Katharina Cavano l Palladium - Mar 28 2024
A Cynic Finds Hope in Rural Colombia

Some members of the trip with Luz on her land. 

“We need more trees!” It’s the refrain of the afternoon as we try to keep up with Luz, a retired schoolteacher, as she treks up hilly roads and through lush forests outside the small city of Tamesis in rural Colombia. Wry and passionate, Luz has even the fittest amongst us struggling as she proudly shows off the land that she helps to caretake.

Luz is a member of the local soap nut network. Established by Ecohome with support from Partnerships for Forests, the network provides smallholder farmers and landowners with soap nut tree saplings with the guarantee of purchasing the trees’ fruits when they mature. Ecohome then uses the fruit in their natural cleaning products and have partnered with communities and farmers across the region to provide technical support alongside the trees.

“We need more trees,” she says again as we reach (and precariously cross) a small freshwater stream – the source of her community’s water. The soap nut trees they received via the network are planted along the water to protect it from erosion and play a critical role in ensuring that Luz and her neighbours have access to clean water. As we stand on the hillside surrounded by towering bamboo, trees, and the trickling of the stream, she speaks passionately in Spanish about her experience, the importance of soap nut trees, and the support she’s received from Ecohome.

At the very least, it’s a labour of love. She tells us that every day, someone (if not Luz herself) comes out to check on the water and the surrounding area. We hike past the stream and find ourselves at the base of picturesque rolling hills, cattle grazing in the distance, and more forest on either side. But we only have a few moments to ooh and ahh before Luz hurries us along, marching us back down the hill in her wellies, talking and gesturing the whole way.

Meeting Luz was only our first stop that day. We went on to meet a local coffee farmer, also a member of the soap nut network, who was using the trees as ground cover for his two acres of coffee plants (which prefer the shade). Surrounded by dogs running loose among the plants, fruit trees, and several horses in the yard, we made our way through the coffee plants as he, too, spoke about the need for more trees and the role they play in the coffee ecosystem.

The coffee plants were heavy with ripe red beans. I plucked one off, taking a bite into the surprisingly sweet fruit and marvelled at the simple beauty surrounding me. I’m here with a group from Indonesia visiting some of Partnerships for Forests’ Colombian projects. We had already met with government officials and research institutes in the capital city of Bogota before making our way to Medellin and into the hills of Tamesis.

The trip is an effort towards ‘South to South’ collaboration and a push for developing countries to learn from and work together towards achieving sustainability goals. Colombia and Indonesia are two of the world’s most biodiverse countries and despite the vast language differences, have much in common.

I’ll admit it, as an American, I’m cynical about the reality of addressing climate change, especially within my lifetime. I’ve often asked myself whether people, governments, and corporations are truly committed to making the shift needed to address this massive global challenge.

We know the shift won’t be easy. It will require everyone, from farmers to government officials, to change the way they work. But what I saw over the course of a week in Colombia gave me some hope that people are ready, if not already shifting away from business as usual to more sustainable practices. I expected it from the Ministry of Environment, in their bright green meeting room, slideshow of projects, and sustainability targets. But it was the ‘regular’ people that I was sure would be the harder sell as it means changing their way of life.

Turns out, the people I met were completely bought in.

Their enthusiasm was palpable, and according to the Partnerships for Forests Colombia team, this is the norm across the country. There’s no questioning of climate change, its effects, or the criticality of addressing it today. Instead, it’s resounding enthusiasm around how we’ll address it and what it will take to get there, because the sad reality is, it’s places like Colombia and Indonesia which will feel the impacts of climate change first and hardest.

By the end of the trip, I felt it – a glimmer of hope. Because if Luz and her counterparts in rural Colombia are willing to shift their way of life to protect their water sources or change how they nurture their coffee plants to ensure a more sustainable income in the years to come, who’s to say the rest of the world can’t make the shift too?

It’s a start, but based on what I witnessed between representatives from Indonesia and Colombia, it’s the start of a very fruitful conversation and collaboration towards solving our greatest challenge yet.

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