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.
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."