Communities come together to protect water and biodiversity in Colombia

Photo: UNDP Colombia

Like most farmers in the southern Colombian department of Nariño, Ovidio Potosí begins his day before dawn. On his farm “San Antonio”, he grows and sells the fruits and vegetables that pay for his two children’s college education.

The farm is in El Encano, where some 6,000 people live on the shores of Lake La Cocha, the gateway to the Colombian Amazon and home to rural and indigenous communities with a long tradition of social organizing and community work. Source of water and home to native species, the area’s unique landscapes and biodiversity led to this popular tourist region earning a place on the “Ramsar List”, a catalogue of Wetlands of International Importance.

However, growing water pollution greatly worried Ovidio and the more than 3,800 families that live in the El Encano and El Carrizo micro-basins. Contamination of the rivers that supply aqueducts, extensive cattle ranching and monoculture, along with logging, landslides and erosion along stream banks were endangering the water sources that are community lifelines.

Highlights

  • 3,858 families have access to safe water sources.
  • Communities engaged in participatory ecological restoration on 56 hectares strategic for water conservation.
  • A portfolio was developed with adaptation measures to increase resilience to extreme weather events.
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To address these problems, Ovidio and other local farmers joined the team that supported implementation of the Adapted and Sustainable Territories project. The project is led by the Pasto mayor’s office and UNDP and implemented with support from the Gaica Association and the Rural Development Association.

The project assesses vulnerability to climate change in the areas surrounding the lake and proposes adaptation measures based on conservation of the ecosystems that ensure the water supply. The project seeks to expand and preserve the natural wealth of this site and improve the living conditions and economic well-being of local families.

“The basic problem was to isolate the stream, because our families drink that water and the livestock would wade into the water and foul it,” explains the farmer “We can see the climate changing, and water is fundamental to life in the countryside.”

As part of the project, a vulnerability analysis of El Encano led to the development of a portfolio of adaptation measures to increase resilience to extreme weather events. The portfolio consists of designs for bioengineering works, landscape management tools and improvements for farm production systems. The project also restored 56 hectares of land strategic for water conservation, with the integral participation of the local community.

“First, we helped to share information about the project with the community and with leaders. Then, they chose people by hamlet, and we were chosen in our watershed on the Funduyaco River to engage people to collaborate with us in marking off and fencing a five-metre wide area on each side of the river and planting native plants,” says Ovidio.

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Working with rural and indigenous communities in the region created bonds of solidarity that grew stronger through the mingas (community work days) and other participation. Community members selected the native plants that were planted in the restoration areas and the management tools implemented on each farm.

“In addition to motivating us to change, they helped us with various things [family vegetable gardens, landslide prevention works and living fences, among other things] to improve our farms,” Ovidio says. “This was very important because at times people were very distrustful. Because I already knew them, it was easier to talk to them and show them that we were doing things for the community as a whole.”

Jimena Puyana, UNDP Environmental Focal Point in Colombia says: “This experience demonstrates the communities’ capability to coordinate their work to make changes in how they interact with nature and to establish a sustainable development model for future generations.”

The impact of the project is apparent in everyday life along the shores of Lake La Cocha. Nearly 4,000 families now have access to safe water, with ripple effects for the local economy and community cohesion.

“The main thing we achieved is that our cherished stream doesn’t get polluted anymore,” Ovidio says. “People were discouraged before, they weren’t growing their own vegetables anymore and had to buy them. Now, we’re growing our own food, and we have good water for our crops and our homes.”