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Colombia: Community participation in adaptation through food security

Submitted by Nitya Jacob 13th July 2022 9:58
Mira River

The Mira River basin in Colombia is an internationally recognized biodiversity hotspot.

Climate change affecting ethnic groups in Mira River Basin

The Mira river basin is one of the most climate-sensitive and food-insecure regions in Latin America. This transboundary river basin covers more than a million hectares, with slightly over half in Colombia and the rest in Ecuador. The 90.8 kilometer-long Mira River connects to a large variety of ecosystems, from mangroves along the Pacific coast through humid tropical forests to cloud forests and scrublands at the river’s origins, 4,800 meters above sea level in the Andes mountain range. The watershed, with its highly diverse flora and fauna, is internationally recognized as a biodiversity hotspot. The delta’s ecosystems are likely to be strongly impacted by climate change; some are highly sensitive to even small changes in temperature and water availability.

The region is inhabited primarily by two ethnic groups: the indigenous communities of the Awá, or ‘people of the mountains,’ as they call themselves in their native language, Awapít, and the Afro-Colombian communities descended from former slaves who found refuge in the region after the abolition of slavery in the early 19th century.

Both groups have historically been marginalized. They continue to face inequality, poverty, insufficient food for consumption, and high levels of malnutrition. In 2010, the chronic malnutrition rate in Nariño department was 17 percent, almost four points higher than the Colombian average. Chronic malnutrition is typically related to factors such as food shortages, insufficient food intake, gastrointestinal diseases, violence, the use of glyphosate, and lack of access to medical centers 49 . Barbacoas municipality recorded an alarming 36.5 percent mortality rate in children under the age of five in 2017, compared to Colombia’s national average of 13.8 percent50 . The region’s Unsatisfied Basic Needs index (UBN) was 21.59 percent, compared to 14.13 percent nationally, in 2018 51.

The region has been a hotspot for violent conflicts related to illegal economic activities and revolutionary armies: 77.5 percent of the victims are Afro-Colombian and 18.4 percent indigenous, and over half are women . Despite recent peace agreements, in remote rural areas the government still has only a limited local presence. The consequences of unsustainable land-management practices in recent years are now developing into an existential threat to local people. Planting of crops on unsuitable slopes, monoculture, and pesticides are together resulting in increased erosion and decreased availability of clean water. The forests are being over-exploited—in 2017 alone, over 5,047 hectares were deforested in Nariño.

Afro-Colombian and Awá communities depend on the land and the ecosystem services it provides, but their ancestral knowledge—which has kept them in balance with their natural environment—is being eroded. The dense forest provides timber and firewood to build homes and cook, and is the primary source of food in the form of fruits, leaves, and roots. The Awá and Afro also grow maize, banana, manioc root, cacao, and native fruits, while the vast mangrove ecosystem supplies fish, mollusks, crustaceans, crabs and oysters.

Climate change and the El Niño Southern Oscillation are expected to continue to increase the region’s mean temperature, which has already risen by 1°C since 1960. According to IDEAM55 climate scenarios, temperatures will rise by a further 2.6°C by 2100 and rainfall patterns will be more erratic and extreme56 . Extreme rainfall events cause landslides, damaging the region’s already poor infrastructure and impacting livelihoods by blocking access to markets. Agricultural production is highly vulnerable to pests, such as weevil and screw worm, which are likely to become more aggressive with increasing temperatures, while extreme rainfall events are linked to the banana leaf disease Black Sigotaka. In 2015-16, El Niño caused an intense drought that resulted in widespread forest fires, reduced water access, and lower crop yields, drastically reducing local incomes.

Intervention combining food security and adaptation

Recognizing the increasing climatic pressures on the vulnerable communities in the Mira river basin, in 2018 the governments of Colombia and Ecuador together started a five-year, US$ 14 million program called ‘Building adaptive capacity to climate change through food security and nutrition actions in vulnerable Afro and indigenous communities in the Colombia-Ecuador border area.’ This bi-national initiative also contributes to peace-building efforts and reconciliation.

Funded by the Adaptation Fund and implemented by the World Food Programme (WFP), the project benefits about 20,000 people, including 9,500 living in 70 communities or villages across six municipalities in Colombia—Ricaurte, Barbacoas, La Hormiga, Orito, Puerto Asís, and San Andres de Tumaco.

Both Colombia and Ecuador have constitutional provisions on citizen participation and multiculturalism, enshrining the rights of ethnic minorities to self-governance and protection of their cultural identity, specifically their traditional practices for natural resource management. The project focuses on local knowledge, abilities and opportunities, and its design—using a community-based participatory planning approach—promotes community ownership. The governance structures and coordination mechanisms of the region’s Afro-descendent and Awá populations are incorporated in the project’s structure. The project collaborates with a wide range of local implementing partners, including Gran Familia Awá, the Community Council Network of the Southern Pacific Area (RECOMPAS), the Alto Mira-Frontera and Bajo Mira community councils, UN Women, WWF, Semillas de Agua, and autonomous regional corporations such as Corponariño and Corpoamazonía.

The program partners recognized that community participation is essential from the design phase. Starting two years before implementation, local communities were included and consulted. All exercises were designed to share ownership and build trust between project staff and local people, from visits to local adaptation initiatives developed by communities, to workshops held in their territories.

Though this sometimes meant progress was slower, it was also more robust. The integrated objectives of adaptation to climate change, poverty reduction and food security were designed to ensure the buy-in of vulnerable rural communities and sustain action. The project supports communities to define Village Adaptation Plans (VAPs), which, through a bottom-up approach, inform the formulation and implementation of the Comprehensive Territorial Climate Change Management Plans for the Nariño and Putumayo departments in Colombia.

These plans, PIGCCT by the Spanish acronym, are regional instruments established in Climate Change Law 1931 of 2018 that identify, evaluate, prioritize, and define measures and actions for adaptation and mitigation to be implemented in the regions.

The departmental plans set out adaptation measures considering traditional indigenous and local knowledge, and aim to reduce climate vulnerabilities by identifying opportunities to diversify livelihoods, for agroforestry solutions, or for supply-chain improvements. They in turn inform Colombia’s Nationally Determined Contribution (NDC), which has goals related to planning across all the Colombian territory, and contributes to achieving Article 7 of the Paris Agreement on considering traditional knowledge in adaptation policies.

Two years after the program’s inception, the comprehensive participatory process of developing the VAPs has produced a catalog of traditional and innovative adaptation solutions that are suitable for the specific communities, including:

  • Planting zygia longifolia, locally known as chiparo, a forest species that has heavy roots and can be used to retain soil on riverbanks and slopes that are prone to erosion and landslides.
  • Reviving traditional food-preservation techniques such as drying, smoking, and salting to help store food in a context of increasing temperatures and risks from floods, pests, and fungi.
  • Adding value in the cacao supply chain—the communities have traditionally sold cacao seed and will receive technical support to help them improve their incomes by grinding the seed and preparing chocolate to sell into new markets.

Currently, communities and project staff are in a collaborative process of identifying and prioritizing the measures due to be implemented from early 2021 onwards.

The local communities are also closely engaged in the co-development of knowledge and expertise, including a participatory early-warning system. Currently baseline data is being collected on hydrometeorology, crop growth, and yield levels. The project trained  communities in phenology, the study of biological lifecycles, to help them recognize and describe the phases of local crops and their relationship with the climate, enabling project staff to capture this knowledge.

The communities have also been equipped with basic instruments to collect precipitation and temperature data in their villages. This will benefit local administrations by providing detailed and reliable information to help take decisions in risk reduction and preparation for emergencies. Building local skills in collecting and analyzing data will assist the communities to make better farming decisions, such as planting crops at the right time, irrigating more during droughts, preparing drainage ditches to cope with heavy rains, and applying fertilizer when rain removes nutrients from the soil.

The WFP, in coordination with the national government, is participating in local committees to share the technical and traditional knowledge it has gained from the project. These committees, known as Mesas Técnicas Agroclimáticas, involve dialogue between diverse local actors, including researchers, technical experts, representatives of the public and private sector, and farmers. By promoting better understanding of the climate, they are contributing to local discussion on resilient crop production practices.

A gender-sensitive program approach

As climate change will particularly affect poor and disadvantaged groups, the program is designed to address the nexus between climate change and wide-ranging socio-economic sources of vulnerability, notably gender inequality. The project aims to empower women and enhance their role in adapting to climate change.

Women currently have limited access to land ownership, education, and health services. While they make up the majority of the labor force in mangrove shellfish harvesting and smallholder farming operations, they have limited roles in decision-making. There is also an urgent need to address violence against women and girls. Across Colombia, percent of domestic violence cases target women. In these communities, an incredible 34 percent of all women aged between 45 and 49 have reported physical violence.

When communities are hit by adverse hydro-meteorological events, such as floods and prolonged droughts, women are generally excluded from loans, aid programs, and insurance, reducing their capacity to cope and adapt. The project understands that only vigorous, pro-poor and gender-sensitive planning can enable impoverished and marginalized communities to develop sustainable and resilient livelihoods. Some interventions will be led by women, or include them, with special efforts to strengthen the transfer of traditional knowledge to the next generation.

Key lessons foor state-coordinated locally led action

Two years into the program, five key lessons can be identified.

Meaningful participation of local communities at all levels of decision-making leads to better project outcomes. The target groups face socio-economic issues that often seem a higher priority than climate-related hazards, but that cannot be addressed in isolation from climate adaptation. An integrated approach to building both the prosperity and resilience of local communities, addressing issues that the community itself prioritizes, maximizes the chance of more sustainable progress.

Community participation depends on the effective building of trust. This was especially challenging in a context where the Afro and Awá communities have historically linked the presence of the state with land control and restriction of their activities. Involving communities from the design phase not only shaped the project technically, but also began to build trust that later facilitated dialogues with regional and national government on priority issues identified by the communities.

Finding ways to combine the valuable knowledge of local communities with new scientific findings can spur innovative and effective action, as well as bolster local ownership and increase the chances of long-term local commitment.

Project sustainability is rooted in an appropriate governance structure that coordinates between administrative levels in a way that does justice to the complexity of the situation. The Afro and indigenous communities dwell in both Ecuador and Colombia, requiring a design that respects formal national bodies as well as the ethnic groups’ own informal, customary governance structures.

Active participation of the national government can facilitate ‘bottom-up,’ evidence-based policy design. The Ministry of Environmental and Sustainable Development worked with international organizations, such as WFP, and communities in an integrated way to align project activities with the national goals of adaptation to climate change and risk management. A clear example of this vertical correspondence is how the VAPs contribute to the regional adaptation planning processes and achievement of the NDC.