In Rural Colombia, Waging Peace By Safeguarding Water

A project that encourages villagers to protect local river sources is helping revive community life and traditional culture.

Family on the river in Leticia, Amazonas
Family on the river in Leticia, Amazonas
María Paula Rubiano

MANDIVÁ — A few years back, Mandivá was a no-man's land. Like so many places in rural Colombia, this hamlet near Santander de Quilichao, in the southwestern department of Cauca, was the setting of fighting between communist guerrillas and government soldiers, which pushed local communities of African descent, natives and peasants to flee. Those who stayed hid in their homes and kept quiet.

The countryside became synonymous with fear, and the only people going to the rivers were illegal miners and men with chainsaws ready to cut everything down. This was the panorama in 2010, when the Fundamor foundation from Cali, in the neighboring department of Valle del Cauca, arrived here with the intention of creating an eco-village. The organization had already developed a sustainable farming project training communities near Cali to grow healthy food destined for urban residents infected with HIV.

Fundamor bought 11 hectares around Mandivá. The land is covered in native forest and has several water sources. The idea was to empower the local community "through caring for the environment," says María del Pilar Catacolí, a community leader there since 2015.

Everything is circular here, each thing and person has its function.

The hamlet's six main buildings were designed by a Japanese architect with funding by the government of Japan, and built between 2014 and 2016 with local material and following traditional building norms. "Everything is circular here, each thing and person has its function," says Catacolí.

Fundamor's plot of land has a stream, the Quebrada la Fría, that feeds the Mandivá River, which in turns supplies 11 districts further down. The community is preserving the native forest and a Guadua bamboo woodland to safeguard La Fría and other water sources. They are also planting trees to fill in areas that were illegally cut.

The Colombian branch of the The Nature Conservancy is also involved in the project. "The idea is to rationalize use of this water by community members," says Andriana Soto, the Conservancy's local head.

The source water is used in village buildings and community vegetable gardens laid out in the form of a mandala. Their design is circular and Brazilian in origin, ensuring optimal use of space and allowing every family to grow its subsistence needs. Excess produce is occasionally sold in Santander de Quilichao or bartered on certain trading days.

The food grown here can also end up in the community kitchen, which serves citrus fruits, tomatoes, beans, bananas and vegetables to 160 children. Rainwater and water from the La Fría are used for cooking, and filtered for drinking in the village. "We designed the buildings so all the toilets and sinks were fed with water by gravity, so save electricity," says Fundamor's founder, Guillermo Garrido.

The village keeps specimens of native and creole seeds in a "preservation wing," but also trades them by bartering. Residents also share their know-how with people in neighboring districts.

Communities can see among them how the project has a multiplying effect.

Assemblies and ceremonies are held in the maloka, a palm-covered two-story building used for "inter-ethnic dialogue." Afro and indigenous healers perform rituals and alternative therapies on the first floor. The second floor is used for dance and artistic activities by all the communities involved with Mandivá. "We are rebuilding the social fabric through this dialogue and art," says Catacolí.

In total, the village and its activities benefit some 19,000 people. "Communities can see among them how the project has a multiplying effect," says Adriana Soto. "They see how on the other side they are conserving and restoring, and are starting to do the same."

The initiative has won one of the Banco de Occidente's Blue Planet (Planeta azul) prizes. "The beautiful thing about these processes is that water conservation has become a crucial means of articulation between communities that, during the war, had stopped talking to each other," says Soto. "Restoring water sources becomes a way of building peace."

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In Argentina, A Visit To World's Highest Solar Energy Park

With loans and solar panels from China, the massive solar park has been opened a year and is already powering the surrounding areas. Now the Chinese supplier is pushing for an expansion.

960,000 solar panels have been installed at the Cauchari park

Silvia Naishtat

CAUCHARI — Driving across the border with Chile into the northwest Argentine department of Susques, you may spot what looks like a black mass in the distance. Arriving at a 4,000-meter altitude in the municipality of Cauchari, what comes into view instead is an assembly of 960,000 solar panels. It is the world's highest photovoltaic (PV) park, which is also the second biggest solar energy facility in Latin America, after Mexico's Aguascalientes plant.

Spread over 800 hectares in an arid landscape, the Cauchari park has been operating for a year, and has so far turned sunshine into 315 megawatts of electricity, enough to power the local provincial capital of Jujuy through the national grid.

It has also generated some $50 million for the province, which Governor Gerardo Morales has allocated to building 239 schools.

Abundant sunshine, low temperatures

The physicist Martín Albornoz says Cauchari, which means "link to the sun," is exposed to the best solar radiation anywhere. The area has 260 days of sunshine, with no smog and relatively low temperatures, which helps keep the panels in optimal conditions.

Its construction began with a loan of more than $331 million from China's Eximbank, which allowed the purchase of panels made in Shanghai. They arrived in Buenos Aires in 2,500 containers and were later trucked a considerable distance to the site in Cauchari . This was a titanic project that required 1,200 builders and 10-ton cranes, but will save some 780,000 tons of CO2 emissions a year.

It is now run by 60 technicians. Its panels, with a 25-year guarantee, follow the sun's path and are cleaned twice a year. The plant is expected to have a service life of 40 years. Its choice of location was based on power lines traced in the 1990s to export power to Chile, now fed by the park.

Chinese engineers working in an office at the Cauchari park


Chinese want to expand

The plant belongs to the public-sector firm Jemse (Jujuy Energía y Minería), created in 2011 by the province's then governor Eduardo Fellner. Jemse's president, Felipe Albornoz, says that once Chinese credits are repaid in 20 years, Cauchari will earn the province $600 million.

The Argentine Energy ministry must now decide on the park's proposed expansion. The Chinese would pay in $200 million, which will help install 400,000 additional panels and generate enough power for the entire province of Jujuy.

The park's CEO, Guillermo Hoerth, observes that state policies are key to turning Jujuy into a green province. "We must change the production model. The world is rapidly cutting fossil fuel emissions. This is a great opportunity," Hoerth says.

The province's energy chief, Mario Pizarro, says in turn that Susques and three other provincial districts are already self-sufficient with clean energy, and three other districts would soon follow.

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