Two men listen as we share information about the baseline surveys we are collecting for the environmental resilience component. They are wearing traditional Colombian hats called ‘sombreros vueltiaos.’

Understanding what communities know about environmental resilience, climate change, and risk management, in order to inform future work, has been a learning experience. All of ANDA’s work is rooted in the methodology of PACE (Participatory Action for Community Enhancement), which empowers communities to achieve their own development needs through democratic and inclusive decision-making and increased capacity for resource mobilization. PACE’s emphasis on a dynamic, community-focused methodology of “process – product – process” was a reminder that writing and implementing a single survey to collect baseline information would not be sufficient. Similar to a HCD approach, understanding communities’ baseline knowledge of environmental resilience and risk management has been a process of learning and adaptation, including several iterations of surveys, focus group questions, and informal conversations.

Las mujeres de Campo Bello: I am working with women from Campo Bello as they answer questions on the environmental resilience baseline survey.

With the goal of having the baseline data inform how ANDA can help communities develop an Environmental Resilience Plan, it is essential to observe the human perspective in all steps of the program planning and implementation. Although deadlines can sometimes impede the big-picture strategy, I am constantly impressed by how the ANDA Program values contextualizing every problem and encourages each community to develop its own common vision and road map.

Concluding Thoughts:

When working in communities, my day begins at 6:00 am and I return home around 7:00pm. The days are long and the ride to and from the field is often arduous and uncomfortable, but one silver lining: I have seen some of the most beautiful sunrises and sunsets of my life.

Sunrise before a day in the campo: although the ride is long, the landscape is beautiful.

Not only is the scenery stunning, but the people in the communities are beautiful. Yesterday I spent the day in the community of Almendro, where the dedication and passion to improving the welfare of the community was palpable. From a 15 year old high school boy who spoke extensively about his work with the psychosocial committee to a 75 year old grandmother who has been working with the gender equity committee to ensure her granddaughters have the same rights as her grandsons to a 40 year old farmer who was eager to brainstorm environmental resilience ideas for the droughts and floods that are disrupting his crops – the people are fired-up, compassionate and sincere.

Andando con Almendro: Another silver lining is the people. We spent the day listening to the community management, gender equity, economic development, psychosocial, and agricultural committees of the community of Almendro, as they shared their activities and achievements with the Program Director and other ANDA staff.

For me, reflecting on the beauty of the environment and the people at the beginning and end of the day, serves as a reminder of what we are working towards and reinvigorates me (even if I am running on 5 hours of sleep). When I step back and take it all in, I am reminded of a quote that is frequently repeated at ANDA: “con pequeñas acciones es posible alcanzar grandes cambios” – with small actions, it is possible to achieve great changes.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *